Question: Am I Jewish despite my mother's conversion back to Christianity?
My father is Jewish. My mother converted to Judaism (Conservative) before I was born. She still considered herself Jewish when I was born. I was raised in a Jewish household. However, I've not been educated very well and have never been in a synagogue. Also, my mother no longer considers herself jewish. Is my mother still Jewish even though she says she's not? Am I jewish despite my ignorance and my mother's conversion back to Christianity?
Answer: Thank you for your letter. You say that you are the child of a father who was born Jewish and a mother who converted to Judaism before you were born and who was Jewish at the time of your birth. Your mother, however, has subsequently embraced Christianity. You also state that you've had little Jewish education. You ask if you would be considered Jewish based on this background.
The question that your question hinges upon is the validity of your mother's conversion. Jews from different branches of Judaism will have different opinions on that, so they also will differ on determining whether you are Jewish.
Your mother's conversion to Christianity might raise questions for orthodox Jews about her status at the time of your birth, but it alone does not determine anything. Traditionally, a person cannot lose the status of being a Jew by the "sin" of converting to another religion. Things are a bit different in Reform Judaism. The Reform Movement tends to give more weight to individual choices in matters of identity -- including the choice to convert to a different religion.
In general, orthodox authorities do not accept any form of non-orthodox conversion, so they would not recognize your mother's conversion in the first place. Therefore they also would not recognize you as a Jew.
A few Conservative authorities might wish to question the level of Jewish observance in your home following your mother's conversion in order to determine its validity. I believe, however, that the large majority of Conservative rabbis would accept your mother's conversion on its face and accept you as a Jew.
Given the facts you've stated, I believe that you would be accepted as a Jew by almost all Reform congregations because both of your parents were Jews at the time of your birth. However, without a Jewish mother, most Reform congregations would not consider you to be a Jew if you were not raised with "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people." Such acts could include a Jewish baby naming for a girl or a brit milah (bris) ceremony for a boy.
So, at least according to some, you are a Jew. What does that mean? Not much if you do not intend to do something with it. If you wish to make Judaism a part of your life, you must enter into the life a Jewish community. Take that first step into a synagogue, find a rabbi and a community that makes you feel comfortable. Learn a little about Judaism and begin to take on Jewish practices.
I receive many questions from people in situations similar to yours. I believe that, by asking the questions, you are beginning to explore how connecting with Judaism could bring more fulfillment to your life. I encourage you to begin the journey.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser