Rachel Brook, a 29-year-old vocalist living in Brooklyn, was born to a Jewish Israeli father and a non-Jewish mother. After her parents divorced when she was 3, Brook was raised by her father as a Jew in a Reform synagogue. Last year, she decided to apply to cantorial school at the Academy for Jewish Religion, but because AJR doesn’t accept students with only a Jewish father, Brook was told she would have to convert.
“It was hard for me to accept on many levels,” she said. “I felt I lived a recognizably Jewish life. I’m part Israeli. Never would it have occurred to me that others might not view me as legitimate.”
The administrators at AJR, a non-denominational school in the Bronx, told Brook that it was nothing personal. In order for its graduates to be accepted at Orthodox and Conservative institutions, AJR had to follow the traditional standard of Jewish law, which maintains that Judaism is passed down through the mother. AJR allowed Brook to go before an all-female beit din, or Jewish court, for her conversion ceremony. While converting ultimately felt meaningful, Brook bristled at the idea of others like her being asked to undergo a similar process. “It’s not worth losing Jews over,” she said.
Accepted by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, patrilineal Jews like Brook find themselves in limbo when they venture beyond their denominational walls. Nearly three decades after the Reform movement’s landmark 1983 decision to accept patrilineal Jews, the standard has yet to catch on with Conservative or Orthodox Jewry.
Now, as the first children born since the decision are beginning to have families of their own, patrilineal descent remains one of the most controversial decrees in American Jewish history. As Jews today gravitate away from movement-based worship and toward pluralistic venues, the resolution appears to be taking on new urgency. In communal settings like Taglit-Birthright Israel, JDate and Hillel, patrilineal Jews find themselves intermingling with people who question their Jewishness. “Dissent over descent” has reached a fever pitch.
“The red line that was previously drawn between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community is now drawn within the Jewish community itself,” Rabbi Leonard Levin, assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog, Reblen, in March.
Depending on whom you ask, the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal Jews — predated by 15 years by the Reconstructionist movement — was either a boon to American Judaism or a harbinger of its demise. Officials in the Reform movement, now the largest denomination in America, say that their decision opened the door for mixed marrieds who were intent on raising their children as Jews. But critics from the Orthodox and Conservative movements, and even from within Reform Judaism itself, say that patrilineal acceptance has diluted the Jewish community beyond recognition, giving rise to a generation of half-Jews with tenuous religious ties.
Furthermore, they contend that patrilineal acceptance drove a wedge through the heart of the Jewish community, creating competing definitions of what it means to be a Jew. Whereas at one time, Orthodox parents might have allowed their child to marry a Reform Jew, the patrilineal decision caused traditional Jews, wary of Reform bloodlines, to question that acceptance.
“Jewish movements’ attempts to tamper with the definition of Jewish status obviously carried the seeds of terrible disunity for Jews as a people,” wrote Avi Shafran, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of America, in an email to the Forward. “This is why the first embrace of ‘patrilineality’ was strongly condemned by Jews who valued Jewish unity — that is to say, the maintenance of a single entity called ‘the Jewish people.’”
Reflecting on nearly 30 years of patrilineal descent, Reform leaders say that individual cases like Brook’s were the rationale for shifting the definition of Jewish identity, one based on blood lineage, to one based on Jewish commitment. “We had to get rid of a dissing approach that was inherent in Judaism,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We had a lot of individuals who feel good about their Jewishness, and who even had agreements with their partners to have a Jewish lifestyle, and there was no mechanism in Judaism to deal with those families.”
According to Leonard Saxe, a Jewish demographer at Brandeis University, the patrilineal descent decision succeeded in opening the doors to Jews of mixed lineage. “We moved from a situation where a person who married a non-Jew was seen as rejecting their religion and their heritage to a situation where everyone recognizes that marrying someone who is not Jewish — as much as we would like that non-Jewish person to convert — is not necessarily a rejection of Jewish identity.”