While IFF ascribes to the Reform notion that behavior, not being born of a Jewish mother, is the most important signifier of Jewish identity, we understand that large sections of the Jewish community don’t agree. Sue Fishkoff of JTA wrote two stories last week about patrilineal Jews–that is, Jewish-identifying people with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother–who seek to “convert” under Conservative auspices so that nobody questions their Jewishness.
Judging from the article, many Conservative rabbis are quite sympathetic to these people and refer to their ritual immersion in a mikvah not as a “conversion,” but as an “affirmation” or “completion.”
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, says they are most often people who “grew up very involved with Judaism and the Jewish people, who think of themselves as Jewish.”
As a result, he says, “we try very hard, with great sensitivity and compassion, to work with them.”
Each conversion candidate meets with a sponsoring rabbi, Meyers explains, who ascertains the candidate’s Jewish knowledge, observance level and commitment to the Jewish people. Those with strong enough Jewish backgrounds may not have to study much, if at all. For them, the conversion “is more of a technicality,” one Conservative rabbi explained.
At the same time, some of these patrilineal Jews resent the fact that they have to get a “stamp of approval” for years of Jewish behavior and identification. Fishkoff points to the example of a 31-year-old woman who spent a year in Israel on a student program and kept getting asked whether she planned to convert:
“It was a weight I had to carry during the entire program,” Goldstein says. “I felt the burden of having to prove myself more than people ‘born Jewish,’ ” she says.
Goldstein converted while she was pregnant — not because she wanted to, but to spare her child what she went through.
“I didn’t want my daughter to have to face that duality,” she says. “I converted, but resented that I had to do it.”
One clever approach some Conservative rabbis have taken is to require all their b’nai mitzvah students to immerse in a mikvah. That way, the children of non-Jewish mothers can convert without being singled out.
Of course when you get down to it, there is little historical or halachic justification for recognizing only the children of Jewish mothers as Jewish, but that’s neither here nor there. Conservative rabbis who deal with the issue sensitively should be commended for their work.
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