Cleveland couple set new year goals for interfaith practices as Rosh HaShanah approaches
Before anyone could swipe a dating app to pursue a potential partner, Dave Luddington and Maddy Widen found each other online. The year was 2010.
jHUB is honored to partner with Jews across Northeast Ohio to explore their stories and how the convergence of their identities has shaped their experiences within and beyond the Cleveland Jewish community. We hope that these stories show different perspectives, life experiences, and diverse ways that people live Jewishly.
Before anyone could swipe a dating app to pursue a potential partner, Dave Luddington and Maddy Widen found each other online. The year was 2010.
These interfaith families sent their kids to a Jewish overnight camp to create lifelong bonds, immerse themselves in Jewish culture, and give them a space to grow into their personalities with peers and staff who embrace everyone’s authenticity.
They shared with jHUB why they decided camp was right for them and the valuable life lessons they had learned there so far.
Elana caught a bus to explore Coventry Village, a bustling business district with shops for college students like her to explore minutes away from Case Western Reserve University.
Struggling to create an inclusive Shabbat experience? Download our Shabbat-in-a-DIGITAL-Box! A helpful guide for celebrating & creating a meaningful Shabbat.
Enjoy unique High Holy Days traditions from three countries around the world: Tunisia, Uganda, and India. Discover recipes, music, crafts and more to add into your celebrations this year!
Get access to jHUB’s Hanukkah Holiday Guide! Make the most out of this eight-day celebration, with a history primer, new recipes and activities, and so much more!
Go forth on a remarkable expedition with jHUB’s free Passover-in-a-Digital-Box! Use this guidebook to travel through the preparation and celebration of Passover.
Mariely Luengo, a Sephardic Jew (Jews whose descendants came from the Iberian peninsula) who grew up in Puerto Rico, longed for a place to embrace her Jewish identity fully. While her family was proud to be Jewish, they had to hide their Jewish identity.
When she moved to the United States as a student, she was eager to experience new Jewish experiences.
She remembered thinking, “Oh my God, we can be Jews here! The land of the free!” She said her main frame of reference was An American Tale, a movie that featured a Russian Jewish mouse who sailed to America to be free.
Instead of the warm welcome she dreamed of, she recalled feeling anxious and under constant stress when her Jewish identity was regularly questioned in Jewish spaces. There were times people thought she was synagogue staff or an aide for an elderly congregant. She has been “very nicely and very politely pointed to the kitchen,” suggesting she was catering help.
“I think overall, people struggle with things that are multilayer….If we think about what is really hard in life, things like grief and marriage and raising children, all these things, they require us to hold multiple realities at the same time, and we struggle with that. I think intersectionality is existing on that and not knowing anything different,” Mariely said.
She spent her early 20s angry and combative, shelving her Puerto Rican identity as much as possible, focusing her energy on Jewish learning and being “the best Jew.” She said at the time she thought, “If you’re going to question my Judaism, I have to reply back to you with all the knowledge.”
As Mariely entered her late 20s, she began to make peace with her place in the Jewish community, recognizing, “It’s not a personal issue with me, it’s literally what the future is. A lot of Jewish babies look and sound like me, and there are more to come.”
That’s when she officially settled in Cleveland, where she has unabashedly loved and embraced her identities. “They both have to exist at the same time for me to be able to exist,” she said.
She has noticed the level of engagement is different than in other places she has lived, asserting, “Cleveland is a great place to be a Hispanic Jew.”
She explained, “Cleveland will let you do stuff, wants you do stuff, and Cleveland is really wanting to level the field” in terms of participation and representation. “I’m buying it, I’m buying it, I bought Cleveland,” she raved.
She is active locally in both the Jewish and Latinx communities. “I borrow and barter from both communities all the time. I am in Latinx spaces wishing for more Jewish influence, and I’m in Jewish spaces wishing for more Latinx influence, on a daily basis.”
She has felt blessed to “have front [row] seats to a lot of commonalities that are not often seen” between the Jewish and Latinx communities, like “our grief, our resilience, the way that we build families, our long term memory, our respect for the elderly. It’s a lot of things that we’re very, very similar [in].”
