“After my Bar Mitzvah, my Dad decided to convert. Will he be a real Jew then?”
Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.
I wasn’t prepared for such a troubling question by this earnest 8th grader in my class. He had been so patient; holding his hand up until the discussion we were having about interfaith families opened for questions.
The topic was Interfaith Families and the teens were very talkative during our workshop on sensitizing Jewish high school students to the many issues these families might face.
They had personal experiences about the issue, since about one-third of them were from those of interfaith families themselves. The conversation had relevance for them and they shared personal stories peppered with jokes, hurt feelings, and sometimes defiance.
The program was specifically designed for teens and consisted of film clips to trigger conversation and raise awareness.
His question came after I shared an experience I had when I was a teenager myself, while attending a large suburban Conservative synagogue in my town. I have a very clear memory of asking a congregant who someone was. He pointed to him and then lightly said: “Oh, this is Mr. So and So, who converted to Judaism….” I couldn’t figure out why I needed to know that. This man was forever labeled in my mind as ‘the one who converted.’
I’ve experienced this practice even as an adult. Why must we use labels?
Let’s come back to the boy sitting in front of me. He was obviously very concerned and wanted an answer. Yet, in the format of the program, with a full agenda and little time, I could not engage him in a full discussion of all the questions I wanted to ask him.
For example, why does he feel a need to ask this question? Does this first question represent other, more pressing questions about the choices his father made? What does he think about how the Jewish community responded to his father? Is it what he expected? Did he feel his Dad was welcomed? Rejected? Did he sense a total acceptance of the choice by his father’s family? Is he still wondering about his father’s reasons for conversion? Was it only for the ceremony or was there some deeper reason that his father made the choice he did? What impact did the father’s conversion have on him? Did it make him doubt his own choices going forward or feel more secure in them?
How would you respond to this student when there is so much more to discuss?
What I said next created some comedy, but my intention was to offer a really concrete example for this student: “Here’s how I see it. You know when someone gets his/her nose fixed? Or some cosmetic work done? Once it’s done, we no longer say, “You know, this is Ms. So and So…she recently got a nose job. We accept that the person has a new nose, and we move on. No need to reference it. We don’t need to go back to past history and label that person any differently than anyone else. Similarly, Your father’s Jewish. He’ll always be considered Jewish.”
He seemed to be reassured and we continued on with the discussion.
The students had a lot to say, and more questions to ask as the evening progressed.
The question above demonstrates just how much work we have to do to create more understanding among all of us about those who ‘choose Jewish’. Here are some tips to consider when a family member converts:
Have a family discussion about the decision. Teens are at the stage when they are actively questioning many things. Especially about religion, the meaning of life, their place among their peers, and more. They will appreciate knowing your reasons for the decision, and being included in some thoughts you’ve had.
This is an opportunity to connect with your teen about spiritual journeys. We often reserve conversations with our kids to the mundane. These conversations about religion and faith are of an entirely different level. Personal yes, but it opens so many doors.
You might schedule a meeting with the family and the Rabbi together, so all parties are aware of any new roles and responsibilities.
Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler, flickr. Creative commons license.