The Torah describes various siblings and their relationships, and I am reminded about my own complicated relationship with my brother, my only sibling. Esav and Jacob, who had vastly different personalities, competed to receive their father's blessing. Joseph's brothers, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery. Miriam saved baby Moses’ life by floating him down the Nile, but later spoke negatively about him.
In reading these stories, I try to connect the words to my own life. Though many of the nuances are beyond me, I take comfort in the fact that even the greatest heroes struggled in their relationships, made mistakes, and learned from them.
Five years older than me and smart beyond his years, my brother has always been someone I looked up to and tried to emulate. He was student council president, so I also ran for office, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. He was valedictorian and went on to law school, succeeding all the while. I tried to live up to his greatness as he moved ahead in life and in his career.
When my brother married a smart, confident Catholic woman, no one protested. Why would we?
When it came time for marriage, no one had really discussed with us whether we should marry someone of the same religion. We grew up with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, High Holiday services, Chanukah presents, matzah ball soup. But marry Jewish? We may have felt some unspoken desire from our parents, but it was never openly discussed, as I recall.
So when my brother married a smart, confident Catholic woman, no one protested. Why would we? They are in love and she makes him happy.
As my brother's journey continued, we would often have deep religious discussions. They were heartfelt and genuine – each of us searching in our own ways for meaning and inspiration. Our relationship seemed to grow stronger as we shared this search for meaning.
His story is complicated, but ultimately, he made the decision to take classes and "convert" to Catholicism. It was a secret for a while, but he no longer hides it. During the first few years, I tried to be a good sister. I babysat his children while he and his wife went to midnight Easter Mass. I participated in the baptism of his daughters. I tried to lovingly support him, wanting his happiness, yet silently aching inside.
My path took a much different route. My husband is Jewish and grew up around the block. After dating several non-Jews in college, marrying him was like coming home, literally. By accident, my husband and I discovered the richness of traditional Judaism. It started with a class and a Shabbat meal, and blossomed into more and more over the years. I didn't make a conscious, noble choice to marry Jewish. But in hindsight, it was the most important decision I ever made.
My brother and I still have our religious conversations – but they have turned into debates rather than a search for meaning, so we try to avoid these discussions. He has asked me to embrace his choice. But I think about all the Jews over the years who died in an effort to remain Jewish in countries around the world, who went underground to study Torah and observe Judaism, risking death and imprisonment. I think of the millions who died in the Holocaust, simply for being Jews. And I think about the Shema prayer rolling from their lips, the last words they would ever speak, before leaving this world. Why would people risk so much to remain Jewish? There are positive reasons that make Judaism worth fighting for, like our unique mission to be a moral light in the world and the profound wisdom Torah has to offer, but that is something I didn’t understand until more recently.
Ultimately, our choices came down to the way we experienced Judaism, and the people we met. My brother went to several Shabbat meals while in law school and found them to be a turnoff – he said he felt like an outsider, especially during some of the Hebrew prayers, like “benching” after the meal. No one explained the beauty and meaning of all these new things he was experiencing. For someone so intelligent and educated in other areas of his life, that must have been frustrating.
My encounters were much different. I felt included and welcomed, and the rituals were explained to me with patience and respect. I was drawn to their meaning and the values they conveyed when properly understood. In hindsight, I realize that made all the difference. It gave me the chance to discover all the positive reasons to be Jewish. I wanted to dig deeper, and it has continued to be a lifelong path of learning and growth. The key was finding positive people to learn from, and ultimately, a supportive Jewish community.
My brother didn’t learn enough about Judaism before giving it up.
Until recently, I didn’t acknowledge the pain my brother caused me by pulling away from Judaism. I want to respect his choices, but in reality, I feel like he didn’t learn enough about Judaism before giving it up. I have told him this, but what can he do now? He has agreed several times to take on a learning partner, but each time he ends the relationship after a few months. Oorah’s TorahMates program continues to send him care packages for the Jewish holidays, which he shows off to his family with excitement and pride.
We both recall our Reform Jewish upbringing with mixed memories, realizing it probably did not bring us closer to Judaism. Growing up we thought we knew what it meant to be Jewish, but I later discovered how wrong we were. Like many, we were left searching.
Our parents were doing what they could based on the education they received, and the temple that was in proximity to our home growing up. I appreciate all they did to raise us as Jews – I meet many secular Jews who experienced nothing Jewish growing up. But even a partial Jewish upbringing may not be enough to instill a sense of pride and understanding. Children should be exposed to Torah and the basics of what makes us Jews – including Shabbat and kosher, tzedakah and faith in God. Otherwise, as children grow up, they will try to fill in these gaps in other ways, as is the case with my brother and me.
It seems that my brother hasn’t encountered much, if any, resistance from family and friends over his decision to adopt another religion. I didn’t even question him until recently. My choice to become more observant, however, was met with hesitation and even some hostility in the beginning from family members – though least of all, from my brother. Looking back, it seems that in a twist of irony, it was his decision to leave Judaism that may have helped me to embrace my faith so fully.
There is an interesting cartoon that shows a young man wearing tefillin. The caption reads: “Why can’t you rebel like a normal teenager?” My rebellion came as an adult when I was already married with young children. Nonetheless, it was upsetting for our families. Divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, Buddhism, even Catholicism – that they could tolerate. But Orthodox Judaism? That’s going too far.
To be fair, we could have gone about our transition in a more loving way. But I have learned that it is very common for Jewish family and friends to balk at these decisions to become more observant. It seems that non-Jews tend to admire the devotion, while it makes other Jews uncomfortable.
My husband and I have continued to grow and become more confident, to the point where there is no longer a reason to be divisive with our families. We are strongly rooted in our faith and practice, and our children seem to be reaping the benefits. In reality, we are honoring our parents with this faithful life we have created -- devoted to goodness, godliness and growth. It is my hope that they have a lot of nachas, pride, from us and their beautiful Jewish grandchildren.
Our kids sometimes ask about their relatives, trying to navigate who is Jewish and who is not. We were at my parents’ house after they had been cleaning out their garage. My children noticed a box in their foyer marked “Chanukah.” They asked excitedly, “You’re Jewish?” I wanted to jump into a hole and hide. But it is understandably confusing for them. Some of their family members are Jewish but don’t practice much, if any Judaism; their uncle was Jewish but converted; their aunts and cousins are not Jewish.
My brother and I chose two very divergent paths based on our Jewish education, or lack thereof.
I was given good advice recently by a role model in my community who has gone through similar issues. We should keep the focus on our family – not so much on what others do or don’t do, but rather on how we practice our religion. We remind our children that not everyone has the opportunity to learn about Torah. We must take what we do learn and use it for good – to observe the mitzvahs with joy, honor G-d, and treat others well.
My brother and I chose two very divergent paths based on our Jewish education, or lack thereof. His incomplete Jewish knowledge naturally led to intermarriage — and essentially his abandonment of Judaism and the Jewish people. That is difficult for me to fathom, but it is reality. I do wish he would have done more to fill the gaps in his Jewish education, and I still hope he will. But I can't push it on him.
My newfound knowledge of the depth and meaning of Judaism led my husband and me to lead active Jewish lives – giving our children the chance to understand their history and who they are. Ultimately, they will make their own choices, but it will be based on having the knowledge – both Jewish and secular – to navigate in this world as confident, proud and educated Jews.
The best we can do as parents is to give our children a quality Jewish education, live by example, and be proud of who we are as Jews. Being Jewish is very precious, and when experienced and practiced with love, brings light and goodness into the world.