When Converting, Telling Your Family Might Be The Hardest Part

By Marinell James


Originally published in j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. Reprinted by permission.

June 20, 2008

How do you tell your family that you are leaving their faith and converting to Judaism?

Don’t expect to find helpful suggestions in the Torah. In the case of both of Judaism’s prototypical “converts”–Abraham and Ruth–our tradition is silent about how to break the news.

Take Ruth, the poster child for conversion. She famously declared to her mother-in-law, Naomi, that “your people will be my people.” But what did Ruth say to her own mother about this change of affiliation? That’s left to the imagination.

Then there’s Abraham. When he got the call from God in Genesis to abandon his family’s idol-worshipping ways, he took off for parts unknown, apparently without a backward glance. If he attempted to explain his decision to his parents or others in his clan, the Torah doesn’t pause to tell us about it–though there is a midrash that says he smashed all the idols in his father’s workshop before leaving town. Clearly he wasn’t worried about maintaining family ties.

A mother and adult daughterBut those of us who convert nowadays do want to remain connected with our original “people.” Unlike Ruth and Abraham, we have parents, siblings, extended family and, in some cases, children whom we are not about to leave “behind” when we embrace Judaism.

Fortunately, becoming a Jew does not entail a repudiation of blood ties. Still, at some point in the process, you have to break the news to your family. It can be a tricky moment. Let’s face it–from their perspective, Judaism’s gain is their loss.

When I decided to convert 19 years ago, the hardest part was telling my Catholic parents. I tried to be diplomatic, but it was difficult for them. They knew that I’d stopped going to church years earlier, but I think they secretly hoped I would be like the prodigal son and return.

So it took them a while to adjust. After the initial shock wore off, they probably took some comfort in the fact that at least I would still believe in half of the Bible.

A friend of mine, Rosemary Rothstein, who was raised Episcopalian, converted in 2003. It had been decades since she’d been involved in the church, and she had already been married for seven years to her husband, Irving. Her father, a senior warden in the church, had officiated at their wedding ceremony (after her conversion, they had a second, Jewish wedding).

“I was lucky. When I told my dad I was converting, he wondered why it had taken me so long,” said Rothstein. “I think he was just happy I wasn’t going to be a heathen anymore.”

Another friend of mine, Katherine Hollander, was raised in a “very Presbyterian” family that went to church every Sunday. She grew up singing in the choir and participating in the youth group. She decided to convert in 1990.

“Yes, my parents were disappointed and hurt, but they’re very accepting, and they saw the upside of it,” she said. “For them, Judaism is the source of their faith.”

At the time of her conversion, Hollander’s son, Nate Jordan, was 6.

“It didn’t make sense to have this big, formal conversation with him,” she said. “We just started adding holidays. It was more about Jewish practice and how we experienced it, as opposed to saying, ‘there’s this big change and it’s starting today.'”

Converting Nate to Judaism with her wasn’t an option because his father, to whom Hollander was not married, was an atheist. So Hollander raised what she called “the only non-Jewish kid in San Francisco who kept kosher.”

Nate held the huppah when Hollander married her husband, Henry, in 1993. Since then, Hollander has had a daughter and another son. Nate, now in his 20s, doesn’t remember a time when his mother wasn’t Jewish.

Although your conversion may be initially challenging for your family, know that in time they’ll see that your embrace of Judaism isn’t a rejection of them, but an affirmation of shared ethical and spiritual values (or as Rothstein puts it, “a new way to believe”).

Years ago, my parents attended synagogue with me. After listening to Torah, the Haftarah, the sermon and prayers about God’s holiness, might, compassion and forgiveness, my dad remarked, “You do a lot of the same things we do.” I appreciated that. Within it was the recognition that unlike Abraham and Ruth, I really didn’t move that far away after all.


About Marinell James

Marinell James is a regular contributor to InterfaithFamily.com. She blogs at yourjewishlifecoach.com.