Dear Dawn: My husband is Jewish and I am Catholic. We have agreed to raise our 3-year-old son as a Jew. I have seen the preschool at a local Conservative synagogue and I would really like to enroll my son. From what my husband and I understand, Joel would have to be converted. I’ve tried to pursue this, but Jews I speak to say things like, “Oh, you don’t want to do that. That’s not necessary. He’s fine the way he is.” Do they not want my son to be Jewish? Am I not allowed to know how conversion works? Is this a test? My husband feels awkward and ignorant and wants me to do this. This is really what I want; please help me. — Am I Allowed?
Dear Allowed: You most certainly are allowed to know! Jews generally are pretty nervous about this topic for a number of reasons. One, because Jews have experienced forced conversion for centuries, they don’t want to push anyone else to convert. Two, many are at odds with the idea of “needing” to convert the child of a Jewish man and don’t want that to be a requirement. Three, many Jews believe that Judaism is something one can only be born into.
You’ll note that all of these reasons are about the person who is asked about conversion. None have anything to do with you or your question. I’m sorry that you’ve run up against so many nervous Jews, but I’m not surprised. What I’d like to say to all these folks is, “It’s not about you!”
This is a decision that only you and your husband can make. All you are asking for is the facts as they apply to your family.
A child’s conversion is different from an adult conversion. Once you and your spouse decide to go forward with it, a Conservative rabbi will put conditions on you as parents. Some rabbis will require that you demonstrate your commitment to raising your child as a Jew by, for instance, joining a synagogue, enrolling your son in Hebrew school, observing the Jewish holidays, or keeping some form of kashrut in your home. I suggest you set up a meeting at the synagogue where your desired preschool is located to see what the rabbi’s particular conditions might be.
Conversion is also up to another person: your child. In Jewish tradition, a child whose parents convert him is free to decide that he doesn’t want to be Jewish. At the age of Jewish adulthood, shortly before bar mitzvah at age 12 or 13, a child is formally asked, “Do you want to be a Jew or not?” The child can say yes or no. What I’ve seen, however, is that children raised as Jews, about to celebrate a key lifecycle event, say yes. But be prepared for that process. Personally, I love the fact that Judaism respects the child’s thinking.
Physical aspects of the process will include getting your son circumcised. If he already is, there will be a ritual drawing of a drop of blood from his penis. You will take Joel to the mikvah for an immersion (unless your rabbi chooses to wait until the age of bar mitzvah). You or your husband will be wearing a bathing suit and Joel will be naked. One of you will enter the mikvah with him and dunk him as instructed by the rabbi.
Let me add that since your husband is the Jewish parent, it would be most appropriate for him to take the lead and contact the rabbi. I understand his feelings of discomfort, but there is no reason he would already know how to convert a child. Additionally, every rabbi will have his or her own requirements as they relate to Jewish law and, in this case, Conservative interpretation of law. I think it is essential that you and your husband go together to meet with the rabbi. It is 100 percent fine to tell the rabbi that this topic is a mystery to you. In fact, I believe the rabbi will be delighted to speak with you and share his or her knowledge.