I’m Converting to Judaism — But I Grew Up Jewish

It has been an experience of heartbreak to lose my Jewish identity after being sure of it all my life.

At the moment, my Jewish status is murky.

Until the age of about 19, I was completely unaware that there was even any potential question surrounding my Jewish status. My dad is Jewish, and my parents chose to convert me when I was born through the Conservative movement. For most of my life, growing up in a small northern city far removed from the British Jewish hubs of London and Manchester, I identified as Jewish with no turmoil, no question. After all, I had been raised Jewish, and was fully accepted in my home community as Jewish.

I then went to university and started learning about the concept of “matrilineal descent” from my new group of Jewish peers, most of whom – even if they were secular – had been raised with an Orthodox Jewish sensibility, as the British Jewish institutional world is almost entirely Orthodox. My home community was too small to have overt divisions, and so unlike friends from larger cities, I had not truly been aware of the different Jewish movements and different standards of Jewish status until this point. For the first time, I discovered there was a question of whether my Conservative conversion would “count” in Orthodox Judaism, meaning that, for some people, I was not a Jew on technical grounds, and therefore not at all.

In other words, according to some opinions, I am a born Jew because my dad is Jewish. According to others, I am a convert to Judaism because I was not born Jewish, but my parents converted me into the Conservative movement. And to a final group, I am neither a born Jew — because my mother is not Jewish — nor a convert, because my Conservative conversion is not seen as legally valid.

I remember the first time I became aware of the issue was in a discussion of the Israeli rabbinate, when someone said to me, “It sounds crazy, but there’s a chance the Israeli rabbinate wouldn’t see you as Jewish!”

This person meant no harm by the statement, but it still planted the question of my Jewish status in my mind for the first time.

Over the next year, I became more involved with Orthodox Jewish life, and soon I began looking into the idea of being a ba’al teshuva, or “returning” to a more Orthodox style of Jewish practice and belief. As I explored my religious options, I figured that of course I would be considered a reconnecting Jew, rather than a non-Jew converting in, right? But my friend’s comment from a year ago was still in the back of my mind. I had a sinking feeling my status might not hold up to scrutiny.

At this point, I was mostly curious to discover which communities would accept me as Jewish, and I decided to send my Conservative conversion certificate to a local Orthodox rabbi, who agreed to look into the matter, as there was a chance the conversion may have been halachic after all. The whole situation felt like a status headache, and I figured it was worth knowing as much as I could about my status. Around the same time, I went to a Shabbat lunch hosted by a local rabbinic couple who asked what I might be doing after I graduate university. I answered “maybe seminary, but that’s nothing more than a floating idea right now,” and then, lo and behold, the next week I was greeted by the rebbetzin telling me she had found a few places that would be a great fit for me. With real options to consider, the seminary plan became more concrete. The more I looked into it, the more the Orthodox seminary options seemed like the best fit, which meant that suddenly my status in the Orthodox world mattered.

This point, February 2022, is when it all came to a head. I had known I would have to reveal my whole status headache to the rebbetzin at some point, especially because, in the meantime, the other rabbi was still looking into my first conversion. So I sent that dreaded message. I had a gut feeling that I would be told I wasn’t Jewish. All I had read thus far indicated that the chances of a Conservative conversion happening to meet Orthodox standards were slim-to-none. I had been comforted by not needing to address it. For a while it seemed the longer I didn’t address it the longer I could remain Jewish, until I couldn’t. Now the time had come. I had to be upfront about my status to have an honest shot at getting into any of these seminaries, and it was better for everyone to be fully clued in as early as possible. Soon after I sent that message, the rebbetzin gently broke the news to me that I would have to be in the process of an Orthodox conversion to attend any of her recommended seminaries. This was confirmed when I had phone interviews with the institutions themselves. The rabbi who had been looking into my first conversion got back to me around the same time, confirming that I would have to convert (again) if I wanted to be considered Jewish in Orthodox circles and to the British institutional Jewish world.

At this point, I am in the early stages of an Orthodox conversion process and have found a place at a seminary for the next academic year. While the situation all makes logical sense to me, I have to admit that adjusting my own view of myself is taking more time. To mentally shift from being Jewish to not being Jewish after never having had the lived experience of a non-Jewish life is difficult. The truth is that I do still have a Jewish identity, and I do still think of myself as a Jew. How could I not? Am I just to forget every seder? Every Shabbat? My own bat mitzvah?

