As Shaun Buchhalter notes, being a Jewish Puerto Rican is probably more common in New York City than elsewhere. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially during the December holidays.
Born to a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican Catholic mother, 30-year-old Shaun grew up in what was then the very Jewish neighborhood of West Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. He and his immediate family, his paternal grandparents and his dad’s brother all lived within a block of each other in three separate high-rise apartment buildings. Although Shaun’s father was not religious, Shaun’s grandmother, Rita, was. Grandma Rita was determined to see that Shaun had a good Jewish upbringing.
Despite my father marrying a non-Jewish girl,” Shaun explains, “Grandma Rita was adamant that I would have a strong Jewish identity. At Hanukkah, she would give me a gift on all eight nights. Hanukkah was when I got my first Nintendo and my first bike—from my grandmother.”
Shaun says his grandmother was competing with his Puerto Rican mother’s side of the family, which showered him, his siblings and cousins with presents on Christmas. Not to be outdone, Grandma Rita made great latkes, which Shaun ate with delight. Her home was the focal point of all the Jewish holiday celebrations.
Although Shaun’s mother is a traditional Catholic, she did not stress religion in the home. She attended Christmas and Easter services every year, but she did not make Shaun and his younger brother and sister go with her. Although he never had his confirmation service, Shaun did have his first communion at age seven. His grandmother Rita attended.
“She wasn’t excited about it,” Shaun recalls. “But I think she did it to support my mom, who she eventually did come to really love.”
Rita had arranged for Shaun to begin Hebrew school in order to prepare him for his bar mitzvah. But she passed away when Shaun was in fifth grade. As neither Shaun’s father nor grandfather was very concerned about his religious education, Hebrew school never materialized.
Soon after his grandmother’s death, Shaun’s family moved to Stony Brook, a New York suburb on Long Island. Shaun says there was a real shift in his cultural identity once he moved to the Island, as evidenced in part by his family’s Hanukkah observance.
“The menorah was always up. And in the beginning I would get gifts,” he remembers. “But by late junior high, it kind of trickled off, except from some of the relatives. My grandfather would still send a gift, but it was never quite as extravagant as when Grandma Rita was alive. Most of the gifts from my parents came on Christmas.”
Interestingly, it was Shaun’s mom, Miriam (often a Jewish name!), who made sure the menorah was displayed at Hanukkah. She also, until Shaun was married, would call him to remind him to light a yahrzeit candle in remembrance of relatives who had passed away.
Even though religion was not a focus in his home, Shaun always felt divided as the two sides of his heritage continued to tug at him internally.
“Usually your religion follows through your mother’s side of the family,” Shaun explains, “so there was always a tension. Am I Jewish? Am I Catholic? It was strange in that when I would visit my mother’s side of the family, they would call me a Jew and kind of make fun of me in that regard. Then when I went to my father’s side of the family for the Jewish holidays, they would tease me about being Puerto Rican!”
Shaun says he always believed in God. But he does not attribute that to his exposure to either Judaism or Catholicism.
“I did go to Catholic services more than I went to synagogue,” he notes. “But I didn’t get anything out of it. I don’t remember anything. If you had asked me as a teenager who Jesus was, I would not have been able to say what Catholics believe about him. I didn’t pay attention to anything. That was my nature. And I certainly didn’t read any materials. I didn’t read anything in school! So why would I read any of the religious stuff?
“Even so, I just always knew, always believed that there was some type of transcendent being. But it didn’t have much of an impact on the way I lived. Minimally, at most.”
Shaun enrolled at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But after his freshman year, he knew it was time for a change.
“I recognized that I needed to get away from the stereotypical college lifestyle I was living in New York— hanging out, partying, girls,” he says. “I wanted my life to mean something more than that. My family had also ingrained in me that success was the result of education. So I transferred schools to pursue that. And I chose North Carolina to get away from New York.”
Shaun enrolled at the University of North Carolina- Charlotte for his sophomore year. The subject of God came up right away.
“My first day on campus, I noticed a beautiful girl,” Shaun says. “As I approached her, hoping to get a date, I got a big surprise. She told me she believed in Jesus and explained that she only would date someone who believed as she did. Natalie let me know right from the beginning the importance of her faith in God. Her lifestyle intrigued me.
“That first semester I had many interactions with Christians who challenged my understanding of God and religion. It got me started on my own process of thinking through spirituality. On New Year’s Eve, I found myself kneeling at the corner of my bed asking God, if he really did exist, to show himself to me. A month later I bumped into Natalie, and she invited me to a meeting hosted by a Christian group on campus. I attended, and the message was entitled “What Are You Living For?” It got me really thinking. A week later, in February 1998, I confessed as many sins as I could remember and asked Jesus to come into my life.”
As Shaun began to tell other Jews about his experience, his new faith was challenged.
“I still identified myself as a Jew, very much so,” Shaun says, “and I found myself interacting with many Jewish people, sharing my story with them. When they asked if I was still Jewish, I’d always say yes. And they would have this very hostile response to me. I wondered why these individuals were getting upset at me, just because I believe in Jesus. Due to my blended upbringing, I wasn’t aware of how big an issue it was for a Jewish person. But once I began to realize that, it made me want to explore even more the veracity of Jesus being the Messiah. As a result of my own personal study of the Bible and conversations with other Jewish believers in Jesus, I began to see the connection between Jewishness and Jesus.
“It was within about a year that my faith, culture and identity came together. Everything now made sense. I no longer felt a conflict—who was I going to disappoint, or which religion do I identify with more. It just kind of brought the two together.”