She is thankful for her life here and said, “Cleveland really made me feel at home for the first time ever in my life.”
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, David grew up in a Catholic home.
He knew a few Jewish kids but didn’t have much experience with the Jewish community until he attended the University of Michigan. Despite his Catholic background, David wasn’t particularly religious.
“I knew that I wanted to adopt a faith, but I was struggling with trying to figure out what faith and specifically, which tenets aligned kind of with my core beliefs,” he said.
Then, in college, he found Judaism.
He attended Shabbat services, weekly Jewish observance of the Sabbath, with his girlfriend, who would become his wife. He was drawn to the diverse opinions, openness to intellectual inquiries, and the traditional yet adaptable Conservative Jewish movement.
For him, Judaism melded curiosity and faith, and he was able to find well reasoned and hotly debated arguments for everything.
David began seriously considering conversion and reached out to a conservative Rabbi. David said, the rabbi “sat down with me for about an hour, and we talked it through. And he said, ‘I’m supposed to turn you away three times (a traditional practice for rabbis to turn away students interested in converting to Judaism as a test of their commitment). I’m not going to do that because I think you’ll come back three times, and it just seems like a waste of time. So we’ll just continue on if you’re okay with it.’ And we did.”
David remembered thinking, “Many would argue that religion is kind of at odds with that kind of inquiry [that Judaism encourages] because faith at a certain point does need to be just that, taken on faith.” He remarked, “Judaism never had that ethos to me. That, combined with the spiritual elements and the religious tenets that I also love, really made for a perfect combination. And once I jumped in, I’ve never felt more comfortable.”
His family and friends were very accepting of his conversion. But, he shared that “people were a little concerned that I was entering into a community that has been the victim of a great deal of persecution and a great deal of prejudice and violence.”
David replied, “What’s another one?!”
He is of mixed race, he is LGBT, and after about 14 months of intense study, he became a Jew.
David graduated from law school and moved to Cleveland, falling in love with the area.
He and his wife slowly involved themselves in the Cleveland Jewish community.
They joined a synagogue and began connecting with Jewish professionals in David’s field. He said he’s still “growing in that journey” today.
Reflecting on the Jewish community, David said, “Part of what makes the Jewish community very special to me is the ability to overcome and adapt to adversity, while at the same time being very clear that this is who we are.”
Moving into the future, David said, “what I pray for the Jewish community is that that tradition can continue and expand beyond identities that are more commonly encountered in Jewish settings.” However, he also noted, “I think that Jews have been some of the most important allies of the continuing civil rights movement for people of color and Black people in this country. I’m immensely grateful for that,” he said. “I just pray that it continues at the strength that it has.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Cortney Garcia-Stiggers attended Shaker Schools and transferred to the Orange school district in fourth grade. She noticed the demographic make-up shift from a very diverse “melting pot” at Shaker to more of a binary community at Orange, made up of primarily Black and Jewish people.
Her Jewish friends invited her to many Jewish holiday celebrations. For example, she frequented Shabbat dinners, a traditional Friday night meal that commemorates the day of rest.
She remarked, “as a kid, when I would go to bar and bat mitzvahs and hear people read their haftorah (a reading from one of the biblical books of the Prophets) and Torah portions (a reading from the Five Books of Moses), I always thought it was interesting that it was like another language.”
This early connection and understanding of Jewish culture piqued her curiosity about the religious aspects of Judaism.
She asked friends’ parents about the Torah. Eventually, in college, she attended religious ceremonies to celebrate Jewish holidays.
“My friends and their family always welcomed me,” she said.
After she attended Hillel meetings and spoke with the rabbis, she said, “the wheels started turning,” and she realized she wanted to convert to Judaism.
She was dating a Jewish woman and said that once she asked her partner to marry her, she realized she wanted to have a unified household and raise a Jewish family.
From there, she started her conversion process.
