Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst
A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.
This episode explores the theme of mixed faith and conversion
Liberal Judaism welcomes sincere converts to Judaism. Liberal Judaism also recognises the Jewish status of children brought up as Jewish, whether they are of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. Sometimes a person may even discover that they are Jewish and would like to affirm their Jewish identity. In this episode, a number of liberal Jews discuss their search for acceptance of their Jewish status and their conversion to Judaism. They also share narratives of mixed faith marriages and the importance of welcoming non-Jewish partners into the community. Often the acceptance of Liberal Jewish congregations is particularly valued if there have been rejections from other branches of Judaism.
“We have quite a number of Jews by choice, and some patrilineal Jews. We have many members who are non-Jewish partners of Jews who are members. We encourage them to come as much as they want to come. We don’t lean on them in any heavy way to convert. Some have converted but they don’t have to and, and so we try to support everybody to have the kind of Jewish life that they would want and that I really, really value about the fact that we’re a liberal community.“
“You know, we welcome the non-Jewish partners to be part of our synagogue. And also, you know, so if the Jewish parent is a man, then we would accept him and his children here. Which, in an orthodox synagogues, they just wouldn’t – they wouldn’t see the children as Jewish at all. And we’ve got families who – where the children have just grown up in the congregation thinking of themselves as Jewish. And that’s very much what we believe.”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“My mother is outside the area. She has a mixed faith and nationality background which is Christian/Jewish and the nationalities are Portuguese, Dutch and English. There’s a very thin thread of descent which is Jewish but most of the family is not Jewish. My father’s family has no connections with Judaism.
I came back to this country and actually then had no connection with Judaism until about the year 2007/8 when I connected with the, what was then the nearest organised Jewish Community and in particular Progressive Jewish community which was a Reform Jewish community in Leeds. At that community I think I was treated benevolently but as a stranger because I’m not from Leeds, my family’s not from Leeds and because I think, particularly my mother’s attitude towards not only her own identity but her anxiety to secure mine and mine and my brother’s safety as she saw it , she didn’t get us involved in Jewish community life when we were growing . in view of this the Rabbi of this reform synagogue decided that it probably would not be appropriate to recognise my Jewish status.
When the York Liberal Jewish community was set up in 2013, 14, I took the opportunity to get involved. As a community that from its start was defined very much by a wish to include people so in view of some of the issues I had experienced I found that very attractive and enthusiastically embraced this project.
So when the opportunity came up to join the cohort for the Balei Tefillah training programme that was starting at the beginning of 2018, I took that opportunity. I am the first person today to graduate from this programme.
“So my father is from Johannesburg. And his kind of lineage came from pogroms in Eastern Europe, Ashkenazi Jews who then went over to South Africa. So he was third generation South African. I think there’s a mixture of Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish. But I think predominantly Lithuanian. And then he moved over to London when he was 18.To get away from the apartheid, and my mother is Irish Catholic. and attended a Catholic school and then went to university in London, and they met in their 30s and had my sisters and I. my mum’s Grandma, my mum’s grandparents were from Ireland and moved down to Liverpool to work on the docks. yes, so then growing up, we predominantly did kind of Christian, like cultural rituals more kind of, like most British people would, at least would partake in. But also, our grandmother was still Catholic. So there was that kind of influence. And because my dad’s family lived in South Africa, they were less of an influence on our lives. And my dad didn’t have a very good relationship with his Judaism. So he didn’t try and teach us about it too much. But my Mum really wanted us to connect to it at least a little bit. So she took us to synagogue a couple of times, like, tried to engage us with some family friends who were Jewish. But I always had quite a weird relationship with it until I was about 14, like I would tell people, I was half Jewish, which I think now knowing what I know, and being in the place that I’m in is such a sad thing that I would have even said, to be honest. So then when I was 14 a girl that I knew, said that she was going on this Jewish summer camp. And she asked if I wanted to go because I’d been like, you know, oh my dad’s Jewish. And I decided ok I’ll go, and I went, and it was LJY., It was just like the most amazing experience, like I just kind of felt so like pleased that I’d sort of experienced all of this. And I just got so stuck in and loved the prayer like really connected with it, and just felt like I really connected with all of the people a lot. And I think I feel like I owe a lot to liberal Judaism. Not in the sense of liberal Judaism expects that of me, but just because it’s given me so much that I feel a kind of loyalty to it in a way.
And it accepted me kind of without question. I mean, I can’t imagine if I’d not been accepted, like what my life would be like.
