My Ancestors Were Jewish, But I Was Raised With No Religion. Is There a Place for Me?

I don’t see myself becoming very religious, but I do feel a strong connection to Judaism.

For the past few weeks, Hey Alma has started soliciting dilemmas from our readers about life as a Jew. Posed first to our Instagram audience, where hundreds of followers weighed in, read on for our latest dilemma, followed by advice from deputy managing editor Vanessa Pamela Friedman, a self-described bossy Capricorn Jew.

Dear Hey Alma,

I’m a Latina who was raised without a religion. For multiple years I have felt very connected to Judaism, and I recently learned that some of my ancestors were Sephardic Jews who converted to protect themselves from persecution.

Absolutely no one in my family is Jewish. Do I have the right to explore conversion? I don’t see myself becoming very religious (since I have never been), but I do feel a strong connection to Judaism as a culture and a set of beautiful values and beliefs.

Is there a place for someone like me in Judaism?

Hello, friend! First of all, before we get into any of the feelings or practicalities of this question, I want to say firmly, resoundingly and emphatically: Yes! Yes, there is a place for someone like you in Judaism. Yes, there is a place for you in Judaism! Yes, yes, yes. Welcome. You are right where you belong.

Everyone Has The Right to Explore Conversion

Your family history ties you to Judaism in a very concrete way — you have Jewish ancestors, which means even if no one in your immediate family currently identifies as Jewish, your family history very literally is Jewish. That is more than enough reason to explore your connection to Judaism. In a different version of the world, one where your ancestors were not persecuted and didn’t need to convert to protect themselves, you may have simply been born a Jew and never had to wonder about any of this. Actually, you may be a Jew right now — more on this in a little bit! But regardless, if you now, generations later, feel empowered to go back to your Jewish history… I think that is very beautiful, and if our Instagram community’s reaction is anything to judge by, so do many many many other Jews!

But I also want to emphasize very clearly that everyone has the right to explore conversion. Even if you didn’t have a single Jewish ancestor in your lineage, you would still have the right to explore conversion. My wife is currently in the process of converting, and one of her friends who also converted said something to her at the beginning of her journey that has always stayed with me: “Sometimes a Jewish soul is born into a non-Jewish family.” I thought that was such a generous and welcoming thing to say.

I think there are so many reasons to explore conversion to Judaism. These reasons can be spiritual, religious, cultural or practical. They can be a combination. Only you can decide if you’d like to reconnect with your Judaism, but if you decide yes, you do — which it seems you have — you will find a community to welcome you and agree yes, yes you belong here with us.

Finding Community

So how do you find your community? Excellent question.

You’re already part of the Hey Alma community. As you probably already know — because you wrote in to us! — we think of ourselves as a publication for anyone who cares about Jewish identity and culture and how those fit into everyday life. We believe in using our platform to raise the voices of all Jews, but especially those who often don’t get heard enough in the organized Jewish world, including Jews of Color, queer Jews, Jews by choice, and Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. We are so glad you’re here. We’ve published a lot of articles from the perspective of converts, and I recommend cozying up with them if you haven’t already: What I Wish I Knew Before Converting to Judaism, The Best Books for Exploring Conversion to Judaism and I Converted to Judaism. But I’m Not a Jew By Choice are great places to start.

There are also many communities specifically for Sephardi Jews, Latinx Jews and Jews of Color that I’d strongly suggest you connect with. These community spaces will introduce you to people and resources that can help you decide what “converting” means for you. Jewtina is non-profit that celebrates and nurtures Latin-Jewish community, identity, leadership and resiliency. Ammud is an organization that exists to empower Jews of Color by providing community and personalized support to gather and learn unchallenged in their Jewishness. And once you start making friends in these communities, they will introduce you to more Jews, which is of course the beauty of community.

