How Four Couples With Conflicting Jewish Backgrounds Make it Work

Every so often, I think long and hard about who I want to be and who I want to end up with. As the years go by, there are multiple variables that change, but no matter the season or the phase I’m going through, one factor will always remain the same: I’ll only date Jewish men. This feat may seem like a piece of Manischewitz cake with the number of millennial Jews inhabiting New York City, but where I grew up, being “Just Jewish,” as Jswipe defines it, doesn’t cut it.

With most of my Brooklyn Sephardic community marrying within the community, it’s uncommon for someone to date outside the expected gender, culture, or Jewish denomination. I’ve dated men over the last year from outside my Modern Orthodox denomination, but it never lasted. While we may have shared a connection and believe in the same God, ultimately we both wanted very different religious lifestyles. I’ve been curious to hear from couples who came from different Jewish backgrounds that not only lasted, but thrive. In a way, while these couples aren’t considered “interfaith” in the traditional sense, their differences in backgrounds can provide just as much opposition — and joy. Below you will hear from four couples who fell in love, despite their conflicting Jewish norms.

Shlomo and Jillian 

Photos by Rebecca Mezistrano

Name: Shlomo
Age: 22
Occupation: Legal Assistant
Where are you from/where do you live now? Texas, NYC

Name: Jillian
Age: 21
School: Student in the joint program at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary
Where are you from/where do you live now? Philadelphia, NYC

Relationship status: Dating, not living together.

Can you tell me about your Jewish backgrounds?

Shlomo: I grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox house. As is common in such households, my father is a pulpit rabbi and my mother is a Hebrew teacher. I grew up praying three times a day, went to Jewish day school and then yeshiva in high school, followed by a year of yeshiva in Israel, and higher education at Touro College (one of of two Jewish universities in NYC).

Jillian: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in a really relaxed, Conservative Jewish family, in which Judaism was more of a holidays thing than an everyday thing. My parents sent me to Jewish day school when I was a kid, and it was there that I decided to take on Jewish practices myself. I began keeping kosher, speaking Hebrew, saying blessings, and keeping Shabbat even though nobody else in my family did so. I do all of these things because they are deeply meaningful to me, never because I was told to do them. I’m used to being the most observant one out of my friends and family, so when I first met Shlomo, I was shocked and intrigued to hear about his religious background.

How did you two meet?

Shlomo: We actually met on Tinder *gasp*, which is something that we used to be pretty embarrassed to tell people. Still, not everyone knows that’s how we met…

Jillian: But lately we’ve been more open about it, because it is nothing to be ashamed of! On our first date, we met at a coffee shop on my school’s campus. I saw him walk in the door and I almost ran away because I was intimidated by his beauty, but good thing I didn’t. We ended up walking around and exploring, and sitting in a cathedral for four hours, talking about family, religion, spirituality, our futures, and telling funny stories.

What are some struggles or pressures you face (if at all) as a result of your different religious backgrounds?

Shlomo: Near the end of high school, I began to further myself from a religious lifestyle. I feel that it was because it was forced upon me growing up, and I wanted to explore the world out there and experience what I had missed. Since then, I’ve gained more of an appreciation for the way I grew up and I’m voluntarily observing and practicing Judaism more than I have since the end of high school. Jillian comes from an opposite background as me and made her way towards observance, something I am unbelievably impressed with. There are members of my family who pressure me often to “get back to my roots” and be more observant, and I sometimes find myself playing a different role when I’m around them, trying to give in to their desires.

Jillian: I actually think that most of the struggles we face are between the two of us, not so much from external pressures. We both are pretty opinionated people, and our opinions on most things are very different from each other. I can’t tell you the amount of times we’ve argued about whether God wrote the Torah, or whether there is significance to Kashrut (kosher laws), or how much value we should place in Rabbinic thought. We argue about the separation of genders in prayer, the prohibition of female voices being heard in song, and so much more. Shlomo is very knowledgeable about the details of halacha (Jewish law) from his upbringing, and I’ve learned about Judaism from an academic, historical point of view — so we clash a lot. But we’ve done a lot of work on trying to really listen to each other and learn from the other’s point of view. Instead of seeing these talks as arguments, now we try to see them as conversations that we can learn and grow from, and that has made a huge difference in our relationship.

Was there an expectation from your community/religious denomination to only date someone within your own Jewish denomination?

Shlomo: There was and is absolutely pressure to date someone Jewish. That’s always been communicated as the most important thing to make sure of. It’s about continuing the tradition and the lineage of the Jewish people.

Jillian: Not at all! My parents have always said that I should be with a person I love, no matter who they are, regardless of their gender, race, or religion. Of course, it was implied that they’d be extra happy if that person were Jewish, but they would not have been upset otherwise.

What are some traditions or customs that you celebrate differently from each other?

Shlomo: One thing that sticks out is the type of synagogue we went to. I went to a traditional Orthodox synagogue, with separate sections for men and women. Jillian introduced me to egalitarian services of all types (Conservative, Reform, Renewal, etc.). At first it felt so strange to me and I was very uncomfortable, even though intellectually it was so logical to have men and women practicing in an equal capacity. Over time, my uneasiness subsided as I became more exposed to and more used to this new style of prayer.

