Guaranteeing Jewish Identity

By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson


Dear Rabbi Artson:

My boyfriend and I are about to make some difficult decisions about our future together. I am Jewish, but my sense of Jewish identity is mostly cultural, since I was not given a formal Jewish education and my family celebrated only the High Holidays. However, my mother is a Holocaust survivor, and this fact has largely shaped my strong ties to Judaism and my dedication to raising Jewish children.

I have been seeing a man for two years who is not Jewish, and who was not raised with any religion at all. His father was born Mormon, but rejected the Mormon faith completely when he was a teenager, and has proclaimed himself an atheist ever since. My boyfriend’s mother was born into a Protestant family, but she, too, rejected formal religion at a relatively early age. Consequently, my boyfriend was raised without any religious instruction or reinforcement of any kind. His family celebrated Christmas (although he contends that this holiday held no religious significance for him or his family), but they did not celebrate any other Christian holidays, and they never went to church. My boyfriend understands how important it is to me that my children be raised Jewish, and he has been very supportive of this desire. At his request, together we took an Introduction to Judaism class, in order that he could learn about Judaism and begin to feel more comfortable with the holidays and traditions of which he had no prior knowledge. Though he is willing to be supportive and participate in the process of creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children, he will not convert because he does not consider himself a religious person. Though he is spiritual in his own way, he doesn’t “buy into” the idea of organized religion, although he has said that if he did, he probably would choose Judaism because he likes the values and ideals that Judaism reinforces. He even told me once that if, G-d forbid, something happened to me after we had children and I was not around to raise them, he would convert to Judaism so that our children could maintain a link to their Jewish heritage. He seems to truly understand and respect my feelings about having Jewish children.

Thus, if we were to marry and have children, there would be no other religion practiced in our home (after many painful discussions, my boyfriend has even agreed to give up the Christmas tree because he knows how much it would upset me, on the understanding that we would go to his parents’ house every year at Christmas. I think I am okay with that… I think the important thing is to draw a distinction for children between what our family celebrates, and what their grandparents celebrate).

All of my friends and family (including my mom) think that my situation is completely workable, especially because my boyfriend has agreed to participate in creating a Jewish home and is not asking that any other religion be acknowledged in our home. While I would prefer that he convert, I do understand and respect his reasons for choosing not to. I just have a lingering fear that my children will doubt their Jewish identity because both of their parents are not Jewish (I am also tired of hearing Jewish people tell me that my children will be Jewish because I am Jewish, since it is not the legal issue that concerns me as much as how my children come to view themselves as Jews). I can’t help but feel that it’s easier if both parents share the same religion. My boyfriend is scared of not meeting my expectations, since, while he promises to be involved, he can’t know what level of involvement will be comfortable for him. And yet, I see this same issue arise in the marriages of my Jewish friends where both partners are Jewish, but where they may have differing levels of commitment to Judaism.

Is it possible to raise children who do not doubt their Jewish identity under the circumstances as I have described them? Have you seen examples of children who grew up in similar environments and have a strong sense of Jewish identity? I so want to do the right thing, and the guilt that I am battling is causing a lot of stress to our relationship right now.

You input and advice are much appreciated.


Dear Nancy,

Thank you for the thought and care you clearly put into your letter. It is obvious that you have wrestled with this issue, and that you love your fiance deeply. It is also clear that he loves you a lot and is willing to be as helpful as possible in your desire to raise Jewish children.

That having been said, you are also quite correct that having both parents be Jewish is a significant indicator of Jewish identity in the children. Without that dual commitment, there remains a sense of choosing between a Jewish parent and a parent who is not Jewish, complicating religious identity by turning it into an extension of parental identities (and the irreducible fact that someone chose not to be Jewish, creating a precedent within the family).

Your fiance is right that he should not convert for any reason other than his own conviction and desire to be a Jew. And your lingering concerns about the consequences for your future children are also well-founded. I don’t think there is a simple solution at hand here: you both need to continue talking together, to continue to explore Judaism and how you both will fashion a Jewish home. Might I suggest you find a rabbi you feel you can talk with and make an appointment?

God bless you both,

Rabbi Artson

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About Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson serves as the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is the author of The Bedside Torah.