Dear Rabbi,

Sometimes life hits you in the face with a cold, wet towel. Last week, I visited my mother in the hospital, and she told me that she’s Jewish. I asked why she had never told me before, but she didn’t want to say. But she told me about her parents who were Holocaust survivors. It was pretty clear she wasn’t making this up.

I talked with a Jewish friend about it, and he said that if my mother is Jewish, that makes me Jewish too.

The truth is, most of my friends are Jewish. And I always took an interest in all things Jewish. But being Jewish? If I’m Jewish too, I better find out what that means. Where do I start?

—New Jew That Never Knew

Dear Jew,

Funny thing, nobody is ever shocked by the discovery that their mother is Korean. Funny thing, nobody is ever shocked by the discovery that their mother is Inuit.Or Slovakian. Or even Inuit—although that would be pretty interesting.

On the other hand, suddenly discovering that you’re Muslim, Bahai or Buddhist is not even a possibility. Those are religions, and if you don’t believe, in what way are you a member? But it happens quite often that someone wakes up one day to discover, hey, I’m Jewish.

So there’s something unique in that. And I suppose that’s really what you’re asking: What’s unique about being a Jew that you can discover you are Jewish, not out of belief or affiliation, choice or inclination, upbringing or community? It's so strange: You can discover you are Jewish just because your mother one day says, “Guess what? I’m Jewish, so you are too.” (Of course, you’ll need some credible evidence that this is for real.)

The answer is that we Jews are one big family, all brothers and sisters, all children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. If your mother is Jewish, you’re part of that family. (If it’s your dad, but not your mother, or if it’s your mother’s father, but not her mother, see To the Child of a Jewish Father.)

And you’ll say, “Yes, but all of humanity is one big family.” So I’ll answer that Jews are a family held together with super glue. Divine super glue that lasts forever. We are eternally bonded by an eternal covenant and a common mission that our ancestors accepted at Mount Sinai.

The covenant Jews are a family held together with divine, everlasting super glue. is with the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who liberated us from the oppression of our taskmasters to fulfill His will with love and joy so that we will inherit the Land of Israel in peace. The mission is to be a light to all the nations of the world, so that they too will learn to fulfill their role in filling this entire world with freedom, peace and harmony, as its Creator designed it to be. That covenant and that mission melds us together as a single being, many bodies with one soul.

Both the covenant and the mission are embodied in the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, along with an enormous body of commentary and discussion composed over many millennia—all of which we call Torah, which means “the teaching.” The Torah teaches us how to live in a divine way here on earth, in every time and in every situation. A deed prescribed by the Torah is called a mitzvah. The practical instructions are called halachah—which means “the way.” And all this works together to hold our global family together over space and time.

Almost 4,000 years have passed since Abraham, the first Jew, began to teach the world that G‑d cares for His world and its creatures. Over 3,300 years have passed since Abraham’s children entered into a covenant at Mount Sinai.

Since then, the Jewish people have made an immeasurable impact on the way people think about themselves and about our world, igniting the human spark with ideas that were once radical and revolutionary but now are almost universally embraced. For example:

  • the notion of liberty (think Exodus),
  • a vision of world peace (think of the U.N. wall with the quotation from Isaiah, “. . . and they will beat their swords into plowshares”),
  • the sanctity of all human life without discrimination,
  • the right of the common man to his own property,
  • the need to educate every child,
  • equal rights for all before the law,
  • the supremacy of the law over the monarchy,
  • government-mandated social welfare,
  • tolerance of the foreigner who does not share your religion,
  • . . . and the concept of progress over time—one that leads to a world filled with an awareness of the divine “as water fills the ocean bed”—may that time arrive much sooner than we can imagine.

We brought these ideas to the world not by the sword and not by threat of force, but by example and by perseverance through the greatest hardships, so that they seeped through many streams and wellsprings into the beliefs of other peoples, until those peoples came to adopt them as their own.

Let me put it this way: Other peoples are defined by their geography. We, the Jewish people, are defined by the Torah and its story of us—the story of our forefathers, of our exodus from Egypt, of our entry into the covenant, our sojourn in the wilderness, our settling of the land of Canaan, our exiles and travails and dispersion throughout the world; of never-ending study of our Torah and of our own story, until we and the Torah that defines us have become one, just as we and our story are one. As an Italian is Italian because he was born in Italy, so a Jew is a Jew because he or she was born into a story.As an Italian is Italian because he was born in Italy, so a Jew is a Jew because he or she was born into a story (or entered into it by adoption into the family, through a rite of conversion).

We reclaim that terrain as we traverse its gamut in the Torah we study and in the prayers we utter daily, and within those vast borders we discover who we are: a tree of life that cannot be consumed by the most furious fires of history, a light in the darkness that cannot be extinguished by the most incessant and formidable waves of change, because we are tied in an inexorable bond to our divine mission.

So that is us, and you are one of us, and wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you will be one of our family. You can walk into any synagogue or Jewish community center and say, “Hello, I just discovered I’m Jewish,” and you will be embraced as a long-lost sibling.

Which is what I suggest you do right now. You can use our locator to find the closest Chabad center to wherever it is in the world you live. If there is none nearby, just search around for the closest traditional Jewish community. Join and celebrate our festivals with us, rest and enjoy a Shabbat meal with us—because our celebrations are your celebration, and our Shabbat is your Shabbat.

When you’re adopting Jewish practices, you’ll need to do that step by step. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. A good place to start is with any of the ten mitzvahs of the mitzvah campaign initiated by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory.

And learn. You may not find yourself agreeing with everything you learn, but that shouldn’t stop you from studying and questioning and studying more. Because it is that study and dialogue over our Torah that, more than anything else, has bonded us together in our common destiny over these many millennia. And it is there, within that Torah that G‑d has given us, that we discover ourselves as one eternal being.