My husband and I met on our public high school’s swim team. He was a junior and I was a sophomore. When I met him, I would’ve never guessed he was Jewish. He didn’t look or act like it at all. I started dating him the following year, and it wasn’t until he invited me to lunch at a kosher restaurant and asked me to wear a skirt that I was introduced to Orthodox Judaism. I had NO idea what roller coaster ride I had just bought a ticket for.
Up until that time, I was what you could describe as a good Catholic girl. I begged my parents to take me to Sunday school so I could do my First Communion (where you take communion for the first time and the responsibility of being a Catholic). Afterward, I continued Sunday school and did my confirmation, where I picked a patron saint to strive to be like, and a sponsor to guide me in my Christian journey. I then made a promise to keep the 10 commandments. I loved my church. Mostly, I loved the people. I enjoyed being there so much that I started teaching Sunday school classes at the age of 16. I even brought my Jewish boyfriend to watch, and we have a picture together with the Easter bunny (he volunteered to hide eggs with me).
While this all was happening, I was also being introduced to my husband’s Orthodox family. As much as I loved my church, there was something just off about it all. The story of Jesus never made sense to me. I couldn’t understand why we no longer had the commandment to not eat shellfish or pork, or why our Sabbath was on Sunday when Hashem had originally commanded us to keep it on Saturday. The more I learned about Judaism and the more exposed I was to his family, the more fascinated I became. At the age of 18, while I was finishing up my senior year of high school, my husband and I decided to get married. We couldn’t have a Catholic wedding because as much as he respected my religion, he didn’t want to be baptized (deep down, it also felt wrong for me to ask him to do that), and we couldn’t have a Jewish wedding because I wasn’t Jewish. Having a reform “interfaith” wedding also sat really wrong with me. So a civil wedding it was.
It took six years from that moment until we finally took the plunge and became observant. It took another year for my daughter (four years old at the time) and me to finalize our conversion at a mikvah in south Florida with the Beit Din.
The wedding under the chuppah was the best day of our lives. But I distinctly remember my mother calling me as we were transitioning to being fully observant, to let me know, in the sweetest, most careful way she could muster, that she was so worried we wouldn’t be able to spend time with them anymore. By this point, we were pretty much shomer Shabbat and keeping kosher (as much as was feasible). I could hear her sadness over the phone, but I sort of chuckled because I knew that being Jewish doesn’t mean we exclude others! I told her not to worry. We would sort it out. I said we would have some very distinct boundaries: obviously we wouldn’t break any Torah laws like Shabbat, and we wouldn’t be joining them at their home for Christian holidays like Christmas or Easter. It took some finagling, but we came up with a plan. Learning halachot was crucial to make sure we were doing it the right way.
After our wedding, I said, “Why don’t we find a way to spend time together on Christmas but do things that fall in line with our values?” In the United States, many Jews have a “tradition” where we do the only things that are open for Christmas: eat Chinese food and go to the movies. Since my parents are from Argentina and over there we celebrated Christmas Eve by having a late dinner and waiting for Santa, the next day was usually a day to relax and enjoy our presents. This gave us the perfect opportunity to learn Torah with our friends on Christmas Eve and be able to spend Christmas day with my family, watching a fun movie and ordering Chinese takeout. It’s become a tradition since then. It means a lot to my parents and siblings to be able to give my daughter a “Christmas gift”, but they come over for Chanukah, eat latkes, light candles with us, and call their presents “Chanukah gifts.”
Thanksgiving time is upon us, and since we live in the United States, we celebrate it every year. Our Jewish friends had their own tradition to host a potluck at a park, so we joined them and our family tags along. My mom makes the most delicious turkey I’ve ever tasted, so I asked her for her recipe and I make it myself every year now. My parents bring the disposables, my sister brings the drinks, and my brothers buy the desserts from our local kosher store. We have an incredible time together sitting around the table, talking, making jokes, and playing games. The kids bring their scooters and ride around all afternoon. It’s truly enjoyable.
My mother owns a beautiful (and successful) baking business in south Florida. She makes the most incredible cakes for birthdays, weddings, and any other events people celebrate. Since it’s usually her “job” to bring a cake to birthday parties, she wanted to be able to do that for my daughter as well. I spoke to my Rav to see how we could make it happen. In the end, we decided that I would make the cake at my home and she could come to decorate it before the party. My daughter has been fortunate enough to have some truly fascinating cakes and dessert tables because of my mother. She is very lucky!
Since according to halacha, Jews can only share mevushal (cooked) wine with non-Jews, we are careful to check labels and have wine on hand that we can drink with them. Whenever they host a birthday party, we bring our own food and enjoy the celebration with them. My sister is actually getting married soon, and when I explained that I couldn’t go to a church wedding, she said that would absolutely be no problem.
She isn’t scheduling it on a Saturday, and she offered to have a separate table with kosher catering for us! I offered to wash and check the mint they’ll be using at the bar to make the cocktails so that we can partake, and she even told me to send her a list of kosher liquors so she doesn’t buy anything else. When our parents want to do a family outing, they make sure to not do it on Shabbat. If they do come over for a Shabbat meal, they leave their phones in the car and play board games with us. Sometimes they accidentally turn off the bathroom light, but they are working very hard to be mindful about that.
There were some other things we had to learn, and honestly we are still learning about. I won’t lie and say it’s all been rainbows and butterflies. My parents have been trying to get us to go visit family in Argentina for a while. But to spend so much money to travel somewhere where there are barely any kosher options, to have to spend Shabbat alone in a hotel (or worse, at the house of family not keeping Shabbat), and have almost every gathering they do be based around non-kosher barbecue is hard to think about. For this reason, my husband and I haven’t seen my Argentine family in many years. It makes me sad, but I could never say I regret making all these changes to become Jewish.
Because we have made an effort to stay connected to my non-Jewish family as much as possible, our family is happier, our lives are better, we feel more fulfilled, and we have made some incredible friends along the way. We are very grateful, because leaving our family behind was not an option for us. We couldn’t raise our children without their aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They help to remind us to always be kind and understanding of others who live differently than us, because at the end of the day, we are all Hashem’s children.
Although there are differing opinions as to how far a family can go to include their non-Jewish relatives, the Torah does not demand that we cut off all connection to our family. Many Orthodox couples have found ways to spend a significant amount of time with non-Jewish family, including having picnics together outdoors, eating together at kosher restaurants, and even keeping kosher utensils in a locked box at their family’s home so they can visit for longer periods of time.
Because the laws are complex and every Rabbi rules differently on what is allowed and what is not, sit down and discuss the situation with your own Rabbi so that you can come up with a plan that works for your family. Our Rabbi is an incredibly understanding man and he has helped us navigate many of these situations. It is possible to stay connected with non-Jewish family while also keeping Torah.