Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt, Talia and Ari Kim-Leavitt
WHO THEY ARE: Originally from: Ithaca, New York (Noah), and the San Francisco Bay Area (Helen) // How they met: In graduate school at the University of Chicago, at a dinner party // Where they live now: Walla Walla // What they do: Associate dean of students at Whitman College (Noah); professor of sociology at Whitman (Helen). Together they are the authors of JewAsian, a study of Jewish-Asian families.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
Helen: Choosing to be part of a people that has developed an ethical framework of ideas that guide beliefs coupled with actions.
Noah: For me, being Jewish is a connection with thousands of years of people who have collectively tried to figure out what it means to exist, coming out of a structured rule system; and being part of a community that’s outside of mainstream; and a reminder that there are differences among people that are part of God’s great plan to have diversity on Earth.
What are some of your findings from the personal and academic research that went into JewAsian?
Noah: Through the research, we found that the vibrancy of Jewish practice and identification was higher than we had expected. When we interviewed kids of households that were combined Jewish and Asian, we heard a lot about how they were challenged because of their racial presentation. They felt like they needed to be more Jewishly informed, with a lot of assertiveness to be able to counter the resistance they said they were feeling.
Helen: We were familiar with the academic and popular narrative about how a Jew married to a non-Jew spells disaster. But they’re making the choice to be Jewish and choose to be Jewish. That’s different than saying “screw it.”
Noah: It’s like an engine that drives Jewish identity.
What advice do you have for young“Jewish” families?
Noah: What we heard from Jewish interracial millennials was, “Load it all on, give us as much exposure as possible. We want all the inroads to all things about the Asian parent, to the Jewish parent. We’d rather have all of that than have you make a narrow set of decisions.”
Helen: You can have cultural hybridity and still have Judaism.
What’s your favorite thing about being Jewish?
Helen: Shabbat. I love that we have a space to reflect on the week. And I have always been drawn to the permission to debate, the permission to wander, and the philosophy on forgiveness. It speaks to me in its completeness.
Noah: Looking to Judaism to guide us on how to act is something that’s very Jewish about our house.
Helen: The emphasis on the belief coupled with the action. It’s not just about thinking or feeling, but about the doing as well. It’s what we instill in our kids.
Rafi Ginsberg, Nathan Wasserman, Ze’ev Gebler, & Tanya Fink
Residents of Moishe House, Queen Anne
WHO THEY ARE: Originally from: Maryland (Nathan); Atlanta, Georgia (Rafi); Jerusalem and Sharon, Massachusetts (Ze’ev); Boise, Idaho (Tanya) // Where they grew up: The son of Orthodox parents and a student of Jewish day schools (Nathan); the son of an Orthodox father and a Conservative mother (Rafi); in a Modern Orthodox community (Ze’ev); the daughter of two Reform rabbis, spending summers at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia (Tanya) // What they do:: Boeing (Nathan), Amazon (Rafi), Bounty Kitchen (Ze’ev), student (Tanya)
Created in 2006 out of Jewish young adults’ desire for peer-led, home-based programming, Moishe House is an international network of Jewish communal houses. Residents lead social, study, social action, and holiday programming for the community. The Seattle house opened last September. Moishe House is an intentional community of young people living and working together — a family in the liberal sense.
What’s your favorite thing about being Jewish?
Tanya: The community. Whenever I’m somewhere new or in a weird stage in my life, being Jewish is what brings me to other people. It’s such a uniting factor. There’s a common understanding among Jews. There’s an unspoken bond that’s really comforting. It’s comforting to be part of this network that holds you up.
Ze’ev: The songs and the rituals, and the way that they frame what could be very mundane experiences in my life. When I lived in DC, we’d have friends over for Shabbat dinner. It could have just been a party. But because we said kiddush, because we washed, because of the framework of the Shabbat meal, it brought an extra level of intention and care.
Rafi: The ability to keep learning, keep asking questions, just getting more interested as you learn more.
Nathan: The values: education, family, and people are so important to Judaism. You can take that all over the world, and people experience that so differently and apply it in so many different ways. There’s a network, but inside that there are values I really care about.
What are your thoughts about the future of the Jewish community?
Nathan: For millennials, the way they target it is, “We’ll give you the resources.” But what happens when the funding is not there? Will we still do it? Do we have to pay people to be Jewish, especially as millennials get more “me, me, me”? I can also see Modern Orthodox Judaism splitting into a more liberal, left-leaning Orthodox-type Judaism, and the right-leaning Orthodox.
Ze’ev: Judaism for our generation has become very experiential but also subjective and voluntary. That’s not the way that community works. That’s not the way that real families and societies work. It takes real work and dedication, especially in moments of discomfort and hardship. My hope for Judaism is that it rediscovers its radical roots. Jews have a responsibility to participate in tikkun olam.
Tanya: That was the biggest thing my parents taught me: tikkun olam.
Rafi: I think there’s not going to be these big Orthodox, Conservative, Reform power centers. I think it’s going to be more like Moishe House, more decentralized. We’re in charge of our own thing. People choose what they do.
Edna Ka, Yosef Chaim Kalinko, and Yocheved
WHO THEY ARE: Originally from: Seattle (Yosef); Accra, Ghana, and Denver, Colorado (Edna) // How they met: On a bus in El Salvador on an immersion trip to study liberation theology with Seattle University // Where they live now: Seward Park // What they do: Seattle University photographer (Yosef); legal administrative for law and corporate affairs at Starbucks (Edna)
How did you come to Judaism?
