The ‘real’ Jews told me I wasn’t Jewish

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Dear Dawn: I was raised Reform and fit in fine at my congregation. But at college I met Jews with a lot of religious education, and when they learned my mom isn’t Jewish, they told me that I’m not Jewish — even quoting halachah to prove it. It was incredibly upsetting. I know now that I can marry a Jewish woman and my kids will be Jewish, but I feel sorry for my sister. Should I tell her we aren’t “real” Jews? She is leaving for college this fall. — Sad College Grad

Dear Sad: I’m sorry for the unnecessary pain that you have experienced. I continue to be amazed that people feel the need to tell those in your situation something that can only be heard as rejection and cruelty. And I’m upset that you were raised in a Reform synagogue that failed you miserably. Your rabbi certainly knows about Jewish life outside of your synagogue, and it was his/her responsibility to educate your parents and prepare you for the larger Jewish community’s view of patrilineal Jews.

Now, for the question: Are you a “real” Jew? In 2019, the answer is in your hands. The Reform movement, sadly, ignores its own principles. Reform policy states that Reform Jews are supposed to learn about Jewish law so that they will have sufficient knowledge to make educated choices about which mitzvot have personal meaning and will be used for life guidance.

I want you to study the reasoning behind Reform Judaism’s guidelines for accepting the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. The Reform movement has specifications stating that any child with one Jewish parent who is raised with Jewish holidays and lifecycle events in a single faith (Judaism) is a Jew.

You must determine for yourself if you believe you are really Jewish or not. If the answer is yes, I follow Reform response and I’m a Jew, then you must seek out Jewish environments that support your beliefs.

In addition, I want you to develop a strategy for how you will respond to people who rudely inquire about your mother’s status and thus yours. Remember that someone else’s curiosity does not require a response. If you are asked “Is your mother Jewish?” you can reply with one of these:

Why do you ask?

Is that of importance to you? Why?

Are you profiling me?

That’s a rather personal question. When we know each other better and you meet my mother you can ask her yourself.

Alternatively, you can come up with your own retort or simply roll your eyes and walk away. Then, after learning more about your situation, if you decide you are not really Jewish, then you will need to figure out ways to secure your confidence as a Jew. These are some things that people in your position have told me worked for them: learning Hebrew, weekly participation in Shabbat services, chanting Torah before a congregation, having an aliyah, being married by a rabbi, attending or working at a Jewish summer camp, teaching in Hebrew school, going to Israel, or going to a mikvah.

As a Reform Jew, you have the right to choose a conversion. I’ve known people who wanted to participate in a Conservative shul and chose to go to the mikvah. Many Conservative rabbis call this visit an “affirmation” of Jewish status. If you go this route, you must decide if you want to do so with your own Reform rabbi or another rabbi, perhaps from a different denomination.

Have you spoken to your rabbi or your parents about your experience? My guess from your letter is that you have not. Please do. This experience often brings feelings of anger toward loved ones who failed to prepare the patrilineal individual. It can also cause guilt, shame and the desire to protect parents from your pain.

As for your sister, she deserves to know and be better prepared. After your parents and/or rabbi have talked with her, the two of you can have a heart-to-heart talk. No one will better understand her than you.

Please know that you are not alone, nor are you at fault for any of this. If you are a patrilineal-born Jew and have other suggestions for solidifying Jewish identity, please email me so I can share them.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].