Dear Dawn: My father is my Jewish parent and my parents did not raise me and my siblings with either of their religions. Instead they exposed us to the traditions of both. As an adult, I learned that in a practicing religious community, I had no religious identity. It took me a while to figure this out; none of the adults in my life ever enlightened me. Then, when I approached people in synagogue or church, I realized that I didn’t belong; I am not “one of them.” It was extremely painful and hurts to this day. I will do anything to belong and to avoid this fate for my children. How do I become Jewish, accepted by Jews and, someday, a good Jewish mother? —Want To Avoid More Pain
Dear Want To: First let me say how sorry I am that you have suffered all these years. I can’t speak for the Christian community, but I can say that you are a victim of the Jewish community’s internal struggle with identity. Let’s put the “insiders” to one side; they have their identity and now it is time for you to develop yours.
Jews live by different levels of halachah (Jewish law), and based on personal interpretations, people do or do not believe you to be Jewish. Let’s be frank: A majority of Jews do not see you as Jewish because you are not descended from a Jewish mother, nor were you raised with any of the Jewish lifecycle markers.
Fine, what next? First you must learn enough about Judaism to be able to make informed choices for yourself. I suggest a basic Judaism class. You can find them at synagogues, online and from the Bay Area adult learning center Lehrhaus Judaica.
I want you to begin building your foundational knowledge. You must become familiar with all Jewish viewpoints, because we don’t know yet which one will fit you.
Many people will assume that, because you are the child of a Jewish man, you should be attracted to a Reform synagogue. Bad assumption! Your birth status does not create your interests and values. I want you to explore all the Jewish movements. You need to know what resonates with your current viewpoint and see how learning about Judaism may alter that. You are like a middle-school child trying to decide on a college major or a career. At age 13, you may say you want to be a soccer player, but by age 20 you may have matured in a whole different direction.
You need that educational maturation process.
Questions to ask yourself. Do I understand the various Jewish streams and why they believe what they do? Have I studied each of them enough to see beauty and meaning even in views that I don’t share? If you are dismissing some teachings with a feeling of hate or rage, you are short-changing yourself and descending into religious prejudice.
Once you can identify what is beautiful in each viewpoint, particularly their views on Jewish identity, ask yourself which of these ideas fits you.
What will your options be? You may learn about Judaism and decide, “It’s nice, but it’s not for me.” No more worries on that front.
You may decide you want to live as a Jew and you want to be accepted just because your dad is Jewish. Despite the Reform movement’s position that the child of one Jewish parent must be raised with Judaism to be Jewish, many Reform rabbis and congregations will, in fact, accept you as a member and treat you as a Jew.
You may determine that you believe you need “to draw a line in the sand” — perform an act that says, “That was how I was, but now I’m a Jew.” A Reform or a Conservative rabbi will teach you so that you are comfortable in your Jewish knowledge, and will take you to the mikvah (ritual bath) for either a conversion or an affirmation ceremony (different rabbis call it by different terms). You will then have an official Jewish document and status that cannot be denied in the liberal movements of Judaism.
There is also the chance that you will become enamored of traditional observance and decide to have an Orthodox conversion. This is also open to you.
Whatever you decide for yourself you can “gift” to your children. Raise them in the traditions and beliefs of your chosen path. This way they will have a hold on their identity through knowledge and practice. If they decide to give up the religion you give them when they are adults, do your best to support them in their own choices.