Thursday, August 28, 2014 | return to: columns, MandM


mix & match |  If I convert, will I be accepted as Jewish?

by Dawn Kepler

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My fiancé is Jewish and I was raised basically Christian but not going to church. I really like his family traditions and am attracted to Judaism. I am thinking of converting, but a Jewish co-worker told me that I can never really be Jewish. If I go forward with my plan to convert, will I be accepted as Jewish in America? What about in Israel? — Feeling Jewish Inside

Dear Feeling Jewish: People have been converting to Judaism since time immemorial; some are quite famous, like Ruth, who has her own book in the Jewish Bible and from whose lineage it is said the Messiah will come.

My guess is that your co-worker is not part of a synagogue or a Jewish study program. In a formal Jewish setting, he would have learned that being Jewish is not only a matter of lineage. Conversion is the “other” way people become Jewish.

Dawn_KeplerNot a lot of people convert to Judaism, so most Jews don’t know much about converts. There are two general stereotypes about converts. One, they are super Jews — more knowledgeable and more observant than born Jews. Two, they are fair-weather Jews; at any moment they will lapse back to their non-Jewish identity. Neither of these is fair or accurate, but stereotypes rarely are.

In modern days we have several different branches of Judaism. For Jews-by-choice, their identity as Jews is determined by that of the rabbi who converts them. So if you work with a Reform rabbi, you will have a Reform conversion and Jews who believe your rabbi is authentic will accept you as Jewish.

Reform Jews accept as validly Jewish those converts who work with ordained rabbis from major Jewish streams. Other movements have other criteria, and Orthodox rabbis accept only Orthodox conversions as truly authentic.

In general, for purposes of the law of return, or immigration, the government of Israel accepts those who have been converted outside Israel by rabbis who are on the official government list. Rabbis who wish to have their conversions accepted must get their names on the list. At this time, I understand, the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements all have their rabbis on the list. The Renewal movement has not done so yet.

However, the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate accepts few converts outside of their own movement. What they control in Israel is marriage and burial, so unless you’re planning to be married or buried in Israel, you needn’t be concerned.

Now, what about those who don’t accept you? Ask yourself, do you accept their views of Jewish law and practice? If yes, then convert with their movement. If not, then let it go.

Should you convert at all? If you feel Jewish inside, then yes, it is time to bring your Jewish soul home. You should be doing this for yourself, not for your marriage. I trust that your fiancé is supportive of you and will work with you as you study to become a Jew. Will people, Jews and non-Jews, question your authenticity over the years ahead? Perhaps, but this is about you, not them. You will develop your own Jewish circle and they will see you as a Jew.

One point: In order to convert, you must study with a rabbi for a period of time, typically a year. During that time the rabbi considers the door to be open. That means you are welcome to leave at any time. Should you study for a few months and then determine that you don’t want to become Jewish, there are no hard feelings. You can remain friends with the rabbi and go on as a non-Jewish member of the synagogue.

I suggest that you begin. If your fiancé or his parents are members of a Bay Area synagogue, call and make an appointment with their rabbi. Ask about that rabbi’s conversion process. Sign up for a basic Judaism class. Not only will you learn a lot, you’ll meet a number of other people who are considering or in the process of conversion. They will be helpful voices in your decision process. Be sure to take your fiancé along to the class; it will be something to share.

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Posted by Sara JBC
08/29/2014  at  01:38 AM
Thank you

Lovely response. I am in the process of conversion but without a relationship or any other impetus beyond my own heart. I’ve gotten so many curious responses- well, from pretty much everybody I know. Everything from “you’re weird.” and “no one wants to be Jewish.” to “You have to convert correctly: it is only valid if you convert in Israel.” My heart and soul is Jewish, I know this, and that is all that matters. But sometimes I feel like a unicorn. Thank you! ps-I may be that super Jew stereotype. wink

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Posted by rgoldstand
08/30/2014  at  10:27 AM
You're Not Crazy

Hi Sara & Feeling Jewish

I highly recommend you take advantage of the fact that so many amazing resources exist today for those who are undergoing conversion, or have completed conversion, to Judaism. For one thing it can be both practically helpful as well as validating to read about the experiences of others who’ve been where you are. A great place to start is (note: I am in no way affiliated with this blog).

Regarding questions of conversion and the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, you may wish to talk with someone at ITIM: - they are extremely helpful, well-informed and empathetic.

Best of luck - and if you are ever in Israel for a Shabbat, look me up on!

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Posted by Patricia Munro
09/02/2014  at  02:51 PM
Very thoughtful response to the

Very thoughtful response to the letter. I really appreciate the way you lay out facts from several perspectives. That’s particularly necessary with a topic as sensitive as this one.

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Posted by BenAri
09/02/2014  at  06:41 PM
Super Jew?

Wonderful response Dawn. Thank you.

I get the “super-Jew” accusation a lot. Well, I was President of my congregation, have taught Torah study, served on all sorts of committees, so guilty as charged I suppose. But, I was the first convert to be President of my congregation. Were all the others over the last 90+ years super-Jews? The committees I served on were made up born-Jews, were they super-Jews? When a convert does something it is sometimes ascribed to their conversion while if a born-Jew does it they are just being a “good Jew”.

So, there is a stigma, but so what? If you don’t want to be stereotyped and stigmatized, maybe think twice about being Jewish in the first place.

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Posted by Dawn Kepler
09/02/2014  at  09:45 PM
A Bay Area conversion resource

Check out (Yes, that’s not .com, it’s .net.) The site is aimed at BAY AREA folks who are converting or have converted. There are lots of stories from individuals who have made the journey.

There are more and more individuals converting without a connection to a Jewish partner. These folks need community and support even more than someone converting with a Jewish partner. We, their new community, must step up.

As far as Super Jews are concerned, bring ‘em on. Be super!

If your rabbi and your congregation aren’t supporting you, you’re in the wrong place. Find a shul that is thrilled to have you.

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Posted by kimATgetlucid
09/05/2014  at  05:38 AM
To "Feeling Jewish"

You will encounter people who think the only way you can be Jewish is via your DNA, including people in the more liberal streams of Judaism, including rabbis in those streams, including rabbis that DO those conversions. The question is whether you let that bother you, or you just live your life as a Jew. We converts always feel a bit “other.” If you encounter prejudice as a convert, find a community where there is less of it. There will always be some, it just may not be out in the open.

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