A So-Called ‘Lost’ Jewish Family

by Shannon Sarna

Almost eight years ago I traveled to Israel for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip through Hillel. Recently I returned with my husband, brother and uncle to visit my sister, who is spending the year there on a Young Judaea Year Course. At first glance this hardly sounds different from the experiences of any other Jewish professional.

But my siblings and I are the products of a typical American Jewish narrative: attractive Italian Catholic pianist from Brooklyn meets disengaged Jewish rocker from Yonkers. They fall in love, get married, and have a family.

Did our mother convert? No. Did we attend synagogue? Not regularly. Were we exposed to Christianity? Absolutely. Religious institutions were frowned upon in our household, but being a good person, believing in a higher power and giving back to community were all emphasized. Amazing Jewish grandparents who loved and embraced us no matter how we identified were another important piece of our childhood.

Working in the Jewish community for the past six years, I hear a lot of negativity, even from the very funders of “crucial” Jewish organizations, that the investment in youth and outreach isn’t working; that there aren’t enough measurable outcomes. That we are “losing” Jews. I would not claim that we’re achieving miracles daily. Or that every success can be measured. But the situation is not the Jewish crisis that so many like to bemoan.

I take great pride in explaining to such naysayers that my family is a success story of the Jewish community; we are an example of the choices children of interfaith families make when they connect with welcoming, embracing professionals and organizations. The Jewish development of my family is no accident. We started by having a spiritual, open-minded and culturally Jewish family. The next key ingredient was engaged Jewish grandparents who exposed us to Jewish religion and culture, but never forced it down our throats.

Although the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Grandparents’ Circle didn’t exist at the time, I am confident that a support system like this program would have only further championed my grandparents’ loving influence. I was also lucky to have mentors who encouraged my spiritual exploration, and caring Jewish professionals who welcomed my desire for further education. By the time I had the opportunity to engage with the Jewish organizational world during my formative college years, I was primed to be open to the experiences presented.

One of my former bosses, Avraham Infeld, frequently remarks, “There’s only one thing that 90 percent of North American Jews do: go to college!” Hillel (along with other campus-focused organizations) is uniquely positioned to have an impact on the greatest number of Jews in North America simply by being a presence in one very common location.

Hillel had a major impact on my personal and professional Jewish journey. The first time I went to Israel was on a Birthright Israel Hillel trip. The second time was also with Hillel, to attend the 2003 United Jewish Communities (now Jewish Federations of North America) General Assembly, and it was on that trip that I made connections with Hillel staff that led to my eventual career as a Jewish communal professional.

And now, in a similar fashion, my sister, with little formal Jewish education, was accepted for a Young Judaea Course and is having a life-altering year in Israel; she is bonding with other Jewish students from all over North America, volunteering with various communities and connecting with her own Jewish identity in ways she never imagined.

Her ability to attend can certainly be attributed in part to the patient and welcoming staff at Young Judaea, which spent countless hours on the phone with her and our father, explaining all the ins and outs and walking them through the application process. Her year in Israel, a major investment in my sister’s Jewish identity on the part of the community, will have a lasting impact on her, our family and her future family, as did the investment that Birthright, Hillel and countless other organizations made did on me.

With nearly 50 percent of Jewish students on college campuses having only one Jewish parent, our family’s story is not an exception. We represent the community’s greatest opportunity to affect those who have had negative experiences, or no experience, with the Jewish community. We are the “lost” Jews that so many organizations are trying to “find.”

When I brought my brother and uncle to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time last month, along with my sister and my husband, I was thankful for all the professionals and organizations who have contributed to my success and to a meaningful Jewish identity for my typically American Jewish family.

Shannon Sarna is communications manager at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.