(This originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column of the J-weekly on 9/26/19)
Dear Dawn: I married my Jewish husband a decade ago. We agreed to raise our children as Jews and joined a Reform synagogue when our daughter was born. Through my daughter I have become more and more involved in Judaism and our synagogue. I have decided to convert. My daughter is 5, and when I spoke to my rabbi I was told that Zoey doesn’t have to convert. But I feel like I want her to be like me. My status will change, and since I wasn’t Jewish when she was born, I want her status to be the same as mine. I can’t seem to find anyone who will listen to me. They just keep telling me not to worry. I’m not worried; I have feelings about this and I want to be understood. I want to take Zoey to the mikvah with me. I don’t know how to explain this to her, or for that matter to my rabbi and friends. What can I say to get through to them? — Excited and Frustrated
Dear Excited: Congratulations on being so thoughtful and tuned in to the impact of the various views of identity in Judaism. Your sensitivity will pay off for your daughter.
It is surprisingly hard for Reform Judaism to stop stating its patrilineal acceptance policy and just listen to how its congregants feel. You are not the first person to have a rabbi rush to assure them that their feelings are unfounded. But, may I state emphatically, they are still your feelings and you deserve to be heard.
Your daughter’s status as a patrilineal Jew is not the same status as a Reform convert to Judaism. Patrilineal acceptance is a new idea, a mere 40 years old, the blink of an eye in Jewish time. However, conversion can be found in Tanakh.
The “question” of authenticity involved in conversion is based on the rabbi who performs it. The convert’s status is the same as their sponsoring rabbi. That’s why I tell converts to refer folks who have issues with their conversion to their rabbi. He or she is the person they are really doubting.
So you are correct. You will be seen as Jewish by people who will not accept your daughter as Jewish. Your desire to “be the same” is a wise one. Children rely emotionally on their parents, and receiving your status will assure her of being a Jew, simply because you will be “the same.” You will need to explain the process to her in bits and pieces as she ages, beginning with what is age-appropriate for a 5-year-old and then adding more as she grows up and develops a more sophisticated understanding of Jewish law and tradition.
At this point, you have the wonderful plus that a 5-year-old wants very much to be just like mom. You’ll begin by telling her that after all these years of going to synagogue with her that you want very much to be like her and her dad and be Jewish.
She knows you were not born Jewish, so now just express your happiness, excitement and anticipation of being Jewish. Tell her that you want her to go with you to the mikvah so that you will be just the same.
Explain what will happen there. Take her beforehand to see the site if you can. If she is anxious about any aspect of it, work to resolve her concerns. If she is afraid to put her head underwater, describe how it is similar to swimming lessons. If she doesn’t want to be naked in front of strangers, find out who will be accompanying you and see if she is comfortable with that woman. Of course, she will not be seen by any boys. Additionally, there are loose white smocks that women can use that cover them completely, and are kosher for immersing.
Think of ways to make this day special. Consider wearing matching clothes or jewelry. You could get matching necklaces and put them on after you come out of the water. I suggest you plan a celebration — go out to dinner or have some friends over. Truly mark this occasion.
As for your rabbi, sit him or her down and calmly but firmly request that they listen to your feelings without interrupting. Explain your feelings about identity change via conversion and your desire for your daughter to, symbolically, have all the stamps on her passport that her mother will have.
You do not want to be separated from her emotionally or in terms of your Jewish status.
This is your right. If your rabbi doesn’t understand, contact me and will figure out a rabbi who will.
Mazel tov on your coming simcha!