Cortney shared, “I learned a lot about myself.” The process often “incorporated reading voices that reflected upon myself as a Black woman.” She studied the writings of Rebecca Walker, the autobiography of Julius Lester, a Baptist man in the south who converted to Judaism, and articles about Lenny Kravitz’s Jewish experience. “I had an experience that was pretty much tailored to my identity and hearing the voices of others.”
Cortney’s family was incredibly supportive. “I came from a background in which God was important to my parents spiritually…[and] definitely religiously,” she said. She shared with them that Judaism “is how I wish to express my faith,” and they were happy that she chose to continue her relationship with God in whatever form worked for her.
Recently Cortney and her wife moved into their first house. She got emotional as they put up their mezuzah (a small parchment scroll with a Hebrew prayer affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes), saying, “it was one of my moments where I’m like, this is our Jewish home.”
She and her wife have sought to blend their family’s cultural practices celebrating Christmas with her family and including her parents in their Jewish celebrations and holidays.
There are many factions to the identity of Cortney. She said, “being a Black Jewish lesbian…all three of them make individually…a beautiful part of who I am,” noting that different spaces and meaningful discussions “have allowed for movement and my understanding of who I am, trying to build community with other people of color that are Jews listening to their experiences.”
She appreciates that Judaism is so dimensional. She said, “It’s fantastic to be within a community of multi-faceted faces and just being able to express what my Judaism means to me,” adding, “we’re not alone in this, and there are many of us out there, and we’re pretty awesome.”
Ezra Silkes is not your typical college student.
They study a full class load, volunteer with political organizations, and hang with friends. They are also exploring ways that religious Judaism can accommodate non-binary people.
“My Judaism, my gender identity, and my transness are intertwined and interwoven and very inseparable. My Judaism informs my trans identity and the way that I present as a trans person, and my transness informs my Judaism in the way that I practice,” they said.
Ezra grew up in the Seattle area and described a “pretty typical” Reform Jewish (a movement of Judaism) upbringing. They attended religious school and observed holidays. Senior year of high school, they wanted to “be more traditionally observant,” they said.
Ezra decided to attend Kent State University, which allowed them to explore their mom’s roots in the Cleveland Jewish community.
They explored many Jewish activities on campus. They found consistency in prayer and Friday night services. “That was nothing I could have ever imagined myself doing growing up, and I really do think that being in this community specifically has helped me become more observant.”
Varying degrees of religious observance in Cleveland helped Ezra figure out how they wanted to live Jewishly.
But, they have encountered Jewish cultural challenges as a non-binary, queer person. “Sometimes people read me as female, and sometimes people read me as male… I kind of just have to go with whatever the other person assumes because I don’t want to make a big deal of it,” they said.
One time, someone asked Ezra to join a minyan, a traditional prayer group of ten men. They remembered thinking, “I’m Jewish. I think I should count as well, but at the same time, I know that halachically (Hebrew for Jewish law), that’s not necessarily true.”
Ezra has continued to explore levels of religiosity within Judaism. They shared that some adjustments would make them feel more comfortable in Jewish spaces.
For example, traditional practices in Judaism are gendered, like wearing a tallis (religious prayer shawl) or a kippah (Jewish head covering). Traditionally, only men are required to wear these items, while in more liberal Jewish settings, anyone is permitted to wear them.
When entering a community, they want to know where an organization stands on gendered customs.
They explained they would like to tell people they’re queer and non-binary and ask, “What are the rules around this?”
Ezra has found value in the structure and traditions of Judaism but would like to see themself in these traditional spaces.
They enjoy finding unique ways to see themselves in their practice. For example, they’ll wear a kippah in public to express their masculine Jewish identity.
Ezra shared they also combine wearing a kippah and a dress to “play with” their gender and Jewish presentation.
They would like to find Jews who hold intersectional identities and let them know that the Cleveland Jewish community has a space for them.
They shared, “I’ve definitely felt the effects of that, and I’ve definitely felt that I have been welcome and welcomed in as my full self as I’ve started integrating into the Cleveland community.”
Meet Rabbi Rachel Davidson. Born and raised in Cleveland, she said, “My wife and I moved to Philadelphia for me to go to rabbinical school, and we always knew that we wanted to move back to Cleveland. After I graduated, we moved right back to Shaker Heights.”
