While identical twins Emily Bushnell and Molly Sinert didn’t win the $1 million on the 34th season of CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” which finished airing in December, the dynamic duo were forever grateful for the opportunity to be on the show.
“It was truly a special, life-changing experience!” Bushnell told Kveller. “We got to spend time together and learn much more about each other.” Their team placed second at the end of the competition.
The 37-year-old sisters have an incredible backstory: They only met a year ago, after being separated at birth in South Korea in 1985. They were sent to separate foster homes as babies before being adopted by two different Jewish American families. Neither one knew they had a sibling until they participated in a 23andMe at-home DNA test. The fact that they were given similar upbringings in their separate homes just adds to their remarkable story.
Judaism was always a prominent part of Bushnell’s life growing up, more so than her Asian heritage. “I always knew that I was adopted from South Korea. I had books about adoption, and my parents and I talked about it openly. But at that time, I don’t think adoptive parents were really informed that it was important to educate about the culture that we came from.”
This was why she “very strongly identified” with being Jewish. “Both of my brothers were bar mitzvahed, and we went to synagogue. On Friday nights, I went to Sunday school, my brothers went to Hebrew school. This was very much a part of my upbringing, until my parents got divorced when I was 10. Then we moved and left our congregation. So really, Judaism is probably the thing that I identified with the most strongly throughout my childhood.”
For Sinert, Judaism was her “cultural compass” as well.
“The aspects of my life tied to my Asian heritage were mostly in the form of — if my parents found a Barbie doll or something that had an Asian girl on it. That was the most connected I was to my culture. I knew I had a hanbok that my foster mother had sent over, but that was the only presence of [Korean culture]. We didn’t eat the food. We didn’t talk about traveling there.”
But Jewish culture was a big part of her upbringing. Sinert also went to Sunday school. “I actually went to private school at the Hebrew day school. I got bat mitzvahed. I had my group of Jewish Hebrew school friends, dance friends, band friends,” she told Kveller. “But I did not have any Asian friends, really. I think I identified more as this Jewish American princess than I did with being Korean,” she quipped.
It wasn’t until Sinert saw the documentary “Twinsters,” about two South Korean twins who were adopted into different families, only to discover each other’s existence later in life, when she really got inspired to find out more about Korea and Korean adoptions in 2015. It would be several years later when she realized she had more in common with the documentary than she knew.
In the last year, the sisters have been spending more time exploring their Korean background.
“My daughter started researching Korean adoptees and it felt like it was time for me to connect with my Asian and Korean heritage,” said Bushnell.” And so I think I’m working on that. It’s a work in progress.”
Sinert feels “torn” as she describes how it feels to be between two cultures.
“If I were standing in a hallway and there were two rooms, one full of a bunch of Jewish people my age or one full of a bunch of Korean Americans my age, I think I would feel more comfortable, outwardly, walking through the door with all of the Jewish adults. But there would also be something in my heart that would want to pull me to that room with the Korean Americans,” she said.
Sinert knows that she doesn’t have to choose what to embrace, but doesn’t feel like she “belongs fully” to either culture or group of people.
“It’s very strange. It’s hard to articulate. It’s almost like you’re a lost soul, because you’re trying to figure out who you are. Growing up, you identify with one religion, one culture so strongly. And yet your DNA, your blood, as you start to learn about blood relatives — you feel a little guilty, and there’s this inner compass that draws you to that. Even if you don’t know the specifics about those practices and that history, there’s just a part of you ingrained. It’s also a work in progress to sum it up, just like Emily said.”
After illnesses in the family, Sinert allowed many of the Jewish traditions she was following to slip away.
“Life has distracted me from living, for the last couple of years. I think I struggle a bit with Yom Kippur and believing in God, this year especially. Losing my mom and her cousin, who was just 40 years old, to a terrible brain tumor, all within three months… My mom’s side of the family, we’re just really hurting.” Sinert added, “My grandmother passing the day I got back from “The Amazing Race” — that was a loss. It was actually peaceful, a death that seemed justified for old age and it relieved her of pain and struggling, so there’s a little bit of religion and faith in God that comes back in moments like that. But it’s just really hard to understand why life would be taken so unfairly.”
Bushnell too has felt a disconnect with her faith.
“My family was never really religious, per se. We considered ourselves cultural Jews; I think I lost touch with what it all means. I knew that we usually always celebrated the High Holidays and Passover and it was really a time for gathering and traditions and being with family. My daughter actually, just a few days ago, expressed to me that she was going to fast this year. Knowing that she has interest definitely inspires me to want to get back to incorporating Judaism into our lives. I need to educate myself again and really understand what it means. So while similar to Molly, it has faded out of my life, certainly it’s not lost and gone forever.”
Jewish culture also thrums in the backgrounds of both of their lives — sometimes in incredibly similar ways!
“While we’re on the phone during one of the first times, I hear Emily call her dog ‘Little Bubbela’ or ‘Bubbe,’ and it’s the same nickname that I use for my dog!” Sinert enthused.
“Also, my grandmother on my father’s side lives in Delray Beach, Florida, where there’s a pretty prominent Jewish community there. Emily’s grandmother also lived in Delray Beach. So growing up, we had been visiting perhaps at the same time in the same city to see our grandmothers! I don’t think we crossed paths, but that city could potentially have brought us together!”
When their families did finally meet, everyone got along really well immediately.
“We were raised in such similar households; it’s no wonder our families blended together so perfectly. My mom and Molly’s dad are like brother and sister. It’s just so bizarre and even her mom, too, she fit right in with my mom. She absolutely adored her and we just felt comfortable and right at home, like we’ve been family for a lifetime. It is very, very, very special. We are very lucky.”