When I was a child and refused to go to Shul, it was my mother who dragged me out of bed. She taught me the laws of Shabbat, to separate challah, how to keep a kosher home. My mother did not convert for my father, she liked to remind us. The first time, she converted for herself. The second time, she converted for me.
It began when she was pregnant and looking for a Mohel to perform my bris (circumcision). I turned out to be a girl, but my parents never learned their children's genders in advance. They had recently moved to a Conservative synagogue, so my mother approached the rabbi there. He asked her about her first conversion through the Reform movement, and after learning about the details, he encouraged her to convert again. My mother felt hurt that her choice to follow Judaism for nearly eight years was not recognized. However, she converted a second time through the Conservative movement, so that I would live my life free from doubt.
Doubt found me anyway, introducing himself at my university's Hillel as I discussed conversion with a friend. My mother converted, I said proudly. My friend's eyebrows raised. "Through what movement?" She asked. I did not know. The atmosphere changed. "You should find out," she said. I did, and reported back. She was the first to tell me that I might not be Jewish.
The Orthodox movement requires three male, Jewish witnesses who observe halachah (traditional Jewish law) to validate a conversion. Given the differences in observance across different Jewish movements, many Orthodox leaders consider the witnesses in a Conservative conversion to be problematic. Having been raised Orthodox after my family moved to West Virginia, I can understand why they might feel this way. Even so, I cannot describe the pain I felt that day. It was like being deeply in love for 18 years, only to learn suddenly that the relationship was "maybe" over.
During college, my peers gave me their version of the rules of my new life as a Saphek, someone whose Jewish identity is in doubt. I should keep kashrut (dietary laws), but I should not keep Shabbat, since it is a special gift from God to the Jewish people. I should not date a gentile; I must not date a Jew. I should not recite kiddush and motzi (blessings over wine and bread) at Shabbat dinner, even in a pluralistic environment, lest others mistake me for a Jew and leave their own blessings unfulfilled by saying "Amen" to mine. As a woman, my situation is uniquely problematic, since the Orthodox movement considers Jewish identity to pass through the mother. Treating me as a Jew would allow me to marry a Jewish man and to bear him potentially non-Jewish children. The issue is always discussed in this way: in terms of what damage I might cause the Jewish community if I am not a Jew. The possibility that the Jewish community might be harming me, preventing me from living as a Jew if indeed I am one, does not seem to be of concern.
As a college student, my community has caused me an enormous amount of harm. Well-meaning friends advise me to "just convert," with no comprehension of the feeling of having your Jewish roots pulled out from under you. The treatment by my somewhat-learned peers has practical ramifications as well. For the past year, I have ceased attending Friday night dinners at my Hillel to avoid the embarrassment of declining to lead kiddush and motzi and having to explain why. Some Jewish friends who learn of my religious status have asked me to carry things for them on Shabbat, an action that for me is more undoable than unthinkable. In all of these cases, my peers did not consult a rabbinic authority beforehand, making split-second decisions that distanced me from my faith and caused deep, lasting grief.
While Orthodox leaders continue to grapple with this issue, I do not ask that anyone accept me as a Jew. However, I do ask them to treat me with kindness and respect, to take the time to consult a knowledgeable authority before taking matters into their own hands. I ask Jewish leaders to take the time to educate their communities on this issue, a somewhat taboo topic that must nevertheless be addressed. I ask all to consider whether they are strengthening Judaism by distancing me, or simply refusing a young woman an achingly beautiful heritage that might be hers. Perhaps one day I will convert through the Orthodox movement to relieve them of this question. In the meantime, I will keep kosher. I will observe Shabbat this weekend, and the next, and I will say kiddush and motzei for my friends. Anyone who wants can say "Amen."
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