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To a Child of a Jewish Father

To a Child of a Jewish Father

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Question:

My mother was Protestant. My father's father was Catholic, but his mother was Jewish. My family survived the holocaust in Europe, with great struggle.

I know that by traditional Jewish law I am not Jewish, but I feel that I more than qualify to be a Jew. I read books about Jews. I support Israel. I even had a bar mitzvah. The worst part is that the people who tell me I am not Jewish are rabbis! They said I would have to convert to Judaism. I do not understand why they say this. My family survived the greatest atrocities in the history of the Jews. How can I convert, when I feel that I already am Jewish....

Response:

In Biblical Israel, every citizen was landed. If you were a descendant of one of the twelve tribes, you owned a plot of land. If you sold it, it came back to you--or to your inheritors--on the jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years. You were tied to the land and the land was tied to you. Inheritance of land was through the paternal line--just as tribal affiliation is patrilineal.

I'm mentioning this because, in Torah law, a very similar relationship exists between the Torah and a Jew, between a Jew and his Jewishness. A Jew can abandon the Torah, but the Torah never abandons him--eventually it will return, if not to him, then to his children, if not to his children, then to his children's children. So too, a Jew may imagine that he has abandoned his Jewishness, and yet always remains a Jew--as do the children of that Jew, and the children of those children.

There are two distinctions, however, between the relationship of a Jew to his share of the land and the relationship of a Jew to Torah and Jewishness. One is that it is possible to sell one's plot of land--although it will still return, for that period of time, it is sold. Torah and Jewishness, on the other hand, are not for sale. No matter how hard a Jew may try, he never truly can let go of either.

The other distinction is that Jewishness--and therefore the relationship to Torah--is not patrilineal, but matrilineal. Perhaps these two distinctions are related: The maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are, and that essence is something that not only will always return, but can never truly be abandoned.

Despite all this, the child whose father married out of his people can still claim his father's heritage. His challenge is greater than the child whose Jewish mother brought him by default into her people. In his case, it is up to him to decide whether he wants to make the commitment to join his father's people and to fulfill all the obligations the Torah places upon this nation. He must also become circumcised and immerse in a mikvah before a qualified bet din.

If this is the path you wish to follow, I am willing to assist to whatever degree is within my capacity. If not, it is good to have you as a friend of the Jewish People. The righteous of humankind, no matter to which family, tribe or nation they belong, all have a share in the world to come.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (144)
December 25, 2013
oy vey
My father is Jewish, his parents left Russia in 1916. Rabinowitz was their name, they landed in Brownsville Brooklyn and opened a fruit stand. My father raised me, he told me stories of his life, of his parents life. My fathers genetic material runs through me and into my daughter. It is wearisome to hear Jews talk as if religious practice is what defines them as Jews when we know, Jews know, we define ourselves culturally as well. There are religious Jews and there are secular Jews. The Jewish culture and history is deep within me, no-one can take that from me, it is simply there. I do not care to be accepted by ANY religious group, I do not ask you for acceptance, I define myself, I know my family and my family's history, they are my people, and they were, from my fathers, side Jewish. My fathers family, his ethics, his viewpoint and his soul are a part of me, they are deeply bound in being Jewish...ergo...I am bound. Let us keep our hearts open to others and to G-D
K.B.F
Santa Fe, NM
November 25, 2013
To the Georgian
In terms of Israel: If you can prove that your grandmother is Jewish then you could be welcomed as an Ethnic Jew returning home. You will not be recognized as a Jew for the purpose of marriage or burial in a Jewish cemetery.

