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Developing a Vision of the Future of Asian-Jewish Families

Last month more than 500,000 junior high school students, teachers and parents received an issue of Junior Scholastic with a picture of a Chinese girl and her Caucasian mother beaming on the cover. “Growing Up Adopted: A teen explores her Chinese and Jewish heritages” was the headline.

Half a million middle schoolers may just be learning about the phenomenon of Asian-Jewish families, but the American Jewish community has been aware of the growing number of Asians in its midst for some time. Between Jewish and interfaith families adopting Asian children, and conversionary marriages involving Asian spouses, Asians comprise about two percent of the Jewish population in the U.S., according to estimates from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. However, that number doesn’t include Asian spouses who don’t identify themselves as being Jewish but are raising children in Jewish families.

Along with Jewish and interfaith families adopting Asian children, there are also Asian-Jewish families formed by marriage and conversion in the United States. Diversity in Judaism is increasing and gaining attention from the media and scholars researching the future of the Jewish faith.

For Dr. Helen Kim, a professor at Whitman College and her husband Noah Leavitt, a lawyer and researcher, the question of “the racial, ethnic, and religious identities of Asian-Jewish individuals, couples and families” is a matter of both academic and personal interest. The two are conducting research on Asian-Jewish identity under the auspices of Be’chol Lashon, an organization that advocates for greater acceptance of Jewish ethnic and racial diversity. To participate in their study, the researchers invite people in Asian-Jewish families to take a preliminary survey. Kim, who is Korean, and Leavitt, who is Jewish, had their first child last year and are raising him Jewishly.

“Noah and I have been together for quite a while and we don’t see our relationship as totally unique,” Kim says. “We were curious to see if anyone has collected data on this type of pairing.” A lack of research on Asian-Jewish families led Kim and Leavitt to develop their own study. “With the election of Obama,” Kim says, interest in “interracial marriage and interracial kids has [been] bumped up a notch.”

What Does it Mean to be Asian and Jewish?

When Kim and Leavitt had their son, Aryeh Zakkai Kim-Leavitt, they left the Ashkenazi tradition of naming children after relatives behind, but selected Hebrew names for their son that had significance to them. They are members of a small synagogue in a town with few Jews and without a rabbi. “I’m guessing there are more Asians in this town than Jews,” Kim says “but I feel Jewish, I have a Jewish soul.” The family does Shabbat every Friday evening and held a bris for their son, but Kim has not converted to Judaism.

Kim is first-generation American; her parents immigrated from Korea in the 1960s. “They were part of the brain drain generation,” she says, “and they wanted me to assimilate. I was a unique face in a small town in California.”

A small study in the late ’90s, mentioned by Mia Tuan in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? (Rutgers University Press, 1999), showed that nearly half of Chinese and Japanese women married Caucasian men, but two out of five of the men in the study married Caucasian women, too.

Sifting through their survey responses, Helen Kim says, “we are finding it’s not all Ashkenazi males and Asian women, it’s quite a bit of the reverse; and a number of folks of mixed backgrounds themselves, who marry someone who is Jewish; and quite a few lesbian couples.”

“We are a stereotypical Jewish Asian family,” says Leavitt, that is “a white Ashkenazi guy marrying an Asian girl.” And how many families like this are there in the U.S.? “Statistics are a great puzzle,” Leavitt says, “the [U.S.] census doesn’t allow asking about religion.”

the Leavitt Kim family
Noah Leavitt, Aryeh Kim-Leavitt and Helen Kim

“We’ve been mulling this over for eight or nine years,” Leavitt says, “and now that the president is of mixed racial background there’s more openness about interracial families.”

A mom in suburban New Jersey, Susan Yu, who has mixed Chinese and Korean heritage, has a Jewish husband and is raising her son and daughter as Jews. “I didn’t convert,” Yu says, “I don’t practice any religion. We dated for eight years and it was pretty clear I was keeping my name. For him [my husband], it was important that the kids grow up Jewish and have his name.”

Yu grew up in New York when there were fewer Asians and often, she says, felt like a minority. “In my parents generation it was more important for us to assimilate. They’d discuss: ‘Should they [the children] take Chinese or Korean classes’ but decided learning English was most important.”

Her perception, she says, is that her son, who recently became a bar mitzvah, and her daughter, who’s almost 11, don’t feel like they are “others” in their suburban community, near New York City, where they belong to a Reform temple and attend public schools.

Now in a middle school which is more diverse than the elementary school was, Susan says her son Noah has “gravitated to a lot of Asian background and Jewish kids. He embraces his Asian side and asks me questions.” But she remembers when her children were younger, “They asked me if I was adopted into the family! ‘You don’t look like us, you have a different last name,’ they told me.”

This spring, Yu and her husband, Matt Schifrin, are taking the children out of school for a week for a first trip to Israel. It’s the bar mitzvah for the seventh child of Matt’s sister, who made aliyah to Israel and is Orthodox. He also has a younger brother who married a woman who converted to Judaism.

Jewish by Adoption

Since 1995 more than 50,000 children, mostly girls, have been adopted from China by American families, according to the US State Department. The number of Jewish Chinese girls reaching bat mitzvah age is growing and receives media attention–from a page one story in the New York Times to the cover of Junior Scholastic. But how many Jewish families are raising Chinese children is, at this time, unknown.

The “vast majority of children adopted by Jewish families are not born Jewish,” says Jennifer Sartori, associate director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University. Sartori’s scholarly research has focused on Jewish identity and now as the adoptive parent of a 3-year old daughter from China, she is “in the early stages of doing a book to look at experiences of Jewish adoptive families.”

