Teetering on the Edge of the Mikveh

Lily Padula

Published April 09, 2014.
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The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: seesaw@forward.com

Why Convert Anyway?

I am a non-Jewish young woman engaged to a Jewish man. I am truly excited about our Jewish wedding, and from there on out welcome any Judaism he wants to bring into our family life. It is with joy that I will join him at synagogue or observe the fasts for Passover and Yom Kippur, and anticipate that I will find meaning in these traditions and sharing them with our kids. With all this in mind, is there any reason I should convert? Right now I have no plans to and he doesn’t need me to. I would rather embrace Judaism on the terms my fiance and I feel comfortable with, and not the terms of the conversion process. — Ambivalent in Arizona

Converting is Like Becoming a Full Citizen

HAROLD BERMAN Your excitement about Judaism coupled with your ambivalence about converting reminds me of my wife when we met. She was a church leader, and wasn’t interested in conversion even as she enjoyed various Jewish practices. We remained intermarried for 16 years — today, she is a passionately observant Jew. At some point, doing Jewish without being Jewish didn’t make sense. She felt she was living a double life and sending mixed signals to our children.

I know many families who are fully Jewish but began intermarried. You don’t need to decide now – instead, explore this religion you seem to be excited about. Over time, you might conclude that Judaism isn’t for you. Or, you may naturally feel drawn to convert. If not, it is important to ask yourself why. Family disapproval and concerns about one’s identity are common reasons.

As my wife would tell you, practicing Judaism without being Jewish has its limitations. Judaism encompasses both individual spirituality and being part of a people. So converting is like becoming a full American citizen while doing Jewish without converting is somewhat like having a green card.

Children present certain practical issues. Some may tell you that there are no issues raising Jewish children without being Jewish. The reality is that a child’s identity is thoroughly entwined with his/her parents’. Additionally, since ancient times, Judaism passed through the mother. More recently, some have recognized patrilineal descent; but much of the Jewish world adheres to the traditional criteria. It may not be fair, but it is the reality your children will experience. I have counseled people who were brought up as patrilineal Jews, and who faced painful issues as adults.

Having said that, Judaism is ultimately about transformation — of self, of a people, of the world. So for now, be open to the possibility of transformation.

Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”

Think of it as a Process

JAMES PONET: First I note that “conversion” is an unfortunate and misleading translation of the Hebrew term, giyyur, which, closer to “naturalization,” points to a personal process by which you may become a fellow-traveler with the Jewish people. Giyyur today, outside of an Orthodox community and in spite of some efforts in certain quarters to standardize it, is a local, variable educational process, generally overseen by a rabbi, through which you may explore whether and how you might establish your own connection to a form of Judaism.

From my point of view, this process could actually begin with your hands-on participation in shaping your Jewish wedding ceremony. Instead of ceding the structuring of the wedding to a designated officiant, you and your fiancé might work with that person to clarify for yourselves just what makes a wedding distinctively and significantly Jewish. In that context you might also consider what elements of your own family’s sensibility / tradition would be important to introduce into the ceremony so that at the deepest level you and they will know that you have just publicly enacted and expressed the most important commitment of your life.

Your being a non-Jew who is open to learning and sharing the rhythms of Jewish religious life offers your fiancé an opportunity to deepen his own understanding of the traditions, intuitions and instructions of Judaism. If ever you in fact decide to go through a giyyur, I urge you to share the learning and probing process with your beloved. For together you may find your way into an old-new mode of living as Jews.

James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 2 grandchildren.

It’s Not Necessary

SUSAN KATZ MILLER: Don’t convert unless and until it feels right. The long conversion process recognizes that choosing Judaism involves spiritual wrestling. You are just at the beginning of a lifetime as part of the extended interfaith community connected to Judaism. But whether or not Judaism will be your sole religious practice has to be a personal decision.

My Episcopalian mother has been happily married to my Jewish father for over 50 years now and has never converted. In a Reform or Reconstructionist community, your children will be officially accepted as Jews (as I was) as long as they are raised in Judaism. That said, you need to be prepared for the fact that you will encounter people of every denomination (including Christians!) who assert that your children aren’t really Jewish because you aren’t Jewish, and your husband is, well, chopped liver. Unfortunately, even Orthodox conversion does not completely prevent these comments. The endless “Who is a Jew?” debate asks us to conform to multiple, conflicting standards.

At one point, my mother came to me and asked if she should convert “for the sake of you kids.” I told her I could convert myself if I ever felt the need, and that you should never convert for someone else’s sake.

You don’t mention your own religious upbringing or practice. At this point, while you are still planning your wedding, you don’t know how you are going to feel about religion from inside your marriage: sometimes immersion in a new religion inspires deeper appreciation of one’s own. Your enthusiasm for learning about Judaism is important, but I hope that your fiancé is also willing to learn about your religious background. Finally, no matter what religious choices you make, I urge you to continue to celebrate the fact that love can transcend boundaries, rather than letting anyone convince you that interfaith marriage is just a problem to be solved.

Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).

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