March 2014 column of Mixed and Matched in the J-Weekly
I am Jewish and my husband is not. We adopted a girl, 8 months old, whose birth mother is not Jewish. We belong to a Reform synagogue and our rabbi said if we raise our daughter with Jewish lifecycle events and synagogue life, she is considered Jewish by the Reform movement. My problem is I don’t feel like that’s enough to make her Jewish. My daughter is Korean and I think people will question her Jewish identity. I would like to have her converted but I can’t do that without my rabbi, right? And what do I tell my husband? — Happy to Be a Mother
Dear Happy Mom:
You are the born Jew in your nuclear family. As such your perspectives hold a great deal more weight than any other person in the lives of your husband and daughter. If you don’t feel your daughter is Jewish, chances are she will pick up on your ambivalence and so might your husband. You need to do what works for you, even if it isn’t what your rabbi and your movement profess.
What you want to do is not against Jewish law or tradition. You want the validation that comes with the conversion process. For the sake of both you and your family, you need to find peace of mind and confidence in your daughter’s Jewish identity.
Chances are that your rabbi was hastening to assure you, but not forbidding you to convert her. Do you feel close to your rabbi? Can you call him or her and go meet to discuss your feelings? A good rabbi will listen to you and respond to your needs. I have specifically asked Reform rabbis whether they would support taking an adopted child to the mikvah and have they have said yes. If your rabbi is more worried about his or her views on the Reform position than on your feelings, you may have the wrong rabbi.
Since you are considering conversion, let me flesh out the options.
Conversion for an infant or child begins with the trip to the mikvah, the ritual bath. There are special tricks that help a baby go under water holding her breath. The mikvah folks will help with this. In the Reform movement, going to the mikvah could be all you need to do, if it works for you. In Conservative or Orthodox Jewish practice, children are given the option of choosing to continue to be Jewish or to reject it when they come of age — bat mitzvah age. At this point, the child can make a declaration of faith before a beit din (rabbinic court) and go forward as an adult Jew. Or the child could reject the choice that was made for him or her.
In modern America, this can feel like an odd time to make this offer because many preteens have just starting to distance themselves from their parents. On the other hand, it is an age when the child is particularly interested in being “different, just like my friends,” so if she is going to Hebrew school and all her friends are having a bat mitzvah, she will probably also want to have one.
Explain to your husband what we’ve covered here. Describe to him how Judaism has historically brought people into the Jewish community and how that tradition speaks to you.
Next you need to talk to your rabbi. You and your husband should determine whether he should accompany you. I trust your rabbi will support your desire. If he or she does not, then contact me again. While you need a rabbi’s help to convert your child, it doesn’t have to be your congregational rabbi.
You also mentioned that your daughter’s Korean background has heightened your concern about her Jewish identity. Honestly, you are right. There are people, both Jews and non-Jews, who think they know what Jews look like and who will question her. By going to the mikvah, you can give her something very concrete to hold onto. Something for you to remember is that there are more and more multiracial Jews, especially here in the Bay Area — so your family is part of an ever-growing segment of our community. Experts estimate that about 20 percent of Bay Area Jewish families are multiracial. In coming years, I encourage you to help her participate in multiracial Jewish events, such as Be’chol Lashon’s summer camp when she gets older, so she has immersion experiences.