Our family was meant to be Jewish
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Our family was meant to be Jewish

The Nelsons combine Native American, Protestant, and Catholic roots into a cohesive experience

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Stephanie Nelson, second from the right, with her friends on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim.

Stephanie Nelson, 19, is one of hundreds of Bergen County teens spending this academic year in Israel.

But she’s probably the one only with Native American ancestry.

Nelson is from Closter, but her maternal great-great-grandfather grew up on a reservation in Massachusetts -nobody knows which tribe he belonged to. Stephanie’s mother, Amy, was told that her great-grandfather was deeply ashamed of his living conditions.

Amy Jenssen Nelson’s background is complex. Her mother, who was Catholic, was born in Poland, and her father was Protestant, of Norwegian background. The Jenssens, who lived in Connecticut, joined the closest church – it was Baptist – and the family was active there. Amy was brought up as a Baptist in Connecticut.

She always wanted her children – Stephanie and her younger brother, Matthew – to be proud of their ancestry, even if their ancestor had not been.

“My grandma, my brother, my mother, and I would always go to reservations in Connecticut to learn about Native Americans,” said Stephanie, who is on the Young Judaea Year Course. “It was really important to my mom that I understood that it was in my history and part of me, even if only one-sixteenth.”

Amy had met Stephanie’s dad, David Nelsen, when they were students at Brandeis University. He grew up in Englewood Cliffs in a Reform household. His parents did not object to the marriage. Though she did not convert then, Amy was a Judeophile.

“My mom and grandma had this really intense love for Judaism their whole lives,” Stephanie said. “They were really interested in it. My grandma always told stories of her [maternal] grandmother [from Poland], who had candlesticks hidden away and took them out and lit them Friday night. So we think there were hidden Jews on my mother’s side of the family. I always believed their weird love for Judaism and Israel shows our family was meant to be Jewish.”

In 1996, when Stephanie was 3 years old, the family stopped celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah, both Passover and Easter. “My mom wanted her children to have a solid identity with no confusion or double religion,” she said. “It came to her that she wanted to be Jewish – she knew that was her past, in a way.”

Stephanie doesn’t remember much about her mother’s Orthodox conversion. But she does remember vividly the day she and Matthew went to the mikvah for their own conversion, and that the family suddenly stopped going out for lobster at Legal Seafood. “I can’t say I understood what was happening in that moment, but I definitely understood that life was drastically changing.”

David had a difficult time with the transition to modern Orthodoxy, as his daughter recalls. After a few years, the Nelsons found a happy medium. They joined the Conservative Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, N.Y. Amy Nelson is now its president. (Professionally, she heads the nursery school at Temple Beth-El in Closter.) The kids were sent to Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in Rockland County, a Solomon Schechter school that closed last year.

When the topic of the Holocaust first was broached through a storybook in kindergarten, Stephanie’s mom explained that while Jews made sure their past was remembered, Native Americans had not done as well with that vital task.

When Stephanie learned about Thanksgiving, “my mom sat me down to explain, in whatever way she could to a first-grader, that it wasn’t how it really happened. She even came to my school and spoke about it.”

Stephanie loved her school, her synagogue, and USY, her youth group. “It’s awful that Reuben Gittelman closed,” she said. “It was my everything. I’m thankful to my mom for converting and sending me there, because it taught me everything I know about Judaism and Israel. Without that foundation, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Here,” for now, is Jerusalem. Now attending Young Judeau Year Course, the program cycles its participants through three different Israeli communities, where they do volunteer work. Stephanie began her year in Yemin Orde Youth Village in the Carmel region up north. In late December she and her group moved to Jerusalem. In March, she will move on to Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv.

She is hoping to join the Israel Defense Forces after the course is finished.

In eighth grade, Stephanie went to Israel with her Gittelman class and heard about a USY semester-in-Israel program called Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY). In the second semester of her sophomore year at Schechter Westchester High School, she went to an English-speaking high school in Jerusalem through TRY.

“I absolutely fell in love with Israel when I was here in eighth grade and I wanted to take every opportunity to learn about this country I was so interested in,” she said.

The year before TRY, the Nelsons were in Israel for Matthew’s bar mitzvah. “It was a big moment for my dad, who had been horrified of Israel. He fell in love with it and became the biggest Zionist.”

TRY, which combined academics with extensive touring and the chance to experience kibbutz life and the pre-army program Gadna, cemented Stephanie’s resolve.

“It was the best experience of my life,” she said. “I never realized how lucky I was, until this year, that my parents had a 15-year-old girl saying ‘I want to make aliyah and maybe go into the army,’ and paying all this money to essentially help me go away from them. They really respected what I was trying to do.”

Amy and David each visited Stephanie in Israel this year, and support her Zionist dream, army and all.

“I’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea, because she said since eighth grade that this was what she wanted to do,” Amy said. “I’m not nervous, just incredibly proud. Ultimately whatever she decides in terms of her love for Israel will be wonderful, whether it’s army and aliyah or something else. She does have many options. At the end of the day she is never going to stop loving Israel. Her soul is meant to be in Israel.”

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