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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 (156)
October 30, 2014
To the poster from England
What you are describing is the basic conversion.

A candidate is taught the basics of Judaism. S/he accepts them. S/he practices Judaism. If male, he is circumcised. Then the candidate goes into a Mikveh in the presence of a Jewish Court (three or more rabbis). The convert (now Jewish) is given a name and a certificate.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
October 30, 2014
To Jonathan
I am very impressed that you served in the IDF. The information you listed does not permit me to give you a time line. I assume that you can read and likely can speak Hebrew. Do you actively practice Judaism? Know the basics of Kashruth? Shabbath? Do you live in a community that has an Orthodox Synagogue? Do you attend it?
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
October 30, 2014
Teens
In the past 10 years I participated in mentoring two teens, both sons of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers for their conversions. One was converted by a reputable Beis Din before his 18th birthday while in a Yeshiva high school. The other was converted after his high school graduation (also before his 18th birthday) a few days before leaving for a year's study in an Israeli Yeshiva. In both cases these young men were mature enough to make their decisions to convert and finish their preparations.

In general I would agree that someone under 18 is too young to convert.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
October 28, 2014
Jewish child?
I was reading that if a child is born to a Jewish father, but a non-Jewish mother, yet is raised in a Jewish manner, and when a baby is taken to a Mikva, and accepted as Jewish by 3 Rabbis and given a Hebrew name, then the child is Jewish, by Orthodox rabbis. Is this correct?
Anonymous
England
October 23, 2014
How long will it take??
I'm 27 years old and have been raised Jewish my entire life (attended Hebrew School from a very young age all the way through my bar mitzvah until I was 18). I joined AEPi (a jewish fraternity) in college and was active in our campus Hillel and Chabad. After college and a bit of travel I joined the IDF and became an Israeli citizen. I am back living in the US and my girlfriend has worries about our (possible) marriage in the future. My mother is not born Jewish, but she converted when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I would like to know, considering all these facts and the knowledge I already have of the culture, traditions, language and religious facets of Judaism, how long will it take me to "officially" convert with an Orthodox Rabbi??
Jonathan
June 10, 2014
Come home to us!
I am happy to hear from Rabbi Moshen that he would convert a teen before the age of 18, even though he requires that the teen be attending a yesiva high school.

But I understand why. Committing to a jewish lifestyle for all eternity (including future gilgulim) is a serious matter. A child or a teen may not realize the seriousness of the commitment. But if s/he is attending a Bais Yaakov or a yeshiva, s/he realizes the serious of his (and especially her) commitment.

I want to emphasize how very welcome among us are the children of Jewish fathers. Please go through the technicality of "conversion" without feeling insulted. I'm speaking as a lay person: we love you. We want you back. You are OURS. We are YOURS. Just do the ceremony, and come home to us. Please! Get out of this limbo. It's not that hard. And it means everything to you and to us. Gd bless you.
Chana
Austin
June 9, 2014
To the writer from Washington
I am unaware of any orthodox rabbi who will be willing to convert children living with their non-Jewish mother (even if they live with both parents, including a Jewish father). I would also be very wary of any rabbi who claims to be orthodox and says that he would convert pre-Bar Mitzvah children living with a non-Jewish mother.

If both parents were supportive, then I would consider working with a teen who strongly wanted to convert, and possibly converting the teen while attending a Yeshiva High School.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
June 3, 2014
married to a Jewish man
I have two daughters, 1 and 3.5 years old. My husband is Jewish. I was born and raised in a catholic family. I no longer attend church. Some of my close friends are Jewish and we celebrate and observe the main Holidays. I don'ty think I will convert, but will continue to expose my kids to Judaism. Thinking of the future, if my kids choose to convert when the are a bit older, but still kids, is that possible. Do I have to convert for them to be able to?
Anonymous
washington, dc
May 11, 2014
When the wrong part is Jewish
I know a few dozen of them (many of whom converted). They self-identify as Jews. Many would not even consider marrying a non-Jew. They may be proud of their Jewish background and very Zionist. If they truly want to be Jewish then we should encourage them to complete their becoming 100% Jewish (as in conversion). These are not only my words. Rabbi Reuven Feinstein said them in a public forum several years ago. He even went as far as to say that it is our obligation to bring them through the conversion process.

Some may be hurt by telling them that we don't consider them 100% Jewish. We are sorry that they are hurt and welcome them with open arms. The situation in the USA is not quite as bad as it is in Europe but it has gotten to the point when a Jewish name and nose do not mean that someone is Jewish. And conversely there are those walking around with non-Jewish names and features who are truly Jewish.

Let us bring all of them into the fold.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
May 9, 2014
Thank you Rabbi
Thank you for your answer Rabbi.
I see your point. What I try to mean, is that 2 independ groups of Jewish people found different answers to the same question based on the same texts.

I am 100% Jewish from Orthodox tradition but this question interest me.
Nowadays, we all have in our entourage people known as Zera Yisrael who feel Jewish but are not legally Jew. These people go to our synagogues, go to the same summer camp/organisation, share the same names (Cohen, Levy or other) and we know them since we are children as they are sometime the child of our parent friends, a neighbourg or even sometime a cousin...
We celebrate the same holidays, we have the same background and we all feel part of the Jewish people like brothers and sisters but... still they are not legally Jew. It is likely they will marry with Jewish people which deepen the problem.

What should be the approach with them? Should it only be a legal point and talk about a " regularisation " instead of conversion?
David
Paris
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