“I suppose without it, I wouldn’t be a member of a shul because no other shul would have accepted me then. I probably would have had to convert, do some kind of conversion, So in that way to have been accepted. But I think what’s different in a way is that I do remember that when, even though it felt familiar, and I was happy here, you know, when I was little, I was always really nervous. Oh my Mum’s not Jewish. And, you know, so I can be found out that I’m not really Jewish you know to not being quite Jewish enough or something. And I don’t feel that now. Maybe, I’m older obviously, but I don’t, I feel that it feels more open. you know that I fit here. You know that I’m accepted here and I don’t, haven’t got anything to be ashamed of. So I think it’s changed in that way. . I think it may be had that vision of being all inclusive, but I think it probably really is now. I think it has grown into being, being its vision being what it wanted to be.”
“Kingston Liberal was the obvious choice, because, um, it’s probably not the most local one, but obviously I was aware that Liberal Judaism were very welcoming to patrilineal Jews, and you know, I wouldn’t be kind of rejected and told I wasn’t Jewish ‘cos my mum wasn’t Jewish, and I didn’t want to kind of go through that, kind of ‘Well, you’re not a Jew because your mum’s not Jewish,’ sort of thing, because I feel like I am a Jew, and I do feel very Jewish and always have done.
it’s not even been a year, it’s coming up for a year, and I’m suddenly like incredibly involved, I’m on the council, I do the social media for them, I’m on the choir, you know, I go there probably once or twice a week, I mean I really have jumped in with both feet into the community, and it’s wonderful, because I feel like I’m making up for lost time.
“my family is mixed family from my my father was Jewish, Sephardic Jewish. And my mum non Jewish a doctor did the circumcision of my son, I had a son and indicated me Kingston liberal synagogue telling me that I could do the blessing and the baby naming ceremony here the blessing and put me in contact with the rabbi here. I told him about a bit about my story, and he immediately told me, of course, you’re Jewish and, and, and it really felt good to hear and I still, you know, want to I’m still coming as much as I can add to a lot of classes and things and I’ve got to a lot to learn and a lot of education to have, that I didn’t have and that I am the first one to miss. it was it was kind of good to hear that someone was embracing a bit. The feeling that I had. Yeah, about my roots. So it was really more than welcoming. I felt really part of the family And I was really lucky to find an egg donor for the, for the conception of my child.
For me, it was important to find a Jewish egg donor and a Sephardic Jewish egg donor. And so that made things really very difficult because actually there was quite a lot of Ashkenazi but not a lot of Sephardic Jewish donors. I often why I would do that, why it was important to me, but it was important to me to find a Jewish egg donor and gave me the opportunity to read a bit about what the different Jewish movements were thinking about that and finding what would be allowed in inverted commas or not or what would define a Jewish child.
“I married Peter. Now my mother liked Peter as a person. I mean, she was from a different generation and a different way of life and to her, you know, not having the big Jewish wedding and marrying someone who was not Jewish was just not on and and she’d never understood me really she was very fiery you know, loved her but you had to agree with her. She was that sort of person, anyway the long and the short of that was she then didn’t speak to me for 10 years. So she never saw her grandchildren.
We did reconcile with my mother before she died. She was a very healthy woman, but she got a brain tumour. And when she was in hospital, she asked for Jackie. And the nurse said to one of her visitors, you know who’s Jackie? And so they told her. And so in that last nine weeks of her life, I was going to see her. And she did see the grandchildren once. So that was it. It was a very Shakespearean but that was all reconciled. And Peter’s been really, he’s my rock.
And I mean, little Leon, who’s a year old, I call him little Kneidlach, because he’s a little bundle. And they live almost, you know, 10 minutes away in the car. So we, we babysit, so he’s going to be influenced by his grandma. And I consider Ellie and Leon universal children, I mean, they’ve got the Tamil background. They’ve got the Jewish background, they’ve got the English background. And that’s the way the world is going to be, we have to love one another and be tolerant of one another. I do feel a responsibility that we’re part of a golden chain, and so obviously it has to carry on. But I think it’s much more people who want to be Jewish and want to be part of whether it’s the Liberal movement or Judaism generally, that it’s a matter of welcoming whoever wants to be it. Not just say what I want, I’m going to be Jewish, that’s it. But on the other hand, we all help one another to make it carry on. And we have to give our children choices and a way for them to develop and you never know what happens.
“I think it’s really lovely they’re not religious at all, my Dad’s side of family. There was never a doubt that they would come to the Bat Mitzvah or even anything important to do with the Chavurah. And as well I know, friends whose grandparents didn’t come, like my friend Lola, who’s also in the Chavurah and had a Bat Mitzvah in January, her grandparents from Hong Kong, didn’t come to her Bat Mitzvah because because they’re not Jewish, and they don’t believe in that sort of thing, which I think is really sad. And, and… I don’t know, I think my… even though they’re not Jewish at all, they’re really involved in everything because they’re just involved in our lives.”