Cleveland and Judaism have been cornerstones of her life. Her formative years were immersed in Jewish day school, synagogue life, Jewish camp, and weekly Shabbat meals (a weekly Jewish observance of the Sabbath) at her grandmother’s house, a tradition her family continues today.
She said her synagogue has been her “safe space” her entire life.
“It was where I did so much growing up, and I always felt like I could really be myself there, and I still feel that way, which is really, really nice,” she said.
She rejoined her childhood synagogue, and her adult Jewish life here in Cleveland began to take shape. She said, “I feel like our community here is not very pretentious, pretty accessible, at least to me, pretty welcoming. We’re all in a community together, and I really like that.”
The safety she felt in her community allowed her to come out as bisexual to friends at Jewish summer camp in an “extremely welcoming and supportive” environment. She offered, “the Jewish community was like the best space to be queer for me.”
She was careful to note, however, “I think our communities are much less comfortable welcoming trans people than they are with gay, lesbian, bisexual, cisgender (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) people.”
Rachel said, “the thing that’s been most complicated for me has actually been being the kind of religious woman that I am.”
She wears Jewish ritual items traditionally reserved for men. For example, she wears a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (strings attached to the corners of a prayer shawl).
She remembered “for a long time…I would get so nervous going through certain Jewish communities because I would worry about how I might be seen as a woman wearing a kippah.”
“So for me, my presentation as a Jewish woman, it feels really complicated.” She acknowledged that “there are clear ways that Jewish women are expected to look” but said that for her, there is “a lot of spiritual significance in wearing a kippah and especially wearing tzitzit.”
She has seen her intersecting identities as “observant Jew, woman, feminist,” and is excited to explore with Jewish women from diverse backgrounds.
As someone who recently moved back to Cleveland, she has noticed significant progress. She has seen changes in synagogues and noticed “a more politically liberal vibe.”
She said, “people in my generation, Millennials, are starting to think about what we want Judaism to look like for us and are starting to make our mark on the Jewish community here, and I’m enjoying seeing how that’s going.”
Rachel hopes that there can be more “openness to having difficult conversations. Whether it’s around Israel and Palestine, whether it’s around race, whether it’s around class, if we can build up some strong, resilient muscles to having difficult conversations, we can have those in our communities and welcome people more fully into our communities.”
“It didn’t feel like I was taking off the coat of one religion and putting on another one. It felt like I was just walking into the name for who I had always been.”
Though she was not born into the Jewish faith, Ngozi Williams found a home in Judaism and the Cleveland Jewish Community.
Ngozi moved to the United States with her family at three years old. They settled in Atlanta and moved to Cleveland ten years ago. She attended college in Cleveland and took a job that altered her life.
She got a job at a school that sounded fun.
“I pulled up to the school not knowing it was a Jewish day school and got there like, ‘Oh no, I have made a mistake!’” Ngozi remembered. She asked the director of education, “I’m not Jewish. Is this going to be a problem?”
She found religious alignment with Judaism that she lacked with the religion she grew up practicing. She felt “at home” with Judaism.
Ngozi began the conversion process. As she went through the journey, she experienced some frustration.
“I remember walking into the room on Friday night feeling like I’m the only person who doesn’t know the words,” she said. “I was like, the kids know Ashrei (Jewish prayer), how do I not know the words?”
She pressured herself to get things “right.”
Things clicked when she realized she could find joy as she learned. Her dedication made her confident and appreciative of her practice.
Ngozi intentionally melds her Caribbean culture and Black identity with her Jewish practice.
“I think in a lot of ways, the values are kind of aligned, and it’s less of like switching things around to make them all fit together and more of seeing the overlaps where they exist,” she said.
It was challenging to see scarce understanding and sensitivity to people of color in Jewish spaces.
“Structurally, I don’t think people understand that racism exists in the Jewish community and how damaging that can be,” she said.
She said an example of that is event security. She understands the measures because people are vulnerable in synagogues where they are most visibly Jewish, which includes an element of risk.
“The problem is when I drive anywhere and see a police car, I feel significantly less safe,” she said.
Ngozi’s personal experiences within the Jewish community have been overwhelmingly welcoming and safe. But institutionally, a lot of work remains.
“It doesn’t seem like there is the widespread awareness of how those institutions look to a nonwhite assimilated, or non-Ashkenazi (Jews with descendants from areas other than Eastern Europe or Russian) person walking in for the first time,” Ngozi said.
She has sought to reimagine how spaces could better service underrepresented Jews. Those people exist, she said, and “they’re just not showing up to the institutions. And why is that? And how do we fix that?”
If people feel safe, they will come, she explained.
Acknowledging the growing diversity of the Jewish people and not making assumptions about people of color who engage with the institutions will increase this sense of safety.
Then, Ngozi said, people will participate and “keep the spirit of Judaism alive.”
For Yoshi Silverstein, the Hebrew word for doo-doo ignited his passion for learning about Judaism.
He grew up in Spokane, Washington, where his Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jewish father, and (now Jewish) Chinese mother gave him and his sister a choice to attend Hebrew school. First, Yoshi declined, just like his older sister. But when a Jewish friend in the fourth grade told him they learned about the Hebrew word for doo-doo at Hebrew school, everything changed.
Yoshi shared, “So I literally went home that night, and I was like, Mom, you’ve got to sign me up for Hebrew school!” Thus began a much higher level of engagement with the synagogue for Yoshi and his parents as well.
Yoshi found his childhood synagogue radically welcoming, and he felt an immense connection to the community. “Maybe because there are so few of us Jews in Spokane, the community couldn’t afford to be excluding anybody. I think there was a far stronger interest in what brings us together,” he said.
The synagogue was not always super present in his family’s life, and earlier on, they existed more on the periphery of the Jewish community.
In his younger years, Yoshi’s family saw their dual lineage as primarily separate identities and didn’t generally try to integrate his father’s Jewish ties with his mother’s Chinese heritage. His father’s family is from Eastern Europe. His mother’s lineage is from the Canton province of mainland China, along with Chinese-Caribbean cultural heritage from his grandmother, who was born and raised in British Guyana. While viewed as separate identities, his parents nonetheless taught him to value each identity equally.
The family celebrated the Chinese New Year with his mom’s side of the family to celebrate his Chinese heritage, enjoyed delicious Chinese recipes like Roasted Chinese Duck, and visited family weekly for a traditional Chinese meal.
To honor their Jewish heritage, his family primarily connected with other Jewish families at large holiday gatherings. It was only later — after the Hebrew doo-doo incident and starting Hebrew school — that Yoshi fostered a niche for himself within Jewish camps and youth groups.
Yoshi’s connection to Judaism eventually brought him to work at Camp Wise, where he met his wife. Yoshi found a way to incorporate his Chinese heritage into his Jewish wedding by using the Chinese moon gate (a circular gateway that symbolizes transition, often found in traditional Chinese gardens) into his wedding chuppah (a canopy beneath which Jewish marriage ceremonies are performed).
Yoshi and his wife married at Temple Emanu-El in Cleveland, where his wife grew up. Throughout the wedding planning process, they began to look at Cleveland as a place where they eventually wanted to settle as husband and wife. They found that even though it’s a relatively big city and a large Jewish community, they liked the small-town feel.
In 2019, after five years living in Brooklyn, NY, and working in Manhattan, they decided it was time to lay down some roots. Here in Cleveland, Yoshi founded and is the Executive Director of Mitsui Collective. The organization is focused on building a resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and somatic antiracism.
He is also enjoying being a family of three. Yoshi and his wife work to ensure that they give their daughter access to her heritage and find meaningful opportunities to integrate their varied cultures. “We’re in this moment where so many of our assumptions of what Judaism is are getting really tested or even challenged, and when we open ourselves up to that, we open ourselves up to just a far, far richer community, a far richer realm of possibilities.”
Julia (pronounced HOO-lia) Berkman Sieck grew up on a one-block street in Cleveland Heights in a close-knit community with her Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother who was raised Catholic.
