Are we pushing away another Jew?

I worry that we may be on the verge of pushing another young Jew away from our faith.

This saddens me more than I can say.

She is my daughter.

I remember vividly taking her to services as a baby and bringing her to Hebrew School at the youngest possible age. I recall my pride as she surpassed her classmates in her Hebrew language skills and was asked to do more than was usual at her Bat Mitzvah service.

And then she continued. She chanted Torah at so many subsequent services that she received a Yad from our Synagogue. She was asked to tutor B’nai Mitzvah students in Torah and Haftorah. And she became a teacher’s assistant for the Hebrew School.

But none of this seems to be enough for her to be fully accepted.

She has one strike against her.

Her mother is a nonwhite convert to our religion.

I am confident that the vast majority of Jews are understanding that my daughter may not look like other American Jewish kids. I also believe that they accept her as one of our own because her mother converted well before she was born.

But I don’t think they realize how much harm a minority can do to the faith and character of a young girl by questioning her Jewishness.

This was visited upon her with devastating effect recently.

After having received straight A’s in all of her high school science courses (including two AP and three honors science classes) she dreamed of studying this summer at the Technion Institute in Israel. She had, admittedly, a dual incentive: she had been so thrilled on our last trip to Israel to meet Jews from all over the world that she wanted once more to be among fellow “Jews of color.”

I hoped that this experience would fully solidify her connection with our faith before she leaves for college. And I wanted her so desperately to have the opportunity. But I told her I did not know if we could afford it.

And then she found a scholarship opportunity by the Washington Chapter of American Technion Society, and was thrilled.

She passed smoothly through the early phases of the process and was asked to be one of six finalists to be interviewed for three scholarships.

When I greeted her immediately after the interview, she bubbled with enthusiasm, telling me how the interviewers seemed impressed with her knowledge of science, her participation in Model United Nations, and her five years of study of Chinese.

But she said she was also puzzled by one question. When she mentioned that she was interested in Asia because she was half Japanese, she was asked whether her mother is the parent who has the links to Judaism in Europe. When she answered no, she said she noticed the three interviewers glance at one another.

She did not know why.

But we all do.

Perhaps the fault may lie with me for not adequately warning her that, despite all she has done, she may never be fully accepted by the Jewish community. I did not quite know how to break this to a daughter who had so committed herself to our faith.

But this was also not the situation in which many Jews think such questioning would occur.

It was not an Orthodox synagogue that raised the doubts about my daughter. The interviewers never even asked how her mother converted. I doubt it even mattered.

Instead it was for a program that claimed to have no religious criteria.
When I later inquired of the program why she was asked this question, I received a response that “the question was purely conversational and was not meant to determine ‘Jewishness,’ which played absolutely no part in the selection for the awards.”

But then they should not have asked her the question. Are we really to believe that they engaged in a “conversation” with each of the applicants about their mother’s heritage? If the answer is yes, it was obviously more than simply “conversation.” And if it is no, then my daughter was singled out.
It is for this reason that questions that uncover an applicant’s religious standing, no matter how carefully couched, have long been illegal in hiring interviews in the United States. Once asked, no matter how much interviewers may claim the answer does not matter, it becomes part of the selection process.

A great wrong was thus committed, and my daughter’s confidence in her religious acceptance injured, at the moment they posed the question. At least one person on the interview panel should have stepped in to say that the question was improper.

Before such questioning was prohibited, employers often claimed to find other reasons to turn down applicants who did not fit religious criteria. How are we ever to know whether this was the case here since her mother’s origins had no bearing whatsoever on her ability to perform in a science program.
My daughter will now not be able to follow her dream to study science in Israel this summer. She is so distraught. But I have faith she will eventually overcome it.

What I am not so confident about is whether she will be able to put such questioning of her religious standing behind her. Just imagine for a moment that you had devoted yourself so much to a religious faith only to have it questioned even during supposedly secular pursuits.

Next fall she will go off to university. She chose a university with a large Jewish population and an active Hillel program. Even so, once she is gone from home, I do not know if she will be so soured by this experience to expose herself again to a community with members who at any moment could question her religious purity. The actions of a minority, no matter how small, can have such searing and long-lasting impact on youth.

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