A “Half-Jew” in Israel

By Sarah R. Heilbronner


I once sat at the Hillel dining hall with a group of strangers. As nervous freshmen, we made the usual timid forays into conversation. Questions about hometowns led quickly to questions about parents, and we soon learned that, of the five of us, three had one non-Jewish parent. Someone remarked while laughing, “Together, the five of us make up three-and-a-half Jews!”

It was a year and a half later when I, one of the halves of that equation, decided to take a birthright trip to Israel. With vague questions of Jewish identity running through my head, I signed up and went through the fairly simple process of preparing to go to Israel with a group of twenty-two students from Harvard Hillel. However, as the months progressed and my date of departure drew nearer, I lost sight of the reasons why I had signed up in the first place. If, according to the principles of matrilineal descent (in which a person is only considered Jewish if her mother is) I was not technically Jewish, why should I try to carve out a Jewish identity when it may not even be valid? Israel belongs to the Jewish people. What a beautiful notion, that a Jew can and will feel that Israel is his or her home. But what if, as many would believe, I am not actually Jewish?

Reasoning that not going to Israel would essentially amount to running away from these problems and concerns, I decided to go, but with few expectations. To my surprise, I connected deeply with Israel. As we traveled from the Golan Heights to the Negev to Jerusalem, I found myself questioning my own Jewish identity and feeling compelled to further investigate my heritage. For me, as for many Jews, the notion of a meaningful modern Judaism is intrinsically related to the current existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Indeed, the experience was both overwhelming and affirming of my Judaism. After all, the connection I felt had been a uniquely Jewish one. For a brief moment, I conceived of myself as a full Jew, without the qualifiers. In fact, I decided that ten days had not been enough time for me to fully understand what had taken place for me in Israel. With that in mind, I began the process of attempting a return trip. At one point, I found and applied for a scholarship that would help me pay for the hefty price of an airplane ticket to Tel Aviv. On the application form, I was asked questions about my family, and was straightforward about my mother’s non-affiliation. A week later, after providing some clarification, I received an email essentially stating that I am ineligible for the scholarship because my mother is not Jewish and has never undergone an Orthodox conversion (and, for that matter, neither have I).

At this point, I had essentially two responses. The first, the one that I almost always display to people, was the general thought of it being too bad that I was ineligible, but that this was a difference in opinion among various movements that had no personal reflection upon those who espouse or do not espouse the principle of matrilineal descent. The second, more violent, and less controllable reaction was one of anger and frustration, at the person who wrote the email, at the program, at specific Jewish movements, at the Jewish community, and, finally, at Judaism itself. I identify strongly as Jewish; I want to identify strongly as Jewish. I want to learn and study Torah, and I believe that I have a Jewish connection to the texts I am reading. I want to feel as though my observances are meaningful, and I want to be a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. I want all these things, but according to a specific code within the Gemara, I cannot have them without an Orthodox conversion.

To be clear, I do not object to the amount of time and energy a conversion would require. Indeed, the time and energy I have and will devote to researching the topics of matrilineal descent and conversion and exploring my own feelings about it are certainly far greater than that which is entailed by the conversion process. Rather, I object on some level because of what this means about me.

Judaism is very concerned with maintaining the dignity of individual human beings. We have numerous laws that deal with the obligations one individual has to another, depending on their relationship. Rightfully or not, the belief within parts of the Jewish community in the principle of matrilineal descent (as opposed to patrilineal descent) in determining a person’s Jewishness at times upsets me to the degree where I feel that my dignity as a Jewish individual has been compromised.

I am not at the end of my thought process on this issue. I still may decide to convert at some point in the future. However, I also believe that Judaism was meant to be an evolving tradition, not a static one, and perhaps this is a situation in which the practice and tradition can evolve beyond what was understood in the past. Hopefully, when I return to Israel, I will be able to connect with it just as I did the first time. Perhaps this next trip will even help me to find answers to this pressing question of my own Jewish identity.


About Sarah R. Heilbronner

Sarah R. Heilbronner is a student at Harvard University.