Conversion for those raised Jewish? Rabbis address unique obstacles for patrilineal converts
When David Levine stepped into the mikvah last year, he believed he was affirming what he already was, not converting to something new.
“I was raised Jewish, was always told I was Jewish,” said the 35-year-old, who did not want his real name printed. “I went to Jewish camps, even had a bar mitzvah.”
But when Levine joined a Conservative congregation after his marriage, the rabbi told him that because his mother was not Jewish, he needed a legal conversion. That was hard to hear, he said, even though the rabbi was “very sensitive” and moved him quickly through the study process.
Levine views his mikvah experience — the final step in conversion — as very different than that of a person with no Jewish parents or grandparents.
“I felt Jewish all along,” he said. “I didn’t see it as a break with the past. It was just sort of a continuum.”
Rabbis, especially Conservative rabbis, are seeing more and more of these cases: young adults with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, people who have spent their lives in the Jewish community, coming forward to seek conversion. Rabbis and candidates alike say it requires different sensibilities and a different approach.
“The conversion process is the same, but the emotional journey is very different,” said Rabbi Avis Miller of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, a longtime advocate of greater outreach to the adult children of intermarried parents. “They already feel part of the Jewish family.”
According to national figures, approximately 1.5 million Americans have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. More than 360,000 of them are between the ages of 18 and 29, the product of the first big surge of intermarriage in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Many of those young adults with non-Jewish mothers grew up in the Reform movement, which since 1983 has accepted patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. In earlier generations they may have been excluded from the Jewish community; now, like Levine, they are raised Jewish.
As adults, some decide to undergo formal conversion. Some seek out Orthodox rabbis. Some ask Reform rabbis, although conversion is not needed for Reform recognition.
But the largest numbers are found in the Conservative movement, which requires conversion of people with non-Jewish mothers.
Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet congregation in Chicago sees many more of these cases than he did 20 years ago. He attributes that to “an entire generation growing up under Reform auspices.”
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, said they are most often people who “grew up very involved with Judaism and the Jewish people, who think of themselves as Jewish.”
As a result, he said, “we try very hard, with great sensitivity and compassion, to work with them.”
Each conversion candidate meets with a sponsoring rabbi, who ascertains the candidate’s Jewish knowledge, observance level and commitment to the Jewish people, Meyers explained. Those with strong enough Jewish backgrounds may not have to study much, if at all. For them, the conversion “is more of a technicality,” one Conservative rabbi explained.
Because their conversion experience is different, so is the terminology used to describe what they are going through.
Miller is one of a growing number of rabbis who use the word “affirmation.”
Rabbi Stuart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said he’s done several affirmations and is currently overseeing three this year.
“If someone was raised as a Jew, in terms of their spirit and soul, I accept them as Jewish. Affirmation is just formalizing of that,” he said.
Siegel prefers to call it a “completion.” “I tell them, as far as I’m concerned you’re Jewish. But every people has its definition of citizenship,” he said. “It’s not a judgment; it’s a formality. We want to celebrate your Jewishness and complete it from a legal perspective,” he said.
Sensitivity is needed, these rabbis say, because many such adult children of intermarried parents resent having their Jewishness questioned.
“They say, ‘But we’re Jews! We’re not converting!'” said Rabbi Stu Kelman of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “I understand what they’re saying, but since matrilineality is a Conservative movement standard, we have to take a strong but compassionate stance.
“The initial reaction is one of resentment. Often I end up working with people to overcome the resentment before we even begin talking about conversion,” he said.
Many confront the problem while preparing for a key lifecycle event such as marriage or a bar mitzvah. That can lead to great emotional upset.
“Here’s a person who sees himself as Jewish, who grew up with all things Jewish, and now at what should be the happiest day of their lives, they find themselves under question,” Siegel said.
Rebecca Goldstein (not her real name) had plenty of anger. Goldstein, 31, is still seething from the rejection she felt as the daughter of a non-Jewish mother whenever she stepped outside her Reform community.
She first ran into it was when she was 19, when her Jewish boyfriend wouldn’t introduce her to his grandmother. She experienced it again the year she spent in Israel on a student program — Israelis would ask whether she was planning to convert.
“It was a weight I had to carry during the entire program,” Goldstein said. “I felt the burden of having to prove myself more than people ‘born Jewish,'” she said.
Goldstein converted while she was pregnant — not because she wanted to, but to spare her child what she went through.
“I didn’t want my daughter to have to face that duality,” she said. “I converted, but resented that I had to do it.”
“This is a problem the Jewish community has created for itself, and those of us who can help have the responsibility to do so,” said Rabbi Carol Levitan, program director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, referring to the divide between those Jewish streams that recognize patrilineal Jews and those that do not. “When it’s a person who clearly identifies as Jewish and is knowledgeable, I’m eager to make it happen without making them jump through hoops.”