Jillian: To me it’s kind of funny, because Shlomo grew up far more observant than me, but now I’m the one who follows customs more strictly. I keep Shabbat, and at first I was mad that he didn’t — he still used his phone, cooked, and played guitar. But I’ve come to terms with it, and he’s essentially become my “Shabbos goy” — he turns on and off the lights and texts people that we need to meet up with. I’ll say something like, “Wow, it’s so hot in here, and it’s so sad that my fan is unplugged…” and he’ll just smile and go and turn it on. It’s kind of hilarious. I also keep kosher, and he doesn’t. I used to spend a lot of time trying to convince him to observe like I do, and he brought up a lot of important reasons why it didn’t feel right to him at this point in life. So now we just accept the way each other practices.

What do you want couples who are dating significant others from different cultural norms to know?

Shlomo: This is something I learned from Jill, one of her strong suits: communication. Always, always make sure to keep communicating your feelings and thoughts to each other. We’ve been through a lot of highs and lows for both us and we’ve come out stronger each and every time because of our unwavering commitment to each other and our commitment to communication.

Jillian: I want people to know that our relationship is not perfect. People come up to me and say that we’re a perfect couple, which is really nice, but not true. I don’t think the perfect couple exists. We argue, we have huge differences, we have had struggles between us. I think a lot of these are caused by our very different backgrounds. So I would say to anyone in this type of situation: Do not see the other person as someone to be converted to your beliefs and traditions, but try to accept them as who they are — you will be surprised by how much you can learn from them. You do not have to agree on everything, you do not have to always be on the same page. Patience and acceptance go a long way, or at least, they have for us.

Andrew and Arye


Name: Andrew
Age: 30
Occupation: Works for JDC
Where are you from/where do you live now? Los Angeles, California; NYC

Name: Arye
Age: 31
Occupation: Works for UJA-Federation
Where are you from/where do you live now? Johannesburg, South Africa; NYC

Relationship status: Legally domestic partners and live together.

Can you tell me about your religious backgrounds?

Arye: I grew up in an Orthodox family. My father was a pulpit rabbi, and I grew up going to synagogues regularly. I regularly went to a Chabad or other religious day camps.

Andrew: I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and attended Camp Ramah in California, participated in USY programs, and went to Jewish Day School as well. We were active in synagogue life and attended services regularly.

How did you two meet?

Arye: Andrew was a staff person at a Keshet Shabbaton in March of 2016 and met someone there who knew me. He introduced us and the rest is history! We have been together for three years.

How has pressure (if at all) from family, friends, or others factor into your relationship?

Andrew: My family is complicated for a number of reasons, but us being a gay couple is not one of them. We have been really lucky and not only have a strong group of friends and coworkers, but also siblings who are in the New York area who support us.

Arye: My family is really a “mixed bag” in terms of how they have been accepting of both my sexuality and my relationship. I have siblings who have been very supportive, others who have been tolerant but not openly accepting, and a brother who has been openly against me and my relationship. It’s difficult for me, reconciling my relationship with those who aren’t supportive and how I feel about them/interact with them. I still maintain relationships with them, barring my one sibling who I no longer communicate with. I have many incredibly supportive friends, who truly feel like family. Andrew’s family has also accepted me unconditionally.

Was there an expectation from your community/religious denomination to only date someone within your own Jewish denomination?

Andrew: I definitely had an expectation in my family to date someone who is Jewish. That was never really a question in my household. I don’t know that there would have been negative repercussions if I didn’t, but it would have been fairly uncomfortable.

Arye: I come from a community that’s very against intermarriage. Interestingly, there are those who have become accepting of my sexuality, but it’s hard to tell if they would be as accepting if my partner wasn’t Jewish.

What are some traditions or customs that you celebrate differently from each other?

Arye: One tradition that’s new (for us to do consistently together) was lighting the Hanukkah candles together every single night. It was definitely a bonding experience, and made the apartment we live in feel even more like a home, a space we share and our relationship can grow in.

What do you want couples who are dating significant others different from their cultural norms to know?

Andrew: Exercise patience and understanding and be a good listener. You don’t have to be wrong for your partner to be right. Make new norms together.

Karina and Isaac 


Name: Karina
Age: 20
Occupation: Production Coordinator at PragerU
Where are you from/where do you live now? Los Angeles, CA

Name: Isaac
Age: 21
Occupation: CEO and founder of Nouvo
Where are you from/where do you live now? João Pessoa, Brazil but moved to Los Angeles when I was 9.

Can you tell me about your Jewish backgrounds?

Karina: Isaac’s family has Jewish heritage from his grandmother’s side that can be traced back to Jews who were persecuted and forced out of Portugal. However, growing up he was not a religious Jew by any means. It took meeting a Chabad Rabbi to learn about Judaism, as well as grow closer to his roots.

I was raised Catholic, but I drifted away from the church as I grew older. I had a lot of questions that I wasn’t getting good answers to. I felt like spiritual driftwood until I visited Israel the summer of 2017 and went to the Kotel. It wasn’t my first Jewish influence (I’ve been babysitting for the same Orthodox family since I was 13). But it was the first time I felt like this is what I wanted.