She remembered, “We had a Christmas tree and a menorah (9-branched candelabrum used to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah). We had Easter baskets, and we also celebrated Passover.” In her house, “Christmas was all about the tree, and Easter was all about the basket and the candy, and that was really it.”
Her family celebrated her parents’ heritage in different ways. She learned Spanish and spent time with her mother’s Puerto Rican family. She celebrated Jewish holidays and enjoyed Jewish foods her mother had learned to cook from her father’s family. She always identified as Jewish, even though they did not participate in the organized Jewish community.
Julia’s upbringing in Cleveland Heights allowed her to grow up with a range of people from different faiths, backgrounds, races, and ethnicities.
“Being Julia Berkman was never weird,” she said.
That is until Julia left for college. “It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that my name was really weird. And it became this thing I had to explain because it isn’t pronounced how it’s spelled. People aren’t sure what I am. And so the last name everyone understood, and the first name people understood, but they couldn’t make sense of the two of them together.”
As Julia began to carve out her niche, she engaged with her communities separately. At times, she struggled to fit in.
In 2006, she completed grad school, returned to Cleveland, and settled down on the West Side. As her first holiday season after her mother’s passing approached, she found herself not only missing her mother and her Puerto Rican traditions but also missing her connection to Judaism that she’d lost after her father passed in 2004.
“I felt this gap. I felt this hole inside of me, and that’s actually when it started,” she said. “I had a friend who invited me to an event with jHUB, and that’s when I started really realizing how much I missed having that in my life as well; the shared experience, the shared history, the shared understanding.”
Julia found synergy in her dual heritage and created ways to integrate her Puerto Rican roots with Judaism uniquely.
“I see it now as an adult, as something that makes me special,” she said.
She found commonalities between the two cultures in her own family, “we both are full of very strong, outgoing, sometimes loud women. We value education, value knowledge, and value being heard.”
Julia also found joy meshing her cultures through cuisine with noodle kugel, roasted pork, and plantain latkes.
“I think it’s really important to never assume you know who somebody is,” she said. “Everybody’s color is different, everybody’s hair is different, and everybody’s background is different, and I think that’s something that makes our experiences richer.”
In June 2020, The Temple Tifereth Israel welcomed Rabbi Yael Dadoun and her family to town. Yael shared, “It was a really surreal experience – not only to be in a new city but to move here during a pandemic where everything was shut down, including our temple!”
As a rabbi, her family’s mixture of languages and foods, religious traditions, her time living in Connecticut, New York, and Miami – the tapestry of Judaism she has amassed has given her a unique outlook.
Rabbi Dadoun’s mother was born and raised in Morocco. Her dad was born and raised in Tunisia, and they met each other and started their family in Israel, then emigrated to the US. She remembered, “We were a typical kind of Sephardi Mizrahi- a traditional home with everything centered around the Jewish calendar.”
Her family infused holidays with her parents’ rich cultural and religious heritage.
Passover, for example, featured the Haggadah (the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt), read the full text in Hebrew, and sang Moroccan and Tunisian nigunim (Jewish religious song or tune sung by groups). As they sang, her father played the darbuka (a North African hand drum). Their Mimuna (an end-of Passover celebration specific to Morocco and North African communities) included ritual foods, belly dancing, and traditional Moroccan outfits.
When she was twelve, she decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah (a term used to describe a religious ceremony when a child begins to reach maturity). She looked forward to being counted in the minyan (group of ten required for Jewish worship). However, her dad explained that it is customary for only men to be counted. “To say I was hurt is maybe an understatement, but it was the catalyst for my desire to learn more about Judaism.”
“I love Judaism. I love the vibrancy of Judaism and how applicable and relevant it is,” she articulated. She became a Jewish educator and eventually the principal of a Hebrew school in Miami Beach, Florida, where she met her husband, Joe. “Joe and I lived in Miami Beach, and Joe is actually what we call a Jewban, a Jewish Cuban. He speaks Spanish, and we were very involved in the Jewish community in Miami.”
“But there was something missing.” she shared. “I wasn’t done with my learning… And I decided the next step was to become a rabbi.”