EDNA: I’ve always been spiritual and interested in religion, both from a historical and intellectual standpoint. My tribe, the Ga, followed Christianity. This faith was the default for many after Europeans colonized Ghana. I got really interested in Judaism when I was 13 and decided, “I’m going to become Jewish when I’m a grown-up.” In Seattle, I started getting involved in Hillel. I worked with Oren [Hayon, the former Hillel rabbi], and I finished my Reform conversion in 2013. Then I went to Israel on Birthright with a secular group. My experience from that trip propelled me to Orthodoxy. I realized that I could not be Reform. I had to be Orthodox. Thus I converted again.
Yosef: My Jewish journey was spearheaded by my wife. I was searching for God, my past, and through Judaism I found both. My father was born in a DP camp after the war, and his mother had been taken by the Nazis. I never knew my grandfather or his story (until now). It was never discussed and I can’t verify if they were Jewish. I did a 23andMe [DNA test], and I have shared Ashkenazic DNA on my paternal line. I began a Reform conversion but didn’t finish. We decided to come to Seward Park, and it’s been the greatest thing ever. I found God at Sephardic Bikur Holim.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
Yosef: It answers for me the meaning of life. Why are we here? Judaism allows you to connect individually to God and as a community. It enlightens your life, it gives you purpose and meaning. It’s the one religion where you can decide that by becoming more righteous you can help influence and help create a better world. That’s very powerful. In doing so, not just make a better Jewish world, but make a better world for everyone.
Edna: Judaism for me is to a great extent an intellectual pursuit as well as a spiritual pursuit. There’s always something countercultural about Judaism. It’s always challenging the status quo, asking people to do more and expect more of themselves. I think it’s a great challenge to play out our humanity.
James Packman and Andrew Cohen
WHO THEY ARE: Originally from: Teaneck, New Jersey (Andrew), suburban Detroit (James) // How they met: In 1995 at a Hanukkah party for the gay Jewish community // Where they live now: Bryant // What they do: Accountant, musician, and past president of Congregation Beth Shalom (Andrew); environmental scientist, musician, former Jewish educator (James)
You’ve been together since the 1990s. How has the Jewish community’s attitude changed over the years toward gay couples?
James: As a young couple, we started as members of Congregation Beth Shalom, which is a very welcoming and liberal Conservative community. People grow and change, and I wanted to bring more traditional observance into my life. I eventually found myself at the Chabad synagogue here, Congregation Shaarei Tefilah-Lubavitch. Before that, I had started going to a local Orthodox minyan, and they told me unprompted they had no problem with me being gay. They wanted to make it clear that it was not an issue and I was welcome. Now in many places, especially Seattle, it seems like the gay issue is sort of a non-issue, and I’m thrilled to see that change in society.
Andrew: I’ve been out of the closet for over 40 years and worked in AIDS service organizations. Now, I meet 25-year-olds who have no idea how hard previous generations fought for them or how serious the AIDS epidemic was. It’s the same when I talk to young Jews who think there’s no anti-Semitism. I am glad at the incredible progress in social values, but some people have forgotten or haven’t learned how bad things were.
James: It has been an incredible journey going from feeling that joining a synagogue was a political statement about our sexuality to joining the modern Orthodox Minyan Ohr Chadash a few years ago, where becoming members was not political at all: we’re just another Jewish family there.
What are your favorite things about being Jewish?
James: Sukkot. It’s the holiday of joy. What I love about Judaism is that it emphasizes living joyously. Judaism has this tension between free will and halacha and also provides room for your own family’s customs.
Andrew: When we built this house, we had the architect design the deck to be a sukkah. We talk sometimes about what keeps us together as a couple, and I think it’s being in the Jewish community together and the act of building a home. We collect Sukkot decorations from around the world and enjoy them like they’re old friends. You don’t see them for a while, then you take them out of the box once a year for Sukkot.
Orly Steinberg, Jill Ginsberg, and Reuben, Jude, and Lilah
WHO THEY ARE: Originally from: Philadelphia (Jill) and Houston (Orly) // How they met: At a club in Washington, DC // Where they live now: Green Lake // What they do: Holistic health coach, author, serial entrepreneur, and “self-made wellionaire” (Jill); OB/GYN (Orly)
What does being Jewish mean to you?
Orly: My parents are Israeli. Their parents are survivors. They came to Israel in the early years. I was born in New York, and we moved to Israel for three years. The economy was really bad, so we moved to Houston, which has a pretty big Israeli community. They raised me Conservative. We celebrated all the holidays, kept kosher. It was important for me to continue those traditions. I don’t want to let what they went through be in vain.
Jill: I grew up in an opposite situation. My family was Jewish, but we were raised as cultural Jews. I went to Hebrew school. It still feels really unfamiliar to me. I’ve always felt the connection to Judaism through food. My first business I started out of business school was a line of Jewish-inspired snack food, Thou Shall Snack. I feel really out of my element in really Jewish environments because I never had that real foundation.
Orly: One of the reasons I keep kosher is not just because God said, but because it reminds me with every meal that I’m Jewish. I’m different. Otherwise you do tend to assimilate and forget.
What’s your favorite thing about Judaism?
Jill: The community aspect. The Jewish community tends to support one another. It’s hard nowadays to find that. For me, that’s what I think of when I think what it means to be Jewish. The community element is a great model about how we used to be and should be, but we’re getting away from that. It helps to have that tether to other people.
How will you be celebrating the holidays?
Jill: We don’t have any family in town at all, so we always celebrate with friends. Remember when it was Thanksgivukkuh? We made these amazing stuffing latkes. Now we make them every year. It’s about what we’re cooking and who we’re hanging out with.
Orly: The kids cannot stay in synagogue for that long, so usually when I can see that they’re done, I say, “Let’s go appreciate God’s gift.” So we go to a park and play. I make sure we talk about the things we need to be appreciating.