Recently I was contacted by a colleague doing a research project on conversion. He asked several people who work in the field, or who report on it, about ideas we might have for encouraging conversion to Judaism, so that he could develop the most promising ones into a book.
My reaction was immediate and visceral: Sure, lots can be done to be more welcoming to non-Jews who want to join the tribe. But don’t forget those who already have one foot in the door.
I’m talking about the ACIs, the adult children of intermarried parents. There are more than 350,000 such folks, according to statistics I’ve been quoting for nearly a decade (which means there have to be many more by now). And those are just the ones who identify as Jewish.
Some have Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers. According to Jewish law, they’re Jewish. Never mind that half of their relatives are not Jewish, and they might very well celebrate Christmas at Grandma’s and attend their cousins’ church weddings. They’ve got the bloodline.
Others — the majority — have non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers. According to Jewish law, they are not Jewish. If, however, they were brought up in a Reform synagogue after 1983, then they’re considered Jewish by the Reform movement (that was the year it declared that children of one Jewish parent are Jewish if they are raised exclusively in the faith).
But if these so-called “patrilineal Jews” came of age before 1983, or are looking to join a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, or want to marry a Jew or move to Israel … it gets much more complicated.
I know. My father is Jewish and my mother is not. When they married in 1956, there was no place in the Jewish community for them or for me and my sisters. I was brought up with no religious education.
Yet somehow, from the earliest time I can recall, I always felt Jewish. I loved both sets of grandparents, and enjoyed Christmas in Canada with my mother’s family, but I was drawn in an inexplicable way to the Passover seder at my paternal grandparents’ home in New Jersey. Every year, as my uncle or grandfather led the reading of the haggadah, I felt — no, I knew — that this was my story. My people.
In sixth grade, my friends (most of whom were Jewish) started to become b’nai mitzvah. The synagogue service was a wonder to me, with the beautiful, exotic music, the unfamiliar alphabet. I remember sitting in on Hebrew school classes, yearning to be a part of them, unaware that no one had the heart to break it to me — as the child of a non-Jewish mother, I wasn’t allowed to enroll.
In retrospect, I’m glad no one told me. How crushing for a child to be told that the home she’s moving toward has closed its door to her.
At 19, I converted. I’d done two six-month kibbutz programs in Israel, and wanted to formalize what I already felt. So I called my grandparents’ rabbi, who happened to be Orthodox and on “the list” of rabbis whose conversions are accepted in Israel. The conversion was halachic, but by accident. Good for me.
But what about those in similar situations who aren’t as determined? Or who don’t have the support system I had?
So my suggestion to my colleague is this: Let the American Jewish community reach out more actively to the children of intermarried parents who want to be part of the Jewish community, even though they might not have attended Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp, or don’t have the “right” background.
Make it easier for them to come home.
The Conservative movement has been talking for years about “affirmation” ceremonies instead of conversions for the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers, to recognize their special status. And I know Orthodox rabbis who are particularly welcoming to conversion candidates from mixed homes, instead of putting the traditional three stumbling blocks in their way. These are good beginnings.
Let the entire community recognize that we ACIs, like converts, have an entire non-Jewish family history that is part of who we are.
That doesn’t make us any less Jewish. It just makes us more interesting.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at email@example.com.