The changing faces of Judaism


In the 1960s, Marcia Brodie grew up in a Norfolk synagogue where just about everyone was like her: white, with European Jewish roots.

“There was no diversity,” said Brodie, an insurance agency marketing director whose family can be traced to Lithuania and Poland.

Forty years later, Brodie is still at Temple Israel. But this Hanukkah season when she views her congregation, Brodie can see African Americans, Filipino Americans and other Asians – including her own perky 4-year-old, Jemma. Brodie and Steve, her husband, adopted the little girl in China in 2005.

“She is singing Hebrew songs all the time. She can say the prayers Friday night over the shabbos candles and bread and wine,” said Brodie, who acknowledges that Jemma “certainly didn’t look like someone who’d be singing that.”

The notion that someone looks Jewish is out the window these days in many American synagogues where ethnic diversity is rising.

“Maybe I don’t ‘look Jewish,’ but historically it would be correct to say I look Hebrew-Israelite,” said William Wade, a black Temple Israel member who noted that Jews’ ancestors were dark-skinned and Middle Eastern, not European.

“Neither of my children look typically Jewish,” said Wendy Auerbach, a Jew by birth who attends Temple Israel. Her adopted daughter, Lily, is Chinese, while her child by birth, Hannah, is fair and freckled – “she looks Scotch-Irish,” Auerbach said.

The stereotype of Jews as defined by latkes, klezmer music and Yiddish isms – oy vey! – used to have some validity, said Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel.

“Circa 1950, I think it’s fair to say that a large, large majority of Jews in America were either the children or young grandchildren of Eastern European immigrants,” Panitz said. “Jews thought of fellow American Jews as Eastern European.”

But inter-ethnic adoptions and marriages, plus religious conversions to Judaism, are bringing a variety of new faces into synagogues, he said.

His congregants include Darva Gruber, who has Filipino, Chinese and Spanish roots. Growing up Catholic in Hawaii, “I didn’t know any Jews,” she said.

Her family moved to New Jersey, where she met and married her Jewish high school sweetheart. She agreed to raise their children Jewish.

In Norfolk, Gruber enrolled the children in Hebrew school, then started attending Temple Israel’s services and studying Judaism.

“What attracted me to it was, it was very welcoming.” Gruber converted in 1996 and had her bat mitzvah in 2001.

Wade came to Temple Israel with a three-generation family history of worshipping in a black denomination that hewed to Hebrew traditions, though not the Hebrew language.

“I understood culturally my heritage was based on the Hebrew-Israelites, even though people refer to the Jewish culture,” he said. His former congregation, Temple Beth El in Suffolk, observed the Jewish High Holidays.

Wade’s daughter attends the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater, where his niece graduated two years ago with the Pincus award for achievement in Jewish studies. His son was bar mitzvahed at Temple Israel in 2005.

Wade and his sister, Milcha, were bar and bat mitzvahed this year after a round of Jewish studies, including Hebrew.

Wade said he felt at home at Temple Israel, in contrast to visits he’d made to some synagogues.

“I didn’t feel welcome. I didn’t feel there was any interest in me being there or returning.”

That kind of reception can still be found around the country, said Diane Tobin, whose San Francisco-based organization, Be’chol Lashon, or In Every Tongue, advocates for Jews with diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Tobin started the group after adopting a black child she and her husband are raising as a Jew. “I didn’t want him to have to choose between his racial identity and his religious identity,” she said.

Tobin said as much as 20 percent of American Jews are ethnically diverse but are sometimes viewed by other Jews as outside the Jewish mainstream.

One reason may be Jews’ long history of persecution, which might make them suspicious of strangers, she said.

Such suspicion overlooks the vivid ethnic diversity of Israel’s Jewish population.

“You have Ethiopians and people from over 100 countries,” said Rabbi Israel Zoberman, a Virginia Beach rabbi who grew up in Israel. “Israel resembles the American community in terms of the ethnic diversity.”

As an Asian American, Gruber said being an ethnic minority in a religious minority is no big deal for her.

“I’m used to that environment. I’ve always been the different one, unless I get to go to Asia.”

Mary Ann Miller, who is part Filipino, also converted after marrying her Jewish husband, John, who has Moroccan roots.

Though she was called a “shiksa” by someone who didn’t know the word disparages gentile women, Miller said she feels at home at Temple Israel. (The speaker later apologized.)

“You’d think I’d feel uncomfortable being Filipino in a Jewish synagogue, but absolutely not.”

Before adopting Jemma, Brodie asked Panitz whether the Chinese child would dovetail with the Jewish community.

“She’d clearly be Asian-looking,” Brodie said. “Would she feel uncomfortable in that environment or want to be part of a congregation that really doesn’t look like her?”

Panitz reassured her that “today, there’s people of every ethnicity and color” at the temple, she said.

Since then, Jemma’s gone through the ritual conversion to Judaism. She attends the Strelitz Early Childhood Center at the Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach.

And at the synagogue, “it’s been nothing less than open arms,” Brodie said. “Being at Temple Israel makes you feel you’re not alone as a family with an Asian child and raising her Jewish.”

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