How did you two meet?

Karina: We met at Santa Monica College. I was running for student government and I gave a speech at a club meeting that Isaac happened to be at. He asked me to dinner about two months later (we hadn’t been talking, I thought it was out of the blue). I thought he was cute so I said yes, but had to reschedule, and then I had to postpone the rescheduled date. For some reason he asked me out a third time, on a day when I was busy and couldn’t make it. At that point I felt bad because he was being persistent for whatever reason, so I invited him to an event I was attending. We hit it off and have been together ever since.

What are some struggles or pressures you face (if at all) as a result of your different religious backgrounds?

Karina: We may come from different religious backgrounds but we both have the same end goal. I am converting to Orthodox Judaism with Isaac. (Isaac is converting in order to establish a paper trail.) Since we are following the same path, we have thankfully faced no struggles as a result of our different religious backgrounds. Isaac received most of the pressure regarding me. His mother was not happy that he was dating a non-Jew, though she has since seen that I am a good influence on him and has very much warmed up to me.

Was there an expectation from your community/religious denomination to only date someone within your own Jewish denomination?

Karina: Again, this definitely applies to Isaac more than it does to me. As a Jew, he is expected to marry a Jew. When he first tried to take me to Shabbat dinner, his rabbi made it clear that he did not approve of non-Jewish dating. However, just like his mom, his rabbi has also warmed up to me now that he sees how serious I am about pursuing Judaism.

What are some traditions or customs that you celebrate differently from each other?

Karina: My family celebrates Christmas, so Isaac and I exchange gifts amongst ourselves and buy gifts for our families. But I think that’s the only major different tradition.

What do you want people to know about your relationship? What do you want couples who are dating significant others different from their cultural norms to know?

Unfortunately, a lot of people think I am converting for Isaac and I know that that will always be an afterthought in people’s minds. I don’t care. I know this is not the case and he knows this is not the case and that’s all that matters. I think that is something couples who are dating someone different from their cultural norms need to learn to say: “I don’t care.” If you have found the one you love and you are happy, then you should learn to stop caring what everyone else thinks.

Alison and Nate


Name: Nate
Age: 26
Occupation: Real Estate
Where are you from/where do you live now? Springfield, MA; West Hartford, CT

Name: Alison
Age: 23
School: Bay Path Graduate School for Occupational Therapy
Where are you from/where do you live now? Brooklyn, NY; West Hartford, CT

Relationship status: Married.

Can you tell me about your religious backgrounds?

Alison: I’m Sephardic and he’s Ashkenazi. We are both from Modern Orthodox families.

How did you two meet?

Alison: We met at Brandeis University. I was his sister’s roommate sophomore year and we would both walk to his house Friday nights for Shabbat dinners. We started going out my sophomore year, and were engaged almost exactly two years later. In total it’s been over four years together, and we are now married.

What are some struggles or pressures you face (if at all) as a result of your different religious backgrounds?

Alison: Honestly, our families are very accepting of each other’s traditions. We chose the best of both our customs to create the most beautiful wedding. When we first got married, I struggled a little with adjusting to my new cultural identity, as I have mostly adopted his Ashkenazi customs. However, I think that this feeling of new transitions and change is something that most new married couples have to cope with, and I am now very comfortable with my Ashkenazi-Sephardic identity.

Was there an expectation from your community/religious denomination to only date someone within your own Jewish denomination?

Alison: The Syrian (Sephardic) community is a very tight-knit community. Growing up, I always felt the subtle message that we need to stay within the community and stay close to our family. Many Syrian parents think that the only way of ensuring their kids stay within the community is if their kids marry other Syrians. However, my parents never outwardly put that kind of pressure on me. They let me dorm somewhere out of New York for college, which allowed me to venture outside the community’s bubble and meet my husband!

What are some traditions or customs that you celebrate differently from each other?

Alison: It’s fun to combine different aspects of our religious backgrounds and try new things. Two very important aspects of the Syrian culture include food and family. While Nate knows how important it is for me to continue the tradition of making Syrian foods, I’ve been learning how to make some Ashkenazi dishes for him. Now our Friday night Shabbat dinners include anything from kugel to lachmagine. Another tradition that I’ve adopted is I’ve completely transitioned to an Ashkenazi shul. I grew up only knowing Sephardic prayers and tunes, so while I still have a lot to learn, I love going to shul and think the Ashkenazi tunes are so beautiful.

What do you want couples who are dating significant others different from their cultural norms to know?

Despite what we might have expected originally, we have found more similarities than differences in our religious customs. A good tip for couples of different cultures is to be open-minded and share what is important to you both from the start. Throughout our years of dating and getting to know each other, we both were able to learn and respect which traditions and customs were fundamental to each other. This allowed for a natural process of adjustments and compromises when we got married.

Bonnie Azoulay

Bonnie is a writer based in New York with works published on Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Coveteur, Man Repeller, Forward and more. She loves wearing fanny packs and laying in the fetal position.

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