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Converting Patrilineal Jews Requires Special Sensitivity

Most young adults with non-Jewish mothers who seek conversion end up in the Conservative movement.

That makes sense: Many were raised in Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal communities that accept patrilineality, and then their parents, or they themselves, switched affiliation to a Conservative congregation that requires the conversion of those with non-Jewish mothers.

But Reform and Orthodox rabbis also are dealing with the phenomenon, which is increasing as more children from the first big intermarriage wave of the 1970s and ’80s enter adulthood.

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, a large Orthodox congregation in Washington, is chair of the conversion committee for the Rabbinical Council of America, the professional association of Orthodox rabbis. He confirms that Orthodox rabbis are seeing more of these cases, generally young people who were raised Reform or Reconstructionist and then became more observant and want to convert according to halacha, or Jewish law.

"It’s very painful to find out they’re not Jewish," Freundel acknowledges. "Once in a while," Fruendel says, he has heard people refer to the process as an affirmation rather than a conversion, but not often.

"They just say, ‘I grew up Jewish, I feel Jewish, I understand the halacha says no and I want a halachic conversion,’ " he says.

Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J., says that although the Reform movement to which he belongs recognizes patrilineality, he has performed many conversions for patrilineal Jews who want ritual confirmation of their Jewishness.

Gluck considers these people fully Jewish already, so he sees the ceremony as an affirmation rather than a conversion. In fact, he likes the idea promoted by some Jewish leaders that all b’nei mitzvah candidates should go to the mikvah to affirm their spiritual connection to Judaism.

But he respects individual needs, and if a patrilineal Jew wan! ts to go to the mikvah, he’s happy to help.

"Who am I to tell them that they feel Jewish enough for themselves?" he says. "Some feel very strongly they don’t want to be in a position where their Jewishness could be questioned by anyone."

But only some Conservative rabbis, and no Orthodox rabbis, recognize Reform conversions. So the finger-pointing is not necessarily staved off, and many Jewish leaders fault Reform rabbis who don’t make that clear to their congregants.

Kathy Bloomfield is Mikvah Center director of Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikvah in Newton, Mass. She has seen many cases, she says, of older children who were raised Jewish in Reform congregations and later faced questions about their status.

"Maybe the family moved and joined a Conservative congregation, the time comes for their bat mitzvah and they’re told they’re not Jewish," she says. "We need to tell the Reform community that patrilineal descent is wonderful, but they have to be prepared when they go to college and are told they’re not Jewish."

Being up front about the different interpretations of "Who is a Jew?" prevents emotional trauma and helps ease the way for those who ultimately choose conversion.

"They shouldn’t come into the mikvah angry at the world for making them do this," she counsels.

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