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Our Son's Conversion to Judaism

We are seeking an Orthodox conversion for our son, Adar, a fourteen-month-old we adopted five months ago from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That may not seem like a radical statement, but for us it is. The Judaism that completely permeates our lives is progressive. We are egalitarian. I am a rabbi. Our children have only heard us refer to God as "She." The women and the men of the Torah come alive for them as God's partners in history through my husband's nightly Torah (Bible) or rabbinic story puppet show. The Jewish day school and synagogue communities that envelop us are pluralistic, with a bottom line of egalitarianism. Our oldest child, a daughter--now almost seven--took on the mitzvah ( commandment or good deed) of tzitzit (a fringed garment worn almost exclusively by traditional male Jews) shortly after she turned five, and has remained committed to it daily since then.

There is clearly spiritual and emotional sacrifice involved in taking this route [of an Orthodox conversion]. The holy transformation of my son becoming a Jew will not be presided over by loving rabbinic colleagues in an egalitarian ceremony that makes sense in our lives. Instead, both my husband and I are likely to feel the way we do in civil proceedings--like cogs in an administrative machine, going through motions of a process external to ourselves. It will be anathema to our daily Jewish life.

So why are we removing ourselves from our natural habitat by seeking the heksher, certification, of a different Jewish community--especially at such a sacred and liminal moment in our lives? We are protecting Adari. He will never know who his birth parents are, or their religion and ethnicity (there are many within Ethiopia). He will never know if he has birth siblings. He will never know the circumstances of his birth and early weeks of life. We do not want to provide any opportunity for anyone to cast doubt on his being a Jew--a fear that projects to his high-school years at the local Jewish high school. We are willing to pay with our own Jewish identities at this moment of our lives for an insurance policy against those who would see fit to question his right to an aliyah (blessing and reading the Torah), or his credentials as a prom date for their child.

I feel, a bit, that I am betraying God. I am casting aside my fundamental relationship with the Creator, and putting on the mask of someone else's covenanted relationship. Perhaps God agrees that my son's future relationship with Him/Her needs to be protected when it might be most vulnerable--adolescence--the same time that the doubts of others might be made known to him. To do so, I must take a deep breath, and seek the heksher of the community of those who would otherwise reject his Jewish status.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "kosher approval," marking found on food and some kitchen products (like tin foil or dish soap) that shows the item has been certified kosher. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Susan Silverman

Rabbi Susan Silverman together with Yosef I. Abramowitz, was co-founder of Jewish Family & Life!, and together they live in Newton, Mass.

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