When I first received your question and found myself mulling it over, I was inspired to chat with a dear friend of mine who converted to Judaism. They shared that something that made their conversion more meaningful was being invited by Jewish friends to be Jewish together. They stressed that you’re absolutely allowed to do that before even approaching a rabbi (if you decide you want to make a formal conversion), but a lot of people considering conversion don’t because they feel they “need to know 100%” if they’re planning to convert and that’s just not true.

I really encourage you to find your Jewish community both because I think it will feed your soul to participate in Judaism with other Jews, however much or little as you choose, but also because it will give you a sense of belonging. You may decide you want to explore a formal conversion more seriously, or you may simply decide you’re happy with your connections to Judaism as they are, and for many people and their communities, that is more than enough. Plus, if you do decide you want to take more formal steps to convert, your community will be able to step in and help, too.

Actual Steps to Take to Convert

Judaism is not exactly known for its simple conversion process, and it’s true that if you choose to convert formally there are quite a few steps to take. You can read more about how to convert to Judaism on My Jewish Learning.

The first step, usually, is to find a rabbi or a synagogue you like and trust and see if they’re open to working with you. These days, most synagogues have information on their websites about conversion “specifications.” They may have a point person for you to email, or more practical information that will help you decide if this is the right path for you. You should expect to have to lay out a not insignificant amount of money and time for the conversion process (the article I linked above, What I Wish I Knew Before Converting to Judaism, speaks to this a bit). Many synagogues offer conversion classes, which I’ve heard from multiple converts can be really fun — much more fun than studying solo — and which can be another great place to create Jewish community.

I also do want to address something that came up a bit in the Hey Alma comment section, which is: What does it mean to convert in a way that honors halakhah, otherwise known as the laws of Jewish life? This differs depending on what Jewish movement you are connected with. For some Jews, only an Orthodox conversion is really valid. For some Jews, as long as three Jewish leaders say yes to your request to become a Jew and you go to the mikveh, your conversion is complete. If halakhah is important to you (which your letter does not reflect, but it may be for other people who are in similar situations and reading this) there still isn’t One Specific Way to do things. That really is the beauty of Judaism — there are many, many opinions and because of that, there are many, many options. And we like it that way!

There Is a Place for You in Judaism

I want to conclude by answering your main question one more time: YES, there is a place for you in Judaism! And it’s not just me who feels that way. So many of the responses we got to your question on Instagram were really gorgeous and informative, so I want to highlight a few here:

I’m a jewish latina, don’t forget you are not alone and that theres so many of us here!! ❤️ — @candela_diaz03

I went through the process… I have a certificate of return, not conversion, from the Reconstructivist Movement. Always happy to share more. — @drlauramcguire

Of course! And may I (a children’s librarian) recommend you read Ruth Behar’s books. She writes beautiful fiction based on her family’s Sephardic heritage, the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews escaping Cuba, and more historical and contemporary context. She uses the Sephardic language, Ladino, liberally (a beautiful language that incorporates aspects of Spanish and Hebrew and has its own songs) and her stories are rich with Sephardic culture. — @shiramario

Judaism is a beautiful religion with many different communities. I hope you find the right one that welcomes you with open arms. Follow our page for stories about our Sephardic life. — @sephardicspicegirls

will you dedicate yourself to the culture and traditions? will you treat our history with respect? but more importantly, will it bring fulfillment and joy in your life? if yes to all then go for it wholeheartedly :)< it would be an honor to have you back —

I’ve actually heard so many other stories like this! People who learned their family were forced to convert in Medieval Spain or whose grandparents were hidden children in Europe during the Holocaust and were raised Christian to help hide them. Generations later, their descendants inherited that non-Jewish religion but feel this inexplicable but deep connection to Judaism and then come to learn this history. I think it’s so so beautiful that even if your family was pushed away from Judaism due to persecution, you can find your way back. To this poster: there is ABSOLUTELY a place for someone like you in Judaism, and there always has been. Welcome home ❤ — @miaajay23

I hope these words from your fellow Jews will buoy you as you begin your journey. Welcome.

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