I am a Jewish professional working with young adults (not in Philly!), and a young woman recently approached me with a really interesting story. She's not Jewish, but she became interested in learning more about Judaism after discovering that she has Jewish ancestry on both sides of her family many generations back. She's already started getting involved in Jewish activities, and she attends Shabbat meals regularly. She's also dating a Jewish guy. When I started asking her what draws her to Judaism, she said all the "right" things about culture and community, etc. Then she said that the only problem is that, "she can't give up Jesus," because her mom is worried that then they won't be together in heaven. I was all set to start talking with her about conversion, but now I have no idea how to approach her or what to tell her about her newfound interest.
Giving Up Jesus
Dear Giving Up,
This seems like a great case for distinguishing between Judaism as a religion and Judaism as an ethnicity. This young woman discovered that her background is Jewish, and she's interested in exploring what that means. No belief or set of circumstances can take away this newfound part of her identity. However, that doesn't mean she's on the conversion track to be Jewish in any kind of religious sense. A lot of people say it a lot, but it's worth repeating just in case there's any confusion: You can't be Jewish and believe in Jesus.
You can still be a support for this woman as she explores what it means to discover this about her family's Jewish heritage. Perhaps you can provide her with resources about conversos and other "secret" Jews throughout history. You could see if there are other people in your community with any kind of similar background who understand what she's going through and can help her process. She may even be interested in learning about trends in early Christianity where different sects figured out how to incorporate belief in Jesus into their Jewish practice. It's important to stress that that is NOT part of Jewish practice now and that anyone who believes that Jesus has anything to say about where we end up when we die is a Christian.
The corollary is that Messianic Jews are actually Christians, but if she's looking for a religious outlet that includes traditions vaguely related to Judaism but incorporates belief in Jesus, that may be a type of Christianity that she wants to learn more about. My full disclaimer is that I really know hardly anything about Messianic Judaism, but I imagine that it would commonly appeal to people with stories similar to the one you share.
Because of her boyfriend and the choices she's already made in terms of coming to Shabbat meals, I also think it makes sense to continue to welcome her into your community. There will never be a time, though, where it will be appropriate for her to share her beliefs in any format at all that even hints of proselytizing, so if you think that's likely to be an issue, bring it up in a kind but direct way, as in, "Jews don't believe in Jesus and also don't believe in trying to convert people or other people trying to convert us."
Beyond providing this thoughtful but slightly removed type of counsel, the only other thing you can do is wait for her to come back to you with some new insights or questions. As for the role of her mother and her mother's beliefs in all this, well, I might have to save that for another column.