Jewish life presents a unique opportunity for students to explore the complexities of their identities, and active Jewish engagement during college can play a pivotal role for many interfaith, Jewish college students. These students, many of whom are the leaders of their Hillels and other Jewish groups on campus, have embraced Judaism in college. They have used their unique backgrounds to make these spaces inclusive for all.
McKenna Bates graduated from George Mason University in 2020 and grew up in an interfaith household. During her time at George Mason, she was very involved in student government and working with the administration as a proponent of Jewish advocacy. Now, she works as the Israel Engagement Associate at Towson Hillel.
“When I came to college, I thought I could be Jewish on my own. Problem was, none of my friends were interested in waiting to catch a late ride to the Friday party so I could light candles,” Bates said. “It was actually the Israel Student Association that found me and got me involved. A classmate of mine wearing an AEPi hat spoke up in my gov class, and I stayed after to chat with him. Now we’re in a long-term, committed relationship.”
Bates and her mother were very involved with the Reform temple near them in Norfolk, Virginia, and in 2014, the two went to Israel for the summer. According to Bates, both returned wanting to bring in more Judaism to their life.
Dan Kling, who also graduated from George Mason University in 2020, grew up in an interfaith household as a Catholic, and then proceeded to become an atheist. It was only when he entered college that he became more involved in Jewish life. During college, he served as the president of the George Mason chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi)—an international Jewish fraternity. According to Kling, when he joined AEPi, they helped him overcome the misconception that he wasn’t “Jewish enough” to be involved.
“They helped me explore what it meant to be Jewish, become proud in my heritage, and want to leave a lasting impact on my community,” Kling said. “I went from knowing nothing to being the president of two organizations on campus (AEPi and Israeli Student Association, simultaneously), becoming more observant, and aiming to center my career on Judaism and the Jewish people.”
Jacob Kravitz is a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Though he identifies as Christian, he grew up celebrating and still celebrates some Jewish holidays, because his dad is Jewish. When he was growing up, he would eat matzo ball soup, play dreidel, and read about the holidays his ancestors have celebrated for thousands of years.
“I think the biggest misconception about interfaith Jews is the need to categorize us as one faith or another. I totally get why it happens, but it can sometimes be challenging, especially when you are a kid,” Kravitz said. “I remember being at preschool and feeling internally torn over whether to make a drawing for Santa or the Hannukah Fairy. Identity is in some ways built, not decided all at once.”
Avi Zatz is a first-year at the University of Vermont and serves on the Israel committee at his Hillel. His mother is Scottish and a Presbyterian Christian— despite having a Jewish matrilineal line—and his father is an Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew. Zatz said that the Hillel at his college is very accepting of his identity as well as others of unique Jewish backgrounds.
“For me, Hillel has connected me to resources and allowed me to be more involved in Jewish life —encouraging me to engage as much as possible,” Zatz said.
Some interfaith Jewish students connect to their Jewish identity little by little over time. For others, there was a critical moment when they suddenly felt connected.
Hannah Erbrick is a senior at Tulane University where she served as a Birthright Israel intern with Tulane Hillel. Despite her mom being Jewish, she grew up in a Catholic household, and for years, only saw herself as Catholic. She became much more engaged with her Jewish identity around the age of twelve, according to Erbrick.
“From that point on, I committed myself to Judaism, even when it meant fasting when the rest of my family was eating, or driving myself to temple alone,” Erbrick said. “From the moment it clicked, Judaism felt like home to me.”
Erbrick is grateful for the role of Hillel in sustaining her commitment to the Jewish community.
“Hillel helped me find other Jews on campus and engage with younger Jewish students. It gave me a place to practice Shabbat and it sent me on Birthright,” Erbrick said. “To other interfaith Jews, I would say: keep your chin up. Religion is deeply personal, and no one can take your identity or relationship to Judaism away from you.”
Kling noted that being a Jewish interfaith student can be difficult but ultimately rewarding.
“When you realize that you are enough and that you are Jewish enough, nothing is going to be able to stop you,” Kling said. “Don't impede yourself because of how the world perceives you, live and love your Jewish culture, your Jewish values, and your Jewish peoplehood.”