Question: Am I Jewish?
I am African-American. My grandmother converted to Judaism as a young woman. She raised my mother as a Jew, however, as an adult my mother converted to Baptist. Am I Jewish?
Answer: Dear Denise,
Thank you for your letter. You say that your maternal grandmother converted to Judaism as a young woman and you wonder whether you would be considered Jewish, too. You are uncertain about this, in part, because your mother later converted to Christianity.
Your letter also mentioned that you are African-American. Race has no bearing whatsoever on religious identity in Judaism. Jewish law is color blind and makes no distinctions between Jews of different races.
You would be considered a Jew according to traditional Jewish law, if 1) your grandmother's conversion was conducted under a valid rabbinic authority, and 2) your mother was born after your grandmother's conversion.
In traditional Jewish law, Jewish identity is inherited through the mother only. Further, once a person is Jewish - either by having a Jewish mother or by converting to Judaism - he or she is considered Jewish for life. Though such people may sin by rejecting Judaism, they cannot "convert out."
One exception to this rule is a person who was converted to Judaism by his or her parents as a child. A person in this case is presumed Jewish as a child, but the conversion is not considered "sealed" until he or she accepts Judaism as an adult. If such a person rejects Judaism upon reaching adulthood, the conversion is "annulled." This is why, if your mother was converted to Judaism as an infant or child, there is an argument to say that she was never truly a Jew, since she later embraced Christianity. However, if your grandmother already was Jewish at the time of your mother's birth, your mother would remain Jewish for life, and so would you, in the eyes of traditionally observant Jews.
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.
Also, the Reform Movement does not follow the tradition of recognizing inheritance of Jewish identity solely through the mother. The position of most Reform rabbis is to accept the Jewish identity of a person with only one Jewish parent (a mother or father) only if he or she was raised as a Jew with appropriate public rituals of Jewish identity (a Jewish baby naming, for example).
If your mother identified herself as a Baptist when you were born and you were not raised as a Jew, most Reform rabbis would not consider you to be a Jew. Of course, if you are interested in learning more about Judaism and your Jewish heritage, you would be most welcome to pursue that by attending synagogue services, taking Jewish adult education classes, and, certainly, discussing all of this with a rabbi.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser