For teens in interfaith families, the war in Gaza can be a stress test of their Jewish identities


This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — Romy Girzone considers Israel an important part of what she calls her “unconventional” Jewish identity.

Talking about Israel sometimes makes Mira Haber insecure about her religious background.

And even though Ella Flannery used to be annoyed when people assumed she was “fifty-fifty” (or half-Jewish), she sees Israel differently because of that background.

These three Jewish teens are from interfaith families. And for all of them, their interfaith background affects how they view the war in Israel.

Since the war between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7, many Jewish teens have been thinking about Israel and discussing it with people they are close to. But for interfaith teens, these conversations involve both the Jewish and non-Jewish sides of their families. Experts say teens from interfaith families are predisposed to absorb opinions from different cultures, providing them with a more nuanced perspective on complex topics in the Jewish world — like the war in Israel. 

The experience of interfaith Jewish teens is becoming more common. Within the United States, 42% of married Jews had a non-Jewish spouse in 2020. The percentage has been rising in recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, young adults from interfaith Jewish families are increasingly identifying as Jewish in adulthood, compared to people 50 and older raised in interfaith families. 

Being able to learn from different viewpoints is often a dividend for teens from interfaith families, said Fern Chertok, from the Hornstein Professional Jewish Leadership Program at Brandeis University. “They are the natural bridge builders,” said Chertok, who researches interfaith families. “They really understand the perspective of non-Jews in a way that children of inmarriage [who have two Jewish parents] may not.” 

When it comes to the war in Israel, she said, this skill can help Jewish teens from interfaith families be better equipped to think critically about Israel, processing and connecting information from multiple perspectives.

Romy Girzone’s interfaith family provides her with a spiritual and philosophical perspective on the war. Girzone’s mother is a secular Jew of Israeli descent, and her father, who is from a Catholic family, identifies as a Contemplative Christian.

Though she has never visited the country, Girtzone says Israel represents her Jewish roots and reminds her of her maternal Israeli grandparents, who passed away when she was younger. But Girzone, 17, doesn’t always support the Israeli government. “Because I care so much about Israel,” she said, “I really think it needs to be criticized [for] where it’s at right now.” 

Girzone, who lives in Yonkers, New York, has talked a lot about Israel since Oct. 7 with her non-Jewish father. “I grew up having these really extensive conversations [about religion and philosophy] with my dad,” she said. 

These conversations have set the tone for their discussions about Israel. “My dad’s a very analytical person who thinks very deeply about these things.”

After October 7, Girzone said her dad realized that because he wasn’t Jewish, there was a lot he didn’t fully understand about the conflict in Israel. He started reading more about the situation from varying perspectives.

Girzone’s conversations with her father have had an impact on her opinions about the war. Girzone and her mother are more strongly attached to Israel, because of her mother’s Israeli family, so Girzone’s father provides a more dispassionate perspective.

“There are moments when we clash a bit,” she said, but she feels she has picked up parts of his more “holistic” and less “emotional” approach toward Israel and the war. 

“He sends me things to read all the time,” Girzone said, and she appreciates this. 

For Mira Haber, 15, from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the interfaith status of her family mixes with the conflicting opinions she holds about Israel. Haber’s father is Jewish, and her mother comes from a Christian family but identifies as atheist. Because she doesn’t always support the actions of the government, she wonders if others view her as less Jewish. 

Before the war, Haber was bothered when people described her as “half-Jewish,” especially because some Jewish denominations believe that Jewishness is inherited through the mother. 

“I don’t want [them] to misunderstand and think that I’m not Jewish enough,” she said. On top of that, she wondered how her ambiguous feelings about Israel reflected on her as a Jew; growing up, she’d learned in Hebrew school about Israel as an important homeland for the Jewish people.

Considering her interfaith background, “It makes me think more about whether I ‘count’ as Jewish,” she said, “because I’m not siding with Israel.” 

However, since the war began, Haber has wanted to defend Israel more than before. Partly, this is because she thinks Israel is sometimes unfairly villainized by the media. However, she also finds that supporting Israel gives her a stronger connection to her Judaism. “When people are attacking Israel, it feels like they’re attacking Judaism,” she said. 

Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal doesn’t see a difference between how interfaith families or other Jewish families relate to Israel, given the disagreements and diverse upbringings among Jews. However, she does see that students from families who talk about Israel regularly are most comfortable with discussing nuance in the war and are able to appreciate multiple aspects of the conflict.

At Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose, Massachusetts, Lowenthal works with teens from interfaith families as director of her congregation’s religious school. All of the teens she sees“have a really strong connection to the synagogue, and then by default, relating to Israel, as well,” she said.

Having open conversations with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including her father’s Catholic family, helps Ella Flannery, 17, feel less alone in sorting through her feelings about Israel since Oct. 7.

Knowing that some of her non-Jewish family care about Israel provides her with a broader scope to the conflict. “It shows me [that] other people care about the issue,” Flannery said, and it shows her she isn’t alone in her beliefs. Even though she doesn’t unconditionally support Israel’s actions, she believes Israel is an important place for Jewish people, and it is important to her.

Her mom, who was raised in a non-denominational Jewish home, helps balance her emotional instincts with factual grounding that provides a “historical and symbolic” understanding of the importance of Israel to the Jewish people.

The multiple perspective approach is working for Girzone in Yonkers. She will continue talking with her Jewish mother and Christian father about the war in Israel, because they help her figure out the right way forward. 

“I want what’s best for Israel,” she said, but “I don’t know what is best for Israel.”

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