Locally: There are orthodox synagogues in Atlanta and Savannah.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
November 24, 2013
My father's mother was a Jew but she lived in "the south". She gave birth to my father in 1941. She did not share her heritage with everyone. Her name was Mayer Simmons. My father died when I was four and my mother took me away from her. It was not until later that she shared with me her secret and shared her traditions. She planted a Chuppah tree for me...all her children and grandchild. I remember this clearly. I was afraid to do anything with it at the time since I still lived with my mother, who was not Jewish. I was told that is was her that wanted me to be born and that I was an accident by my birth mother. I was put into my Grandmother's will with a child's portion not a grandchild portion. I took my father's place since he was not alive when she past away. So I feel that I have a Jewish mother. I wonder where I stand...I feel lost and I have never felt that I belong anywhere...
Anonymous
Georgia, USA
October 11, 2013
Someone already practicing
If someone already knows what a Ger (convert) must know and already practices Judaism, the process should be very short and painless. The length may depend on what the local Beit Din requires but I've heard of cases where conversions were performed within days of the initial meeting. Those are, however, the exception. They were performed on Gerim who able to get supporting documentation from their local rabbis and were very well versed.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
October 11, 2013
How long
It will take as long to finalize conversion as an orthodox Rabbi decides it will take. Find someone nearby that you like, go talk to him, and it will not be as painful as you think. There is really nothing left for you to do, other than study Torah, which we all should be doing daily anyway. Then the mikvah, and congratulations you will be a Kosher Jewess.
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami
October 11, 2013
Shoring up one's Judaism
How long would the process be for someone who practices Judaism, keeps strict kosher, is shomer Shabbos, with a Jewish father and a Gentile mother (who keeps a Jewish, kosher home for her husband and children)? Is there a ba'al teshuvah option available? Or is it the same 2-3 year process? The way I see this, this is about legal official status. This is not so much a conversion as much as a "return" or rectifying. No matter what, I am still a literal, physical daughter of Israel, a daughter of Levi. Any advice? I would prefer not to continue to live on the fringe.
Anonymous
October 5, 2013
My father is a Jew, my mother isn't. I carry all the pain of my fathers's family that were killed in 1941 , I see it in my dreams. I married a Jewish girl, I have a child girl now , we named her Dina. Who can be more Jewish then me ? Please let me know.
Konstantin
New York
July 8, 2013
Re: Conversion for a child
A child can convert at any age and this will generally include a Brit as well as a dip in the Mikveh in the presence of the officiating Bet Din.

I should note that a Halachic Bet Din will generally only do a conversion for a child if the home he or she will be raised in is conducive to those responsibilities they become obligated in through conversion such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. The Bet din will will also generally ask for a commitment that the child will be given proper Jewish Schooling. Put simply, it would not be fair to convert a child and make them responsible for Mitzvot that they will have a difficult time keeping due to the environment in home.

Generally a child's conversion would happen at the same time as the mother's...
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary
December 5, 2012
Raised as a Catholic
If your mother was Jewish, don't worry about a little holy water. Go into a mikveh, practice your Judaism, and forget about the past. Be Jewish, Be observant, and Be Proud. Nothing more needs to be said.

Now for those who want to be Jewish, and not observe the Sabbath, follow the laws of the Torah, and go through a proper conversion; it would be better you stop fooling yourselves and others, and be a Methodist! It would be the same as someone who wanted to be a doctor and not go to medical school. All they would do is harm themselves and others in the end.
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami
December 3, 2012
I feel my fathers Jewish blood.
My father's grandmother on his mother's side was Jewish. My father's family was Christian and I grew up Christian. I knew about my Jewish great grandmother but as family we never spoke about her. I always had a fascination with Israel and as a young man (I'm still relatively young :-)) I stayed and worked on a Kibbutz for about two years. But in those days I was still a Christian. When I came back to South Africa I almost always had Jewish people in my closest circles. Because Israel was a second home for me where I felt so welcome and my interest in politics I've also always been an extreme supporter of Israel and it's people. Recently I lost my Christian faith. I still believed in God but not at all like the Christians do. I had a look at a few religions, but then I started to look at the Jewish religion. I am amazed at how it fits in to everything I believe in. It's almost like I was made for the Jewish religion and it for me. I have found my religious home. Jewish blood is strong!
Antonie Lintvelt
South Africa
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