So she did. And she found ways to integrate multicultural Judaism into her spaces.
She has confidently ululated (high-pitched trilling) and incorporated drums and niggunim (traditional synagogue or folk melodies) during Rabbinical school Tefillah (daily prayers), and said, “There’s really room for it.”
While she is focused on building her Cleveland community, she and Joe are quite intentional with their family as well. “I love that my son eats Moroccan fish, which has quite a bit of spice,” and their daughter, only six months old, “she’s…just previewing what’s going on,” she said with a laugh.
She hopes that this focus on ritual and tradition that has been so meaningful in her life will serve as a strong foundation for her children.
“For me, Judaism… has given me a reason…a reason for being,” she said.
Meet Elizabeth. Adopted when she was younger, she was raised by a Southern Baptist family. When she grew up, she decided to leave the church but still felt drawn to exploring religious life. In college, she took a course that required her to visit different religious sites, which opened her eyes to Judaism for the first time.
When she visited a synagogue, she felt connected right away. The rabbi’s sermon drew her in. She felt a comfortable familiarity with Judaism’s roots as an Abrahamic tradition. She was in awe when she first saw the Torah, a sacred handwritten scroll of the first five books of Moses, in the synagogue.
“I just had this sense of profoundness about all of it. I just felt like that was where I was supposed to be at that moment,” she recalled.
After months of googling and learning more about Judaism, she decided to start the conversion process. It was daunting at first. “I would just sit in my car outside of the synagogue for like ten minutes before I went in because I was so nervous.”
Eventually, she made friends at her synagogue and attended Jewish events. More than a year later, with the conversion coming up, she got nervous.
She started thinking, “Should I do this? What if I’m never going to fit in here? Am I ever going to be part of it for real?” She turned to her new community and found lots of support. They emphasized that she could keep exploring for as long as she wanted, and there was no pressure to convert. This helped her overcome her fears, and five years ago, Elizabeth converted to Judaism.
As she made a home within her new faith, she encountered challenges along the way. For starters, most of Cleveland’s Jewish community is on the Eastside, making it challenging for Westsiders to connect deeply due to distance.
Her synagogue is small, and the community is incredibly tight-knit. “They all have this history there, and I felt like I was just trying to be part of the group that I wasn’t really part of for a while. And that was difficult.” Elizabeth remembered.
People also did little things that helped her feel like she belonged.
For example, “I was just getting to know them, and they were like, ‘hey, why don’t you stand next to us? And then you can hear us say the Hebrew, and it’ll help you.’” As she practiced Hebrew pronunciation, she remembered feeling “ there were words that I felt like my mouth had never tried to make that noise.” But, once again, she received support. A friend offered, “don’t worry, everyone trips over the words when they’re first learning; it’s totally fine. You’ll get it.” And, she has.
Elizabeth is focused on what practice looks like for her. At first, she felt a sense of obligation to do everything “the perfect way,” but realized “most people don’t do it that way. And most people that I admired Jewishly have forged their own path in Judaism.”
For her, it’s the opportunity to make Judaism your own that makes it special. “As an LGBT person and also as someone who’s in an interfaith relationship, I think I’ve definitely had to think about those things and think about, how does this look for me?”
Elizabeth and her partner navigate plenty of interfaith conversations like having Jewish aspects in their wedding someday. They attend Jewish events and celebrate holidays together.
As she has moved from learning to practice, she has focused on continuing to define what Judaism looks like for her. She said, “it’s definitely been a process, and it’s, you know, a process that I think is constantly evolving for me in terms of Jewish life ahead of me.”
After being set up by friends and moving from NYC to Miami and now Cleveland, this multicultural, interfaith family is here to stay.
Meet Ben and Carmela.
They discussed religion and culture on their very first date. “I remember distinctly at that dinner, we had a very direct discussion about what my expectations would be… in terms of religious observance, but also in terms of sort of honoring the ethnographic heritage and then similarly, the sacrifices that I’d be willing to make and the sacrifices (Carmela) would be willing to make. That’s why I wanted a second date!”
