(This column first appeared in the J-weekly on Feb. 10, 2021)
Dear Dawn: I was raised Reform, but am now a nonpracticing Jew married to a non-Jewish woman. We were married by my Reform rabbi and are expecting a baby. My wife has no religion and has agreed to raise the child Jewish and even to convert our infant. I couldn’t promise to raise my child Orthodox, but I am a proud cultural Jew and feel connected to my people. I know that it will be hard to have a confident Jewish identity if people around my child are telling him/her that (because of matrilineal descent) he/she is not really Jewish. I want my child to feel real and to be accepted as Jewish by all Jews, which is why I am considering giving the baby an Orthodox conversion. I respect the Orthodox as the true keepers of the faith, even though I personally don’t want to live an observant life. I know converting for Jewish identity is not acceptable for an adult, but what about for a child? Would the Orthodox be willing to convert my baby? — Expecting Dad
Dear Dad: The Orthodox will perform an infant conversion if the family promises to live an observant life. And therein lies your problem.
However, while you might assume there is a strict outline for what it means to live an observant Orthodox life, let me elaborate, as “observant” varies from rabbi to rabbi. For example, one local Orthodox rabbi says: If the family keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher and sends the child to a Jewish day school, that’s observant. But the Orthodox rabbi in the next town gave me a somewhat different list of requirements.
Thus, your child’s status is shaped by and dependent on you and your lifestyle. You can’t choose for your child what you don’t choose for yourself.
Furthermore, this is just the first step.
An infant cannot be converted completely to Judaism. An infant conversion is a ritual done “in preparation” for the child choosing to affirm their Jewish status at the age of 13 — of their own free will. Judaism does not believe that identity can be chosen by a third party. So your child would need to be raised observing Judaism so that he/she could knowingly affirm the commitment to living an adult life as a Jew.
Now, let’s consider all your options.
You are correct that Orthodoxy is the one movement whose conversions are almost universally accepted. (There are Orthodox rabbis whose conversions are frowned upon; there’s no such thing as perfect.) The child of an Orthodox convert or a young person who converted with an Orthodox beit din is Jewish.
But you describe yourself as nonpracticing, so what is it you want for your child? To live in a home that does nothing Jewish, but be able go out into the world and say “I am a Jew”? Why would they care? Without a foundation of experiences and beliefs, why would the child think being a Jew is significant? Your baby will be born into a world of fluid identities. He/she can be “of Jewish heritage” and enjoy what that brings without being a Jew.
Or you could choose a Conservative conversion and raise your child in a Conservative shul, where the education and experience received will back up the identity claim. Non-Jews and unaffiliated Jews (who make up the majority of the Jewish population) will see your child “doing” Jewish — observing Shabbat, High Holidays and festivals, using mindful eating, relying on Jewish wisdom.
They will see that child as a Jew.
If the child lacks knowledge and practice but can say, “I was taken to the mikvah,” what does he/she really have?
You know what is available through the Reform movement from your own rabbi.
I work extensively with adults from interfaith families, and, as you say, it is harder for patrilineal Jews to get comfortable in their Jewish skin. Many parents respond with anger and speak ill of traditional Jews.
But what are they teaching their children? The parents are confirming that they feel helpless when confronted with halachically observant Jews. I trust that your respect for more traditional Jews means you will speak well of all Jews to your child. What you must do is determine what you are willing to commit to yourself, and your wife. Then find the appropriate language to explain your approach to your child.
The Orthodox do not determine whether your child is a confident Jew — you do. I’m happy to discuss this further with you.