Patrilineal Jews Still Find Resistance

Denominations Stick to Traditional Definition of Who Is Jewish

Father Knows Less? Rachel Brook was raised Jewish by her father. She was taken aback when a school asked her to undergo a conversion because her mother is not Jewish.
courtesy of rachel brook
Father Knows Less? Rachel Brook was raised Jewish by her father. She was taken aback when a school asked her to undergo a conversion because her mother is not Jewish.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published April 02, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.