In this early conversation, Carmela and Ben’s clarity and directness set the tone for their communication style in these sometimes difficult conversations.
Ben’s mother, raised Christian, converted to Judaism and his parents raised him Jewish. His mother shared with Carmela once that it would be so much easier if Ben would just marry another Jew, looking to circumvent some of the pain she went through as she blended customs and traditions in her marriage.
Ben remarked, “I have been blessed with Christian relatives, and I see that as a gift. I found that the people I knew who exclusively limited themselves to the provinciality of an entirely Jewish experience and not choosing to stretch out lacked something that I had gained.”
Ben chose to appreciate both traditions consciously.
As their relationship deepened, Carmela took an intro to Judaism class with a rabbi in New York. When Ben asked the rabbi if he would be comfortable marrying them, Carmela was taken aback when he said no. She doesn’t find it as surprising now, as she has gained a deeper understanding of the Jewish culture and the nuances and ways of practicing.
When it comes to interfaith marriages, Carmela said, “I think there is always going to be this tension in Judaism with interfaith marriages. At the same time, many people are aware that the world is changing and there is mixing.”
Carmela was clear about their own marriage and faith-related conversations: “I don’t want to sugarcoat it. There have been some painful moments, even though we were able to come together and create a beautiful family.”
She clarified that ultimately, you have to transcend the challenges because there will always be obstacles to overcome no matter who you choose as your partner.
When it comes to their son, Carmela wants him to have a religious foundation and a spiritual core.
They have leaned on a combination of Judaism and Carmela’s Filipino heritage. For example, Ben said the way Carmela’s culture deals with adversity “is remarkably stoic and joyous.”
With time and nurturing, the couple has curated their circles, and as Ben aptly points out, “you pick and choose your friends, and some people are accepting, and some people are not, and that’s just the way life is.”
They have felt welcomed and at home throughout their journey in many different Jewish spaces in Cleveland. They feel embraced when they meet different families at jHUB events, participate in services at Park Synagogue, and visit other synagogues for life events.
They both agree they found various ways to connect from a religious and cultural perspective here in Cleveland.
Hailing from California, recent Cleveland transplant Aharon Gallardo grew up with a Buddhist dad and Jewish mom in a predominantly Christian town. Though he did celebrate some Jewish holidays, he didn’t feel fully connected or pulled to Judaism as a child.
When he was young, he saw his aunt, who was adopted, convert to Judaism as an adult. Her rabbi encouraged Aharon to go to Israel and get more in touch with his background. At 21, he explored his Jewish roots and spent three years studying Orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem.
That’s when he really committed to finding his spiritual and communal space in Judaism. He was in good company, joined by several in the baal teshuva movement (a movement of secular Jews returning to traditional Judaism) who were also finding their place in the religion.
While he began to feel more at home in his Jewish identity, Aharon reflected, “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt totally comfortable in a space being a Jew and a Jew of Color.” Like so many, his identity isn’t just one thing, and joining mostly white spaces with his darker skin and Filipino heritage was sometimes uncomfortable.
He grew up in a place that wasn’t overly accepting of Jews. He had his share of bias and hurtful experiences.
Someone once threw money at him. A girl found out he was Jewish and broke up with him. People tried to convert him.
After Aharon came home from Israel and dialed into the level of observance that felt authentic to him, he experienced judgment in Jewish spaces.
When people learned he was from an interfaith family, some would question his Judaism. Other times he had folks point out that he was often the only Jew of Color in the room.
“Some people in these spaces don’t see me as a Jew, but rather a random person coming into the space and start questioning my Judaism,” he said.
The intersection of his identities and resulting experiences have helped shape the person he is and how he has related to Cleveland.
Recently, he connected with the Jews of Color: Cleveland group.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s bringing Jews of Color together, but also Jews of Color from many different backgrounds. So we can learn about other people’s backgrounds and where they’re from and where their families are from.”
Aharon is looking forward to exploring more of Jewish Cleveland, using his unique background to form new traditions (Filipino Lumpia at the Shabbos table, anyone?), and gaining new meaning in his life through understanding his identities.
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