What Would Sarah Do?  Ancient advice for modern times.

The Woes of Being Jewish

Dear Sivan,

My last name is Cohen. I was a student at Temple Beth Shalom and had my bat mitzvah in 1999. I am now 28 years old and have fallen in love with a young man who comes from Israel. My partner's family is not completely excited about his relationship with me because according to them (and to Israel)... I am not Jewish. My father is Jewish, but my mother is not.

Because of this, apparently all of my time going through Hebrew school, participating in the High Holy Days, listening to the Holocaust survivors come into the temple to speak to us children, baking challah bread and promising my rabbi at the time of my bat mitzvah that I will continue these traditions and pass them on to my future family isn't good enough. Apparently, according to the nation of Israel, my "Jewishness" isn't real.

My partner explained that I am not allowed to live in Israel unless I convert to Judaism or get married to a Jewish man (that was not a proposal!). I am heartbroken and confused. I resent the fact that I would need to convert. Would showing my bat mitzvah certificate to the Israeli embassy prove that I am Jewish? What can I do?!


The Disputed Jewess




The most famous "convert" in the Bible is Ruth. Considered "The Mother of all Converts," and known as the great-grandmother of King David, Ruth left her homeland and her religion behind her to become a member of the Nation of Israel. In those days, "conversion" required little more than living among the Israelite community. Today, matters are far more complicated.

Rabbinic tradition reckons Ruth as the first ‘convert.’ But the religion of ancient Israel up to the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE does not provide for what we know as ‘religious conversion.’ Rather, one could live among the national Israelite community by virtue of taking up residence in the land of Israel and abiding by the rules and regulations.
— JewishRecon.org

We have much to learn from Ruth, as a woman and as an exemplary human being, but she has little to teach us about the modern trials and tribulations of converting to Judaism.

Ruth’s story is both touching and noble; it speaks of the centrality of ‘hesed,’ meaning fidelity, loyalty, reliability, stability, trustworthiness. Ruth binds herself to ... a people, and through her acts of kindness as well as of courage she becomes an exemplar of decency and vision.
— JewishRecon.org

If you could consult with "The Mother of All Converts," Ruth would tell you to follow your heart and live a life of kindness, generosity, and loyalty. She would likely tell you that this is what it means to be Jewish, not jumping through the hoops imposed upon us today by the rabbinate.




Dear Disputed Jewess,

I'm glad you came to me with this. I'm actually a bit of an expert. My mother is a convert, a dear friend is a convert, and I have TONS of Israeli "legitimate Jewish" cousins who have undergone every type of marriage ritual available to Israelis. So, here is what I know:

Aside from bearing the discrimination of your future in-laws, and absent your own genuine desire to convert, the question of your conversion is only relevant if and when you're going to marry your guy. His family sounds a bit elitist, imho, if they think you're not Jewish just because your mother isn't Jewish.

But, you're right. Hebrew school, a bat mitzvah, the last name Cohen--none of it matters as far as the rabbinate in Israel is concerned. If your mother isn't Jewish, you're not Jewish, in the eyes of some Jewish sects, including those who control marriage in Israel.

So, if and when you are going to marry your guy, you have two choices:

1) Forget converting to a religion you already feel that you belong to. You can get married outside of Israel (in the U.S., or in Cyprus or some other Mediterranean country off the coast of Israel, if you want to make it easy for his family present). This is very popular even among recognized Jews in Israel, because the rabbinate is a bit too authoritative for many Israelis, to put it mildly. You do not need to convert if you pursue this option, and your marriage will be recognized for legal purposes in Israel. This is by far the easiest and least oppressive approach.

Since the Israeli population registry recognizes civil marriages performed abroad, a growing number of Israelis are marrying in civil ceremonies outside Israel, and circumventing the rabbinate altogether.
— MyJewishLearning.com
Israel does recognise civil or religious marriages entered into outside Israel.
— Wikipedia.org

2) You can convert. Converting is like becoming a citizen of the U.S. You'll know far more about Judaism than many of your "legitimately Jewish" friends and family. It takes forever. They may want you to live separately during the conversion process, and will require you to jump through a lot of hoops that so-called natural-born Jews do not have to undergo to be considered Jewish in the eyes of the same rabbinate.

Nonetheless, you may find that conversion becomes important to you for any number of personal reasons. If, for whatever reason, you do decide to convert, my advice is to find a low-key rabbi. Someone who is recognized by the rabbinate in Israel, but who is flexible, understanding, and progressive. Make this transition as easy as possible on yourself and your partner.

Nonetheless, if you do choose to convert, I still suggest marrying outside of Israel. Why?

4) If you decide to get married in Israel, beware: The rabbinate is notorious for favoring and siding with men. If things don't work out and you have to divorce, there will likely be great obstaclesperhaps insurmountablestanding in your way as the woman. You cannot ask for a divorce; only your husband can, for example. Your husband can unilaterally refuse to grant you a divorce. (As the woman, you do not have that same option available.) The Israeli rabbinate also tends to favor fathers when children are involved. You could lose custody of your kids. They could live in Israel with your ex-husband and you could find yourself with little-to-no rights regarding your own children. 

My advice, therefore, is this: If you are only converting to please others, think twice about converting, and consider marrying outside of Israel. If you find that conversion is something that you want to do for yourself, thinknot twice, but three timesbefore giving the Israeli rabbinate power over your marriage and family. Educate yourselfbefore you get married in Israelas to all potential consequences of a religious marriage in Israel.

With women's wisdom and women's words,