I have not yet been able to have the conversation with myself where I fully admit to myself that I am not Jewish— according to my own understanding. I know I am entering a Jewish world of legal realities, laws, and traditions. I completely understand the importance of these and have respect for upholding halacha, hence my undergoing this process. I believe the details matter, and that is just one reason I am committing myself to living an Orthodox Jewish life. But part of me can’t shake my emotional reaction to this – am I really not already Jewish? It feels odd to say, though my rational brain knows it to be true. I have progressed to the point where I make sure of what I shouldn’t do, knowing that my status as a non-Jew has real implications for the Jewish worlds I travel in. In Orthodox Jewish kitchens, for example, a non-Jew who turns on a kashered oven could render the food cooked not kosher, and unusable. So if I’m in a kitchen I can say “is there anything I shouldn’t use” and hope the person can deduce why I am asking without my needing to spell it out.

I am lucky that no one around me has pushed me to more fully own up to my new reality of not being Jewish under Orthodox law. Only one phone interview with a seminary featured a “well you’re not Jewish” moment which, I’ll be honest, felt rather a blunt way to go about things. All the other people in my life have handled it with a touch more delicacy — such as not asking me to do things for them on Shabbat, as they might ask someone who was not Jewish — and I am immensely grateful for this. It has been, somewhat, an experience of heartbreak to lose my Jewish identity, after being sure of it all my life. Having those around me treat my situation with respect has softened the blow, and made it easier to accept.

But my own experience has made me reconsider the way we talk about conversion in the Jewish world.

Too often, I think people forget that many of us in these conversations are people like me. People who do not fit neatly into the box of ‘convert’ or ‘born Jew’ but are often left out of discussions where these groups are treated as a binary dichotomy. The process of conversion, and the materials targeted towards those who need to convert, so often assume the person is coming in cold, with no knowledge. When people say “converts don’t know what it’s like to grow up Jewish,” I do know. When people say “converts don’t know what it’s like to have direct Jewish ancestry and a recent family history of Jewish persecution,” I do. When people say “converts don’t have first-hand experience of growing up facing antisemitism,” I want to tell them my first memory of experiencing antisemitism is from when I was 6 years old. I do know. These are common sentiments I hear expressed about how converts don’t truly understand the Jewish experience, as if there is one universal experience. It is a painful and unnecessarily adversarial way to discuss conversion, and causes more pain and harm than I think most people realize. In addition, I can assure any skeptic that many people converting to Judaism have common experiences with born Jews, and it should not be assumed otherwise. Conversely, there are many born Jews who do not go through certain experiences and that does not make them less Jewish. Splitting Jews into the binary categories of ‘born Jews’ and ‘converts’ makes untrue and potentially invalidating assumptions of people on both sides.

At the moment, I am taking steps to remedy the issue of my halachic status by pursuing an Orthodox conversion. I don’t resent my upcoming Orthodox conversion process; if anything, I am excited for it. I’m excited for this experience to ground me more fully in my identity as a convert, one I have long held but little remembered. Though I converted to Conservative Judaism as a baby, I cannot relate to the experiences of other converts. The studying, the facing a beit din, the immersion in the mikveh – I was too young to remember any of it, and it was so different from the experience of an adult conversion. My two-year-old self was hardly given a reading list. Facing a conversion process as an adult will not only cement my halachic status, but put me in step with the experience of other converts. And though my own identity has been shaken by this new information, the process has opened my eyes to how little I know about Judaism. I know learning is a life-long process, but I look forward to filling in some of the gaps at seminary next year, though I am aware that I’m likely to leave mostly with the knowledge that I know even less than I thought I did.

I fall between the lines: my identity cannot be neatly placed in one box. However, I am not unique by any means, and those of us in my situation should not be erased from important discussions concerning Jewish identity.

Naomi Reiter

Naomi Reiter (she/her) is in her final year of her undergraduate degree. She is heavily involved in Jewish life on campus through the campus Jewish society, the Chabad society, and the Jewish identity column in her university newspaper she has run with friends for the past year.

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