“It’s very complicated,” Sartori says, “as [parents] try to help adoptees form authentic Jewish identities” and “help them have a strong attachment to their birth culture.” Her daughter, Celia, is named after her maternal and paternal grandmother’s and her Chinese given name, XianLu, which means elegant stone, remains part of her name.

“We took her to a mikvah,” Sartori says. “In some ways we thought the conversion wasn’t necessary but certain things you do because of tradition.” She acknowledges that the conversion wouldn’t be recognized by the Orthodox community. “It was beautiful,” Sartori says, and “we brought in some Chinese elements into the ceremony,” which was transdenominational.

Last winter, Juliette Ferdschneider, who was adopted in China by her single Jewish mom, Roberta, began studying to become a bat mitavah. Four months later Juliette had her bat mitzvah ceremony in New York’s Chinatown at a restaurant.

Her mom says, “I feel culturally Jewish; I’m not spiritual; I’m agnostic; I’m not into rituals.” At one time they belonged to a Jewish group, Havurat Shalom, not affiliated with a synagogue, but the group disbanded.

Encouraged by her daughter’s interest, Roberta Ferdschneider was able to connect with a cantor from a Brooklyn, N.Y., synagogue who helped Juliette learn her Torah portion and some prayers for the service.

At the Chinese restaurant, there was a cocktail hour, then a havdalah service, led by the cantor, with Juliette’s torah reading. A Chinese dinner and party with dancing followed. “My father and step-mother were thrilled,” Roberta Ferdschneider says.

“I never had Juliette converted,” her mother says, “because at the time I kept coming up with people who would make us make a promise I wouldn’t keep. Juliette decided not to convert [now] but told me if she marries someone Jewish she would convert the children when they were babies.”

Mixed Race Jewish Children

Jennifer Chau, the daughter of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, has grappled for many years with her mixed identity. She is an activist who started a national multi-ethnic organization called Swirl almost a decade ago.

Recently in an interview with where she is now a contributor, Chau said:

“I wanted (and still want) people to know that being mixed is not about being the most beautiful because we represent the coming together of races or that we are gifted with “the best of both worlds.” These are superficial notions and don’t represent the wide range of experiences that one might have if mixed.”

Chau’s lack of acceptance when she attended Jewish religious school and experiences as a mixed race person have led her to be a strong voice in the multi-ethnic world for challenging people’s assumptions about race and religion.

Following a different path is a woman who is the first Jewish Asian to complete the cantorial program at Hebrew Union College and be invested as a cantor. Angela Warnick Buchdahl, who became a cantor in 1999, also completed the rabbinic program in 2001.

Raised as a Reform Jew, with a Korean Buddhist mother and a Jewish father, Buchdahl says that until recently, “you could never find any Jewish publications that showed anything but people with Ashkenazi backgrounds. Children’s books and publications now make an effort to show diversity.”

At Central Synagogue, a Reform temple in New York City with 1,700 families, Buchdahl has seen an increasing number of Asian Jewish families through adoption and conversion. Also, Asian Jewish interfaith couples, not yet members of the temple, seek her out to study toward conversion, primarily for non-Jewish wives.

The Next Generation

Buchdahl recalls that when she visited Israel for the first time in 1989, “people yelled on the street ‘Yaponit’ thinking I’m Japanese. Now, in Israel you see Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopians, migrant workers from Philippines, who end up staying in Israel and marrying Jews. You can see people who look Asian on the street.”

The mother of three children who attend Jewish schools, Buchdahl, who has an Ashkenazi Jewish husband says, “I had this realization which was painful. They [my children] know that they’re Korean and their family is Korean, they know a couple of Korean songs and I hope that they recognize it as [part of] who they are. I realized as I described their relationship with being Korean that it was like some people describe their Jewishness. They’re losing that piece of their identity.”

Her family has visited Israel, but it’s been 19 years since Buchdahl’s last visit to Korea, where she was born. “A certain part of Korean culture and values is part of their ethos,” Buchdahl says about her children. “I have a feeling they would feel comfortable in that setting.” She hopes to visit Korea with her children, who are now ages 9, 6 and 4, in a few years.

Charles Liu, whose family is from Taiwan, met his wife, Amy Rabb-Liu, when they were freshmen in college some 20 years ago. “Overcoming family obstacles is always something to deal with,” he says, but “after the initial shock things have been very normal–really wonderful.” A year after his marriage to Rabb, Liu’s sister married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism. His sister’s two sons are Jewish; Liu and Rabb-Liu, with their three children, belong to a secular Jewish cooperative in Montclair, N.J.

“Since Hannah was in first grade,” Liu says, “we’ve always been pretty active [in the Montclair Jewish Workshop]. The workshop has a great sense of community, everyone feels they should be responsible: I help with the music, I’m in the Purim play, I know the songs.” Hannah, a rising 10th grader, graduated from the MJW when she was 13. It’s not a bar or bat mitzvah but “borrows some of the key sensibilities from these traditions.”

For the first time this summer, the family is going to Taiwan and visiting with Liu’s extended family. “It turns out,” Liu says, “for all of our differences there are core similarities: we value family, honesty, hard work, education … ”

The Future

The increased visibility of Asian Jewish families and individuals poses an opportunity to ask questions about the internal racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish community.

“You don’t know where it’s going,” Helen Kim says, “our best hope is to give a variety of possibilities; [show] what kind of struggles these couples and families face incorporating culture and religion. Honoring differences in their families, I hope that shines through.”

Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.


Author: Hedi Molnar