(This letter originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly on Nov. 17, 2020)
Dear Dawn: Can I first say how impactful and helpful I have found your writing? I am a non-Jew in a relationship with a Jewish man. I love him, and his Orthodox identity is a big part of who he is. I have been researching as much as I can, but I notice that it is quite difficult to find information on Judaism for non-Jews. I haven’t found accessible information on conversion.
Although we are not ready to discuss marriage and children, I think it is important that we do so, as faith is such an important part of a relationship and building a life together, and as an interfaith couple, I don’t think it is possible for us to have this conversation too soon! I am aware that if we were to marry, our marriage would not be recognized by Orthodox Judaism.
But the issue that has really been bothering me is the thought of future children. I know that my partner wants to share his Jewish identity with his kids, and I am fully onboard. I am completely committed to the idea of raising children in a kosher household and abiding by the halachah. I understand this would be enough for Reform Judaism to consider our children to be Jewish, but not Orthodoxy. I know that if I wanted our children to be accepted as Orthodox Jews, then the obvious solution is to convert. But I don’t see marriage and children as a valid reason and, as an atheist, I see it as personally inappropriate to do so.
I’m wondering what you think and whether you think that were my partner and I to raise children in an observant household, engage with the community and send them to Jewish schools, would it be possible for them to convert to Orthodox Judaism as children? — Planning Ahead
Dear Planning: Thank you for your kind words. You have raised a number of issues. First, a good place to start learning about Judaism would be a basic Judaism class. You would learn in a structured way and have a teacher as a resource. Your partner’s rabbi should be able to assist you in this. I think it is much too early to consider converting.
As for discussing marriage, honestly, your partner can’t be too attached to Orthodox practice or he wouldn’t be dating a non-Jew. I don’t mean this as an insult but as an observation. He owes you an explanation as to why he is dating you. Is he serious? Has he thought about the complications? Has he introduced you to his family or taken you to services at his synagogue? Does he see this relationship as serious? If you are sleeping together, that should be a red flag. He’s lying to someone, perhaps himself.
Yes, the big can of worms is children. This is always the toughest part. It is true that Reform Judaism would accept children raised as Jews as sufficient to view your children as Jewish. But that leaves the rest of the world’s Jewish population not thinking your kids are Jewish. Is your partner ready to face that?
Indeed, you could change everything by having an Orthodox conversion. But that would be artificial on your part. Being an atheist would prevent you from having an Orthodox conversion anyway. Does your partner believe in God? How does he view your beliefs? Are you planning to pretend to believe in order to have a traditional home? I’m not a fan of pretense.
You ask if your children could convert to Orthodox Jewry. There are occasions when a child can have an Orthodox conversion when the mother is not Jewish: if the child is raised in an observant home, going to an Orthodox day school, etc. But your situation is significantly more complex than others I’ve worked with.
Is your partner open to talking to me? Let me be totally frank with you. In the past, when a woman in your position is the one who contacts me, and her Jewish boyfriend doesn’t want to talk/meet with me, it is because he is ambivalent. Those relationships don’t last when the man is pressed to be honest. I don’t want you to be madly in love and only then find out that he can’t bring himself to commit to you. I do not support lying or deception in a relationship. Granted, he may at this point be lying to himself most of all, but you are the person who will be most harmed.
Please ask him about this and tell me what he says.
(Postscript This young woman wrote back to me stating that this is just what concerned her and she would approach her boyfriend prepared to have an open conversation.)