(This article originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly Aug. 28, 2020)
Dear Dawn: My father is Jewish and my mother is not. I had no religious upbringing at all. Neither of my parents is interested in religion. However, as I get older, I am now in my 30s, I am more and more longing for a spiritual life. I am drawn to Judaism because of what little I know of it. I like the concept of questioning and challenging. I like the idea of a personal relationship with God that is not facilitated by Jesus or clergy. My problem is that a number of my Jewish friends tell me to “just come” to synagogue with them. They say I don’t have to convert; I can just join in. But I know for a fact that not everyone accepts patrilineal Jews like me. I don’t want to feel like an imposter or like I have to hide my identity. I am feeling really pressured by my friends. I know they mean well, but they won’t tolerate me asking about conversion. It seems to trigger them. They tell me I can just stick to a Reform environment and avoid more traditional Jews who would question me. How can I get help approaching Judaism on my own terms? I need more information. — Struggling To Find My Place
Dear Struggling: Your friends do indeed “mean well,” but unfortunately they are putting their own viewpoints ahead of yours. They are talking instead of listening.
I suspect that in addition to the attraction you feel for the methodology of Judaism, you are also drawn to aspects that are familial. Half your family is Jewish and that’s not a nothing. Being heard out on all fronts is essential for you to clarify what you want and then be able to determine how to get it.
Your friends have a ticket for the Jewish train. They are saying, “Come along. We’ll find a way to get you aboard. But you know that you don’t have a ticket, and if anyone gets left behind, it won’t be your friends.
Sadly, this self-absorbed viewpoint is not uncommon. So many people want the world to bend to their will and act as if they can make that happen.
As you have deduced, in a more traditional Jewish environment you will not be perceived as a Jew. Your friends are suggesting that you self-isolate from the traditional parts of Jewish community. So while they can pass freely through any synagogue or gathering no matter how Orthodox, you cannot.
They are failing to see that they are suggesting that you live a constrained life. That’s just wrong.
The question you have to answer is, “What part of Judaism do I want?” What will my observance be? What do I believe about Jewish laws and texts? Do I want to be shomer Shabbat? Keep kosher? Pray in Hebrew? Jews who meet you should be helping you to unravel these questions rather than deciding for you based on their own choices.
As you have found, some Jews can’t tolerate the idea of conversion for patrilineal Jews. Often it is because they want to be “welcoming.” How ironic that their welcome is a refusal to listen to you or to honor your questions. What you are triggering in them is their own sense of who they are and how being Jewish should be expressed in their minds. Move on.
Don’t rely on your friends for help; they can’t give it.
You deserve to learn all you can about this critical life question you are asking yourself: “Do I want to convert to Judaism?” Let’s start you off with a basic Judaism class. There are several online classes you can take. Classes are typically taught by a rabbi, so you will also gain access to a rabbi for additional questions.
I’d like to have you speak to several rabbis and attend services (virtually) at several synagogues as you develop your Jewish proficiency. I can also put you in touch with other patrilineal Jews who have made this journey. Their experiences will give you a richer understanding of your choices.
Finally, this is a big decision. Embrace the process. Delight in the time you take for learning, getting to know new people and new ideas. Even if you decide to not participate in Jewish life, you will come away with valuable insights. One of the nice things about conversion is that study typically takes a year. You don’t have to feel rushed. This is just the beginning.