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Beyond Belief

Rebecca calls Drew the answer to her prayers -- even though praying's not his thing. Can a nice Jewish girl find happiness with a devoted agnostic?

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Rebecca, a Jewish thirtysomething educator, is engaged to a midwestern non-Jewish writer named Drew, 36, and says she’s the last one anyone would have expected to intermarry. Raised in Dallas in a traditional home, she and her family lit candles every Friday; she attended a modern-Orthodox day school, studied in Israel during college, and later moved there.

“I’m the person this never should have happened to,” she tells me over coffee in Brooklyn Heights. Olive-skinned with an open face, she projects an air of sweet vulnerability. “I’m doing something that goes against everything I was taught to believe in. I’m not a rebel, and I never wanted to put myself on the outs with all these people I respect and love. But then I met Drew.”

They met cute, the summer of ’98, on a plane from Dallas to New York. They talked the whole flight, and back in Dallas they began getting together. “After the first time we rolled around in bed,” Drew recalls, “Rebecca said, ‘I’ve never kissed a non-Jew.’ I said, ‘I’ve never kissed a Jew.’ ”

Rebecca’s parents had made their expectations clear early on. “I think my father feels like all my Jewish education was insurance against this. One of my sisters now teases that I’ve opened the door for her to marry a Muslim.” When she was in middle school, her mother brought home a videotape of interfaith couples in therapy. “It was meant to scare. It had all sorts of statistics about how children of interfaith couples don’t consider themselves Jewish, and how difficult interfaith life is.”

Though her parents liked Drew, they didn’t hide their reservations. “Her mother told me that the first time I walked up to their house, she looked out the window and said, ‘Rebecca’s brought home a Hitler youth.’ ”

On the first Passover he spent with them, Rebecca’s sister opened the door and yelled, “Hey everyone! The Shabbes goy is here!” “I have a good sense of humor,” Drew says, “but that stays with me.”

His family had reservations of their own. “In the first couple years,” Drew says, “Rebecca had said we wouldn’t be able to bring our kids to my father’s for Christmas. That lit up my dad. Later she realized she was overstepping.”

Despite the challenges, Drew and Rebecca continued to date over the next two years. Rebecca asked him whether he would consider converting, and his initial reaction was yes. “But at some point, our relationship turned,” says Rebecca. “We got serious, and he said, ‘By the way, I’m happy to take classes, but I’m really not sure I would convert.’ ”

His resistance stemmed from his feelings about religion; raised by lapsed Lutherans, he considers himself an agnostic. “At first I thought, I’ll just go ahead and rubber stamp it and everything will be great,” he recalls. “But I’ve seen a world filled with war and hatred because of religion and I realized that was something I shouldn’t toy with lightly. I’m not going to wear Judaism like a coat I can take off.”

Eventually she decided he had to want to convert for himself, not for her. “As long as he could say with all certainty that he would make a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family, I started to feel that maybe I didn’t need the piece of paper.”

Her parents weren’t sure they agreed. “My dad has had long conversations with Drew over religion,” says Rebecca, “and what it means to be a moral person. My father feels concerned, like, ‘Where do you get your moral backbone if not from religion?’ ”

Drew, on the other hand, knew from firsthand experience that religion could have a negative side. “I felt that if religion caused me to lose the love of my life, it would be further confirmation that organized religion is useless and destructive.”

Despite the difficulties, they stayed together, and in 2001 they moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in an “Introduction to Judaism” class at a Conservative synagogue. Drew doesn’t think there’s a conflict between his willingness to keep a Jewish home and his agnosticism. “Judaism seems to encompass more types of people and ways of thinking than Christianity,” he says. “It makes people individuals, whereas I think Christianity does the reverse. I could not date an observant Christian; it would drive me crazy.”

This summer, Rebecca and Drew got engaged and settled in Manhattan. Though Rebecca thought her soul-searching period was over, the High Holidays, which they spent with her family, reignited her worries all over again. “He asked me if he needed to go to synagogue the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It bothered me because my whole family was going. We had lots of discussions on the themes of the holidays, and he seemed to have a shallow understanding of what it was all about. That’s the danger for people who are raised with no religion at all. They don’t necessarily have any avenue into anything deeper. I felt like, Are we going to move in the same direction? And there was the added pressure of having him in my hometown synagogue, where everybody’s married to a Jewish man.”

In spite of everything, they’re marrying this March, in a Jewish ceremony by a Reform rabbi. The wedding planning has raised challenges of its own—friends have told her, “You’d better have a lot of alcohol because Wasps drink.”

Though her parents will be there, some friends have said they may not come. “It pisses me off on the one hand,” she says, “because they have no problem going to a wedding between two Jews who don’t care about Judaism. Here they have somebody who does care and somebody else who’s willing to learn. But I understand their struggle. If I weren’t with Drew, I would probably be very uncomfortable with it myself.”

After the wedding, when they’re settled in a new apartment, they’ll start looking for a synagogue and resume classes. Does Rebecca hope he’ll convert someday? “Oh, yeah. I would love for Drew to take that road.”

“I’ll never say never,” says Drew, “but I can’t foresee it.”


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