Dear Dawn: My dad is my Jewish parent and I was raised Reform. Being a “patrilineal Jew” was never discussed in my shul. My dad did tell me more traditional Jews wouldn’t accept me as Jewish, but honestly he seems more angry than helpful. In college I learned more about my status as I was getting very involved in Jewish prayer and practice. I learned to daven in a traditional minyan, learned more Hebrew and embraced a more Conservative Jewish view. Fast-forward, and I started attending a Conservative synagogue after college. I talked to the rabbi about becoming involved in services but was told I can’t read Torah for the service unless I convert. I held back tears but was crushed. Somehow I thought my greater knowledge and practice would “get me in.” I can’t talk to my parents, as they would just tell me to go to a Reform shul, but I have come to see Reform Judaism as watered down and that’s not what I want. If I convert, my dad will be furious with me. I feel hurt that I don’t count in a minyan, but this is where I want to be. What should I do? P.S. My Conservative rabbi is really nice and was clearly sad to have to tell me this bad news. — Caught in the Middle
Dear Caught: I am very sorry you have to go through this. Frankly, your letter is one of the primary reasons I keep doing this job. Liberal Judaism is failing our youth by not having a more transparent dialogue with parents and their kids about the impact of having a non-Jewish mother.
Please know that you are far from alone. Your Conservative synagogue and rabbi are following their own insular policies and failing to give you the support and information you need to help understand your status and make your own choices.
Obviously you can convert. In fact, many Conservative rabbis do an “affirmation” conversion, one that acknowledges an individual is Jewish in all but this one way and just needs the halachic “paperwork.” It can be fast and simple since you are already living as a practicing Conservative Jew.
But you’re right. What you are looking for is not going to materialize in a Reform environment. Nor will you change your Conservative shul’s policy any time soon.
Some Conservative shuls are beginning to accept patrilineal descent, but as of today, you have found your spiritual home, and to be a part of it requires a concession.
You are living in an era when, God forbid, anyone should make a concession to someone else. Yes, you are sad your synagogue doesn’t think the way you do, but that’s life. You will find that many people and organizations do not share your opinions.
The real gift is learning to live with those differences without anger or grief.
Instead of focusing on the negative, think about the love you feel for this community and the love its members have extended to you. This is a concession of love. I know of others in your situation who have chosen to leave their Conservative environment and, not feeling at home elsewhere, have lost Jewish community from their lives. Yet others have chosen to go to the mikvah and are happily ensconced in their synagogue community. This is in your hands.
You indicated you are leaning toward conversion, but you fear your father’s reaction. I wish parents would step back and view their children’s lives from the perspective of their child. I’m sorry he’ll be unhappy, but this is not his life.
He made his own choices and is angry the world didn’t follow him. It would be a growing experience for him if you were to explain your thinking to him. Point out you are making your own choices and this is what you chose. That you’re sorry he doesn’t like it, but it’s not up to him. He won’t be choosing your life partner, your job or where you live. But for family harmony, you hope he will get on board.
If you don’t feel you can face your father’s wrath, you don’t have to tell him. This is your life and your way of expressing your Jewish identity. You don’t owe him the details. Just go to the mikvah, participate in your shul, and in the future when you are feeling up to it, you can choose whether to tell your dad or not. But do try to tell him how much he silences you. He may not know.
You know what you want and you have a path to get it.