(This originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column on Oct. 28, 2019)
Dear Dawn: My mom was Jewish and converted to Christianity; my dad was born Christian. They raised me and my siblings Christian. It never fit for me and now I want to be Jewish. I approached my local Reform congregation and the rabbi told me that I should just start coming to services. I feel awkward and ignorant. Also, when I asked about converting, he said that isn’t necessary. But I feel like I need something to define a change in me. What should I do? Should I just be Jewish at home? I don’t know how to do that either. —Alone and Sad
Dear Alone: I’m sorry your conversation with the rabbi was so unsatisfying. Please let me give you some background to help explain this encounter. Jewish law says that the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew, period. Nothing can undo this.
In the 1980s, very recently in Jewish terms, the Reform movement decided that the child of a Jewish man or woman is Jewish if they are raised exclusively Jewish with Jewish holidays and lifecycle events.
Technically, your Reform rabbi should have accepted you for conversion because you were not raised as a Jew. His action demonstrates the unevenness of the Reform movement’s adherence to their own policies. This unfortunately creates confusion. This Reform rabbi is in fact, falling back on traditional halacha (Jewish law) and saying that you are already a Jew because your mother is. Any Conservative or Orthodox rabbi would say just that — that you are already a Jew.
May I ask, why did you choose a Reform shul? I am guessing that it felt like the most accessible, the least “strict.”
Please do some exploring. Go to other Reform synagogues and also Conservative, Orthodox and any others in your city. Make an appointment to meet with their rabbis. Ask the rabbi if he or she offers any classes or one-on-one teaching.
Or perhaps the shul has members who are very knowledgeable and would be interested in serving as a mentor to you. You need a friend at a synagogue. Someone to sit with you at services and tell you what is going on. Someone to introduce you around and make you feel at home. I want you to build your understanding of how Judaism functions and to make friends.
Please keep in mind that basically all Jews consider you to be Jewish already. No one is trying to deny you the experience of learning how to be Jewish. You should be welcomed to do any of the things that people seeking conversion are doing in terms of study, classes and guidance.
I think what you might need and enjoy is an affirmation ceremony when you feel that you are competent to practice as a Jew. Many Conservative rabbis have been very creative and developed rituals for young adults who, like you, are embracing their Jewish heritage.
These ceremonies are typically used for children of Jewish men who do not have your instant Jewish standing according to Jewish law. They can include going to the mikvah (Jewish ritual bath). There is no rule forbidding you to have that same opportunity.
I suggest you consider it and, at some point, discuss this with a rabbi with whom you feel comfortable. It has been regularly shared with me that the mikvah experience is thrilling and transformative. It could be your “line in the sand” defining what you were, and how you have reshaped your life to claim your Jewish heritage.
It is important that the synagogue and community that you choose embraces you and helps to give you the Jewish education you never got.
One convert I know was matched with an older woman in her congregation. This woman functioned as the Jewish mother she never had, teaching her about Jewish practice, inviting her for Shabbat and holidays, sitting with her at services. They became very close and dear to each other.
I would love to see you have a relationship like this. It could even be several mentors.
When you have chosen your synagogue, ask if there are other young people who are returning to Judaism. You may end up forming a circle of friends with similar life experiences.