“when our children were born and you know we were going to the synagogue, I just start … I started feeling .. Jewish. I started feeling you know we do Shabbat every week… we go to a synagogue our children are Jewish That was quite important to me actually.
Because that was one of the things the rabbi said, from a liberal Jewish point of view, your children are Jewish, you’re raising them Jewish, your husband’s Jewish. That for me was just, it was like manna from heaven. You know it was just like the best thing. I thought. We can be a Jewish family, we can actually be this Jewish family .But what I was left with was how do I describe myself?
If people say are you Jewish? What do I say? Because I’m not on paper Jewish. I’m living the Jewish life. My children are Jewish, my husband’s Jewish. I go to synagogue I feel Jewish, but I can’t say ‘I’m Jewish. It was ultimately really quite an individual process for me, converting. I was doing it entirely to kind of – to get to the place I wanted to be in relation to my own identity. I think meeting Mark Goldstein. And obviously my conversion itself, was a real milestone moment. That whole sort of process at that time made me feel I could be the kind of Jewish person that I wanted to be, and that we could be the kind of Jewish family that we wanted to be. And I think the next milestone moment was the one that I’ve just been talking about, which was this sort of crisis that that brought us to kind of to evaluate what being Jewish really meant to us. And for me, it’s about choice. It’s entirely about choice. So, you know, the strongest reason to be a liberal Jew is to promote the idea of choice without any judgment.
“I think two things have increased our membership at KLS. One is the gender issue in that women are just as important as the men. And the other is we have mixed couples. We welcome non Jewish spouses or partners as they are these days into our membership. we have a special called an associate membership for spouses who are not Jewish. And that has undoubtedly brought in a lot of members. I would say we’ve got about 20% of our married couples are .Some convert some don’t.
We’ve got one gentleman who isn’t a partner to a Jewish person, but he’s just interested in Judaism. And so we have a friends category for that. And he takes part in all the social events, and I think he goes to more services than I do.”
“I don’t think we should say – if someone comes in to the shul and says, “I want to become a Jew.” And say, “Right, sign the form.” I think there has to be a procedure, for their sake. Because to become a Jew you are taking on all the condemnation and damnation of the world around us. I mean, we do need people to realise the enormity of what they are about to take on. But nonetheless, we want them to know that they’re welcome. As I said to them when they said, “We’re converts.” I said, “No, you’re not. You’re now a Jew. Forget all that, you’re a Jew.” I said, “And you don’t have to tell anyone you’re a convert, you’re a Jew”. That’s good enough.”
“And the rabbi at the time said, you know, “So what’s your story? Some weeks you’re here – sometimes you’re here, sometimes you’re not.” And I said, “Well, I’m still looking for my community.” And Sheila Shulman, Zicronah Livrachah said to me, “Well, that may be part of the problem. In my experience, you don’t find communities. You build them. So if this isn’t what you want, stay here and help me build what it is that you want and need.” So I did, and it was through Sheila that I was then encouraged to go on –she let me be kallat bereshit the year of my conversion, which was amazing. To be able to read from the Torah as my bat mitzvah as an adult was superb. And I thought, yes, forever and always, this is where I have to be. And I have been very, very blessed and had the chance to study at Leo Baeck, and the rest, as they say, is history, a very happy history for me, and really meant a lot. And this community has meant a great deal to me.”
Rabbi Janet Burden
“I did very definitely need to go through the formal conversion process, and I jumped through all the hoops. I don’t mean to be funny but, you know, it’s obviously quite a process. Clearly I had to demonstrate why I wanted to convert but more importantly, to demonstrate I understood what I was converting to. but I really think the future is looking rosy because I think the new generations coming up, and with the idea of Progressive Judaism, rather than very hard and fast ideas, and there’s so many different Progressive Jews all coming together without losing their identity.”
“My contribution to Lily’s legacy is that Liberal Judaism has brought nine additional members back to the Jewish faith who may not have been there, through Liberal Judaism’s acceptance of my wife as a proselyte. It brought myself, my wife, our four children and our three grandchildren back to Judaism. ”
“I look at my great grandchildren in synagogue with their mother, their grandmother and with their mothers – who are not Jewish, but they’re all committed, they’re all there.
And even though they may not be strictly speaking Jewish, and they may not be totally committed, it’s all there, it’s not going to disappear.”
“Being part of a progressive environment and liberal environment means that you have moved with the times. Like I said, my husband was welcomed with open arms. And in fact, he’s a director of the company here now. He’s never changed his religion. But I think going back all those years, it was how they founded it. And then it’s progressed through the years to be a modern society that we live in now and accepting of everybody.”
“Some of them are married with people who are their husbands or wives are converted, and some are married their husbands and wives and never converted, but they’re all treated equally and that’s something that they’re probably very much part of of Lily’s legacy.”
This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website, www.lilyslegacyproject.com