Rabbi Diane Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has held pulpits in a variety of communities in the northeast and the mid-south, and is currently on hiatus, caring for her newest granddaughter.
When a Child Converts
Eleven years ago, my youngest son, Chuck, was married in the church where his bride had been raised. But it was not an intermarriage. Months before the wedding, he informed me that he had accepted Jesus as his personal savior. At the age of 20, he had become convinced that one could be both Jewish and Christian.
Two years later, his middle brother, Josh, called me to tell me that Chuck had given him the great gift of understanding Jesus' role in his life, and he, too, had become a Christian. My eldest son, Scott, and I spoke at length about this second conversion. Scott, at 25, cried and told me he felt like an only child.
The journey from those two moments in our family's story to today has been a long, difficult one. What do you say when your son shows you a picture of a young Chinese man and announces, "I brought him to Jesus, Mom"? If I were Christian, the answer would be easy. But as a rabbi, I was at a loss--do I say "mazel tov"? Congratulations? Job well done?
Do I turn away from my sons, behave as though they are truly lost to me, as many families did generations ago? Do I avoid talking to them on the phone, display no interest in their lives? Do I acknowledge wedding anniversaries? And what--oh what--do I do when the children come? How do I, as a rabbi, someone whose profession is defined by love of Judaism and the commitment to transmit Jewish living to future generations--how do I look on a child born to my son but into a Christian home?
I looked for answers but could find none. My colleagues could not imagine what help to offer me. I sought theological responses from professors and received inadequate responses. I felt unbearably alone, abandoned by my children and unsupported by my colleagues. It was clear that I would have to struggle through this uncharted territory by myself.
To be honest, I didn't even know what kind of support I wanted. But those I spoke to tried to find solutions to the problem. In retrospect, all I wanted was for someone to listen and to commiserate. Ask me how it felt. Offer pastoral guidance. None came.
After several months of tense conversations with my youngest, the newlywed, a bus was bombed in Gaza, and one of the fatalities was the daughter of a physician in New Jersey. I remember having just gotten off the phone with Chuck when I heard the stunning news. And I wept as I realized that the life of that family had been forever changed. As I told my colleagues that night, there are losses and there are Losses. I can mourn my son's decision, but I can still pick up the phone and talk to him. That young woman would never be coming home, and I simply could not equate my loss with her family's.
In the years that have passed, my children and I, my two younger sons and their older brother, have all made peace with the decisions that had been so hurtful. I am grateful every time one of my sons tells me he's had a long talk with one of his brothers about "stuff"--business issues, child rearing, just touching base. I am grateful when my children call just to talk, grateful that the lines of communication have remained open. I have learned that, like in many families fractured by political choices, there are some things that can't be discussed. My sons will tell me that they are preparing a sermon or to teach Sunday school, and I have approached these activities without getting too close to the details. I can't. Parents have an option--to focus on the choice or to focus on the child. The first option is destructive, the second is healing. There are too many blessings to be lost in my life if I focus on the choice rather than on the child.
Oh, and the grandchildren? The lights of my life. All of them, the Christian ones and the new Jewish one. I simply cannot be angry or resentful to a child who did not ask to be born into a particular family. My little ones did not make the choice--their father did. And personally, there is no greater blessing than when a small child climbs into your lap and says, "I love you, Bubbie."
In the years since I shared my sons' conversion stories, I have been put in touch with other families currently facing the trauma I have already been through. I've considered it a privilege to offer a hand to them, to listen to them, to share my story and assure them that there is healing down the road. While our parents' network is still small, I hope someday to find enough families (because I have no doubt that they are out there) to help make local connections. I am tentatively calling my group Parent2Parent. I invite any parent whose son or daughter has converted out of Judaism to contact me at RavDina@gmail.com. I can offer no real answers, only the knowledge that you are not alone. And that can make all the difference in the world.