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Conversion in Interfaith Relationships and Families
Return to A Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion.
The Reform movement does allow married people, whose non-Jewish spouses do not want to become Jewish, to convert. This is an issue you should discuss with your potential supervising rabbi.
It is very unlikely that you will be able to find an Orthodox rabbi to work with you on conversion if your spouse is not Jewish and is not planning to convert.
There is a Conservative movement responsa that allows Conservative rabbis to convert people who are married to non-Jews who are not going to convert. It was adopted as a minority opinion. This gives Conservative rabbis the option of converting individuals with non-Jewish partners. You may not be able to find a Conservative rabbi who will convert you if you are married to someone who does not want to become Jewish. You should ask this question in the first meeting with your rabbi. If you are attending a conversion class through the Conservative movement in a city where there is a sitting beit din, it's good to ask what the policy of the beit din is on this issue.
Reconstructionist rabbis discussed this question as part of their recent guidelines on conversion. They are advised to check the potential convert's home situation to ensure that their partner, even if he or she doesn't want to become Jewish, will be supportive.
Since 1983, the Reform movement has accepted as Jewish any biological child of a Jewish parent of either sex who is raised Jewish. The Reconstructionist movement has had the same policy since 1968. If a child of an intermarriage is not raised as a Jew, both Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will consider that child to be a non-Jew, and will require a formal conversion to Judaism. Some non-Orthodox rabbis call this ceremony an affirmation ceremony.
Adopted children without Jewish ancestry will also be required to convert in all movements. Parents may convert their children in infancy.
If your mother was Jewish and your father was not, and you were raised in another religion, an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi will consider you Jewish. There is a Jewish legal category of a "child who is held against his or her will among the gentiles," which is the category for someone who is Jewish who is raised in another faith. You can consider yourself a ba'al tshuvah, a returning Jew. If you were fully committed to another religion, you can choose to have a ritual of readmission involving immersion in a ritual bath. It's a good question for a rabbinical advisor.
If your father was Jewish and you were raised in an observant Jewish home, you are not Jewish to an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi. It is not uncommon for this to happen and an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi who does outreach to other Jews may have considered ways to work with people in this circumstance. You may be seeking conversion to be accepted as a Jew in a family or social circle in which this is important.
At present, Israel's Law of Return applies to children of Jewish fathers, under a 1970 amendment to the law that covers children and grandchildren of Jews and their spouses. You can potentially make aliyah under the Law of Return and not be considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate when you get there. As we write this, Israel is debating changes to the law.
One issue that is troubling for children of interfaith marriage is their Hebrew names. In most synagogues, people who are being honored with an opportunity to bless the Torah reading are called up by their Hebrew names, So-and-So daughter of or son of So-and-So. Maimonides began the custom of honoring converts by considering them the children of Abraham and Sarah. This is an issue for converts in general, but in particular children of Jewish fathers may want to have them acknowledged. This may be something to discuss with your rabbi.
When you convert, your parents are still your parents and you are obligated to keep the commandment of honoring them. When they die, Jewish law requires you to mourn them with Jewish rituals. Your family is still your family. Jewish conversion is like an adoption--but it's an open adoption.
The Reform and Reconstructionist movements do not object to people in interfaith relationships converting before marriage. Many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will perform interfaith marriage ceremonies and do not require the non-Jewish partner to rush through a conversion in order to marry.
It is a common experience in interfaith families who are active in the Reform movement for non-Jewish spouses to choose to convert many years after they get married. We have many articles about this on InterfaithFamily.com--a good book about this experience is The New Jew by Sally Srok Friedes.
The Conservative movement until very recently had a policy of explicitly inviting the non-Jewish partners in interfaith relationships to convert. It should not present any special challenge to you to convert before or during marriage in the Conservative movement.
If you want to convert with an Orthodox rabbi and you are also planning to get married, you should be aware that there are Talmudic texts prohibiting a rabbi from performing a conversion for someone in order to allow them to get married. Presumably the rabbis of the Talmud were worried that someone would be coerced into conversion, which would invalidate the conversion, or wouldn't be sincere in wanting to be Jewish.
Many people who want to become Jews also date Jews because that's who can understand what they find important. Your decision to convert may have been concurrent with, but not precisely caused by, falling in love with an observant Jew. If the real reason you're seeking conversion is what you believe and how you want to live your life, that's what you need to emphasize. Even understanding this, some Orthodox rabbis may be stringent in their interpretation and not agree to help you with conversion if they find out there is someone you want to marry.
If you are already married to a Jewish person, some Orthodox rabbis will require you to separate from your partner for a period while you are studying for conversion. Once you have converted, you will need to have a Jewish wedding ceremony.
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.