The Open Door: 25 Years After Patrilineal Descent

By Julie Wiener


Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

October 28, 2009

Wholly by coincidence, Joe and I got married on the 15th anniversary of the Reform movement’s groundbreaking “patrilineal descent” vote, which accepted as Jewish the children born to a Jewish father and gentile mother.

Open doorThe March 1983 resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis had only an indirect impact on my lapsed Catholic husband and me; by virtue of having a Jewish mother (yours truly) our children would have been considered Tribe members even without the policy change.

But by broadening the traditional “who is a Jew” definition, the controversial decision–something Conservative and Orthodox Jews argued at the time would irreparably divide the Jewish community–has had a sweeping impact on Reform Judaism and the lives of interfaith families.

(The Reconstructionist movement accepted patrilineal descent more than a decade before Reform did, but it is a much smaller movement, with less impact on the broader Jewish world.) Accepting patrilineal descent “sent a message of welcome and openness and allowed us to be able to say, ‘You can create a Jewish home, raise Jewish children, create an authentic Jewish experience and you’re not being rejected,'” says Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom, a suburban Chicago temple in which many members are interfaith families.

The decision, along with outreach efforts to make interfaith families feel welcome in its synagogues, is widely credited as being a huge factor in the Reform movement surpassing the Conservative movement to become the largest stream of American Judaism.

The resolution also paved the way for a whole new class of what Rabbi Gordon calls “green card” mothers to emerge — gentile women who enthusiastically schlep their children to Hebrew school, volunteer on synagogue committees and host Shabbat dinners, even if they choose not to undergo a conversion. In recent years, many of those women have received support from the proliferation of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Mothers Circle groups around the country.

As many Reform leaders are quick to note, the decision was more about “equilineal” or “bilineal” than “patrilineal” descent. And in this way, it actually did directly affect my family, by stating that the Jewish identity of any child of an interfaith couple–whether the mother or father is Jewish–is “presumed,” but contingent upon “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.”

In theory, that means that if my daughters follow in my footsteps of growing up without Hebrew school or bat mitzvah, the Reform movement will not consider them Jewish.

In practice, it is the rare Reform rabbi who will turn away a prospective congregant by questioning whether he or she is legitimately Jewish. However, some Reform rabbis who don’t officiate at interfaith weddings do require an individual with a Jewish mother but no formal upbringing to take an Intro to Judaism class before marrying another Jew.

Despite the dramatic impact of patrilineal descent, the resolution’s 25th anniversary (which was of course also my 10th wedding anniversary) came and went last year with nary a birthday party.

No major pronouncements or reflections from Reform leaders. Nothing in Reform Judaism magazine. No buzz. Why? Was the movement somehow embarrassed by or ambivalent about the decision, I wondered?

Most Reform leaders I talk to insist the opposite is true. They argue that patrilineal descent has been so successful, so accepted, that no one gives it a second thought.

“It’s become part of our religious consciousness and outlook; it’s not something we question anymore,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

While the Israeli and Canadian branches of the Reform movement never adopted patrilineal descent, within the United States “there aren’t any elements within our movement that have any regrets about it,” Rabbi Yoffie says.

One reason the resolution’s anniversary may have been forgotten is that, rather than reversing policy, it “was simply documenting what was already going on in many places,” observes Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, president of the CCAR and spiritual leader of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in suburban Chicago.

Rabbi Robert Levine of Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom agrees, noting that, “In a way the decision just formulated what had been de facto in the movement for awhile. The world didn’t change that day.”

In fact, while many Orthodox and Conservative Jews see patrilineal descent as a radical departure from tradition, Rabbi Levine argues that matrilineal descent, only codified in Talmudic times, was itself a departure from biblical tradition and was a way of adapting to problems of that era: specifically, challenges faced by Jewish women who bore the children of non-Jewish men.

He does not think it would be difficult to find a halachic justification for accepting patrilineal descent.

“In a Jewish community with a low birthrate and a lot of people drifting away, we have to be much more active in opening our doors,” he says.

Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wishes that the Reform movement would not only accept patrilineal descent, but would do more to “trumpet it” and educate people about it.

Too many kids raised Reform, he says, never even realize patrilineal descent isn’t universally accepted until they get to college or go on a Birthright Israel trip. The Reform movement, he says, should make sure they’re “armed with a response” and don’t suddenly feel blindsided when they meet Jews who say, “Oh you’re not really Jewish because your mom isn’t Jewish.”

Joelle Asaro Berman, a young Jewish communal professional who has a Jewish father and gentile mom and who jokes that she has become a “poster child of patrilineal descent,” sees it as more complicated, however.

“There are two sides to the coin: You could say the Reform movement could do a better job of educating kids about the decision, what backs it up, how to defend it,” she says. “On the other side is not to tell them they’re different so they don’t feel different.”

Says the URJ’s Rabbi Yoffie, “If you want to raise a child to have a positive Jewish identity, you don’t do that initially by telling about all the people who question their Jewish identity.”

However he concedes that “we could do more as a movement to prepare our kids to be ready for challenges of the broader Jewish community.”

Ultimately, as interfaith families are increasingly the norm in the American Jewish community, “patrilineal” kids may face less questioning anyway.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, visiting rabbi at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ga., and executive director of Kol Echad, a nondenominational adult Jewish learning center in Atlanta, says, “I believe that at the end of the day, when the history of American Judaism is written, historians will say that we got it right by being as embracing as possible.”


About Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at