The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
When I was young woman I converted to Judaism. I had just married a Jewish man who wanted to raise Jewish children, some for his parents but also for himself, and so before we got pregnant I went through the process and became a Jew. I can’t say I remember ever feeling truly Jewish myself, but I did it for my family, so we could be part of a community and a value system that I believed in.
We now have two adult children, one married to a Jew and one engaged to one, and one Jewish grandchild, a toddler who goes to a Shabbat class once a week. Mission accomplished. Seesaw, I was raised Quaker and now that I my children are grown and my house is quiet I have found myself longing to return to worship with them. I feel guilty about this, but also excited about the prospect of returning to a form of spirituality that I connect with – or at least once did. I would still accompany my husband to synagogue whenever he wants and participate in services as I have over the years, and would still host holidays at our house with joy. So, if I do go to a Quaker meeting, what would this mean for my family? My Judaism? My marriage?—Straying
It’s Not Uncommon to Revisit One’s Past as Life Progresses
RUTH NEMZOFF: You have certainly done your part for the Jewish people. I thank you for the time effort and energy you have devoted to Judaism and to Jewish continuity.
My opinion matters little in response to this question. Rather, I suggest you talk with your husband and explain how you feel. Highlight the pride you feel in having accomplished the goal the two of you set as a couple to raise a Jewish family. Mention that you are enthusiastically willing to continue the family’s Jewish practice. Share your need to explore your roots and add your past spiritual practices to your present. Mention it is not uncommon for individuals to revisit their childhood and its solace as life progresses. Let your husband know you are not asking him to come with you, nor for his permission, but you want to be honest with him about your desires. Note that you have worked successfully as a couple over many years and you hope you will have his support as you continue your spiritual journey. Depending on your relationship and trust with your rabbi, you can consult with him.
After the two of you have come to an understanding, together you can decide if and when to tell the children. They are adults after all. I’d like to end this by once again expressing gratitude for what you have done to date.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Board of Interfaithfamily.
The Problem Here is that Conversion is for Life
SCOTT PERLO: Ruth wasn’t the first person to convert, but she is the most famous, and is deeply beloved in our tradition. When Naomi, her mother-in-law, tried to send her back to Ruth’s own people, this was the response that made her so loved, “…for wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Your description of your conversion does not sound like Ruth’s. Had I been part of your conversion process, I would have urged you not to go through with it, and to have your children converted instead. Not “ever feeling truly Jewish myself,” is a sign that conversion isn’t right for a person.
The problem here is that conversion is for life. Both born and converted Jews cannot leave Judaism, according to the Torah. You could claim that the conversion didn’t really ever “take,” I suppose, but that’d affect the status of your children (and theirs).
I think that you made a commitment to this people and its religion, and that you should keep to it. Rather than leave, push to find a way into it that also brings meaning and solace. I think the right move is to accept the ramifications of the choice that you’ve made.
To be blunt, saying “mission accomplished” rubs me the wrong way. Jewish continuity is important – as a means to an end. Continuity matters because we need a critical mass to make Judaism and Jewishness vibrant. It isn’t a box to be checked.
Perhaps it’s time to look at your conversion as more than a gift to your husband and your family, and to find yourself in the people and the religion that you joined, years ago.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
This is the Time to Experience Judaism On Your Own Terms, and Give it One More Shot
HAROLD BERMAN: My wife and I are currently writing our second book, exploring the journeys of a dozen converts from multiple countries now living in Israel. Among them is a woman, married to a rabbi, who was raised a New England Quaker. Although she enjoyed the quietude of Quaker worship growing up, she has never longed to return. Her adult spiritual identity is 100% Jewish.
One critical difference, I think, between her experience and yours, is that she converted solely for herself, before starting a family. You converted, as you said, “for your family,” and have experienced being Jewish only in that context. Conversely, you experienced being a Quaker on its own terms, rather than to bring up children.
Now that your children are grown, it is common to feel a void, and Judaism can no longer speak to your past goal of raising a family. You have not had the opportunity to experience Judaism just for yourself. Yet, to feel spiritually fulfilled as a Jew now, your relationship to Judaism cannot be what it was when you were raising children.
You have already lived as a Jew for decades, and express some conflict and guilt about returning to Quaker worship. It would therefore be worthwhile to give yourself the space (and possibly the gift) to fully explore what being Jewish could be in this new and very different phase of your life. It would also be worthwhile to pinpoint what you miss about being a Quaker. Is it a specific spiritual experience? A longing for feelings from your childhood? Something else?
Once you know exactly what is missing, you can explore Judaism with fresh eyes. Paradoxically, by exploring Judaism just for yourself, you may experience Judaism with your family more deeply. But whatever you ultimately do, you will feel better if you can tell yourself that you gave Judaism your best shot.
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.”