What happens when a Jewish family adopts a non-Jewish child? Does that child automatically become Jewish?


Providing a home for a child in need is a great mitzvah. In fact, the sages tell us that whoever raises an orphan is considered to have birthed the child.1

Yet, the child is still technically considered the child of his or her biological parents,2 which means that a child born to a non-Jewish mother is a non-Jew, and a child born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew—regardless of how they are subsequently raised.

So if a Jewish couple adopts a non-Jewish child, gives him their Jewish family name, and trains him to love lox and bagels, he is still not Jewish. Conversely, a child of a Jewish mother who was raised by non-Jews remains Jewish.

But the concept of conversion, whereby a non-Jewish person chooses to become a member of the Jewish nation, exists.

Can a child convert? The answer is yes,3 even though the child is not yet old enough to make decisions or even conduct transactions.

Why is that? The sages explain that it’s because becoming Jewish is a privilege, which we can safely assume the child will be thankful for once he or she reaches the age of majority.4

There is an important caveat, however. When the Talmud discusses the conversion of a child, it assumes that the child is converting along with his or her parents, who would be providing kosher food, teaching him or her Torah, and otherwise creating a Jewish atmosphere.

What about a child being adopted by a Jewish family? If the family is indeed Torah observant, this same dynamic can play out, and the conversion can proceed based on the reasonable assumption that the child will grow up to be a Torah-observant Jew.

Since the conversion took place before the child was able to choose, however, he or she can confirm or reject the conversion upon attaining the age of majority (12 for a girl and 13 for a boy). If the child chooses to revert to their non-Jewish status, the conversion is retroactively canceled. If, however, they choose to live as a Jew, from that time on, the conversion is 100% binding and irreversible.5

However, in the case of a family that is Jewish but does not observe Torah, it makes no sense to burden the child with the obligations, with no expectation that he or she will ever live up to them. It is better to be a righteous gentile than a sinning Jew. Moreover, according to many, the child who was “converted” by a non-observant family and never raised to follow Torah remains a bona fide non-Jew, since the entire premise of the conversion was false.6