Out of Africa, Into Perelman (Hopefully)
Fifteen years ago, when Lisa Pliskin, an Abrams Hebrew Academy alumna, married Mohamed Ismail, a native of Sudan, some friends and family wondered if her choice also meant the end of her Jewish identity.
As it turns out, Pliskin, 40, now identifies more closely with Judaism than she ever had in her youth. And her husband — who fled his homeland’s civil war in the early 1990s — has supported her at every step, even as he continues to practice Islam.
The couple’s 4-year-old son, Gabriel — who loves swimming classes and watching cartoons on his mother’s iPhone — has been in a Jewish early childhood educational setting since he was an infant. Now the family has taken a much bigger step and begun the process of applying to the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.
In a recent interview at their Fairmount home, Pliskin said, “Judaism is more important to me today than it has ever been. And Mohammed has seen that in me and he is right by my side. He respects it, he embraces the religion!”
Ismail added that wants his son “to grow up in a strong culture, so he has a sense of culture.” During an interview, he is so soft-spoken that it is easy to see how Pliskin was drawn to his sense of inner peace.
In many ways, the couple is emblematic of the modern interfaith household — and the Jewish community’s progress in welcoming intermarried families. It is no secret that, for Jews raised in non-Orthodox households, intermarriage has reached a level of near ubiquity. According to the much-cited 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” study done by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Jews who were raised Reform and who married between 2000 and 2013 have non-Jewish spouses. (Pliskin grew up attending Shir Ami, a Reform synagogue in Bucks County.)
Yet, even in an American Jewish community that is rapidly becoming more ethnically diverse, their story stands out. In a recent interview in the kitchen of their home near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it became clear the couple feels their love represents something greater than just themselves: It represents the possibility of reconciliation and coexistence between two religious communities viewed as perpetually in conflict.
The interview itself represented a reunion of sorts. A decade ago, in the fall of 2005, the Jewish Exponent ran a profile of the couple written by this reporter. It was shortly after they marked the fifth anniversary of their Egyptian Sinai wedding by having a Jewish ceremony performed by Reconstructionist Rabbi Ezra Weinberg.
Not everyone approved of the profile. In fact, the negative reaction to the piece has loomed large for Pliskin. Rabbi Ira Budow, who founded and still heads the same Jewish day school that Pliskin attended as a child, submitted a strongly worded letter criticizing the paper’s decision to publish the piece and, implicitly, voicing disapproval of Pliskin’s life choices.
“As the principal of a Hebrew day school, it has been my life’s work to educate Jewish children and instill in them a sense of identity that is essential to the continuity of our people,” Budow wrote. “Intermarriage is the greatest threat to Jewish continuity we face today. Sensationalizing and romanticizing it is irresponsible reporting.”
Budow declined to comment for this story.
Following Budow’s letter, the Exponent published a response from Pliskin. She wrote that, “Jews and Muslims are both the children of Abraham, and our traditions have much in common. The Exponent is to be applauded — not chastised — for its sensitivity and courage in reporting a story about real love between two people.”
Pliskin was understandably stung by the public rebuke. She noted she hasn’t pushed Judaism in the home as a conscious response to Budow. But when she and her husband decided to apply to Perelman — acceptance notices won’t be sent out until early next year — she wanted Budow and the entire Jewish community to know about her family’s commitment to Judaism.
“I don’t want my child to ever feel uncomfortable or un-welcome in a Jewish environment — or, for that sake, any other child from an interfaith family,” she said.
Ismail said he finds it difficult to understand the internal Jewish debate on intermarriage.
“Religion is a personal thing,” he said.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of Interfaith Family/Philadelphia, noted that, when it comes to being more welcoming to the intermarried, the Jewish world as a whole has made solid progress over the past decade. Many Jewish leaders and institutions have moved from being afraid of intermarriage to seeking to make Jewish life as meaningful and welcoming as possible to families where one parent is not Jewish.
“The discussion in the Jewish community used to be, ‘How can we prevent intermarriage?’ ” said Frisch. “In recent years, more and more people in the Jewish community are coming to realize that just because a Jewish person falls in love with and marries someone who isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean that they don’t value Judaism or don’t want to be part of the Jewish community. You don’t pick who you fall in love with; it just happens.
“And young adults today don’t feel that they have to choose between the person they love and Judaism — they want to have both,” she added. “The challenge for many Jewish communities is how to do this — that is, not just to say that they’re welcoming, but to truly be welcoming — to be a place where interfaith families feel valued and embraced.”
Growing up, Pliskin rarely felt comfortable in synagogue and lacked a strong connection to her Jewish identity. But in her early 20s, she decided to spend a year on a kibbutz outside Haifa. It was on a visit to the Egyptian backpacker haven of Dahab that her life changed forever. Ismail had fled to Egypt and was working in a jewelry shop when he met Pliskin. The couple fell in love and was soon married. Ismail arrived in the United States just days after the September 11 attacks.
According to Ismail, living here hasn’t always been easy. People are mistrustful because of his looks and name. In fact, he changed his professional name to Joseph because he was having trouble landing job interviews. Still, Pliskin noted that her husband remains remarkably comfortable in Jewish settings; he regularly takes part in Tot Shabbat gatherings at Rodeph Sholom, Shabbat dinners in the neighborhood and family seders. In general, she said, she feels more at home in an urban Jewish setting, where they meet other people of color.
At the same time, the couple has explained to their son that his father practices Islam, and Ismail often speaks to the boy in Arabic. Though Gabriel has never met any of his relatives in Sudan, he regularly Skypes with an aunt in Nyala, the largest city in South Darfur. While the couple hasn’t left the country since 2001, they plan to visit Israel in 2016 for a family celebration. Ismail would like his son to see Sudan one day, but isn’t sure when; Pliskin is reticent about the idea because of obvious safety concerns. (The CIA issued a travel warning in June urging all U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the Darfur region of Sudan, where much of Ismail’s family lives. The CIA periodically issues warning for U.S. citizens to consider risks in visiting Israel.)
In the interview, Ismail seemed every bit as excited about Perelman as his wife. Their decision to send the boy to private school was driven largely by their concerns about the School District of Philadelphia.
Judy Groner, Perelman’s head of school, noted that there are currently relatively few interfaith families that are part of the school community, but she expects that to change in the coming years.
“Once a family makes the decision to raise their child as Jewish, we can be a partner,” said Groner. “Rather than sidelining interfaith families, we need to keep their children in the Jewish community.”
Pliskin noted that like all families, hers is complicated, and she thinks that more attitudes need to change if blended families like hers are to truly feel at home in Jewish settings.
“Instead of pushing us away, he should have embraced us,” she said, referring to Budow. “I think that is what is destroying our community. We live in America; intermarriage is what is happening.”