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Question: I was adopted at birth. Although I was raised in a home without religious affiliation, my adopted mother was a Jew by birth. I am interested in whether a Conservative congregation would consider me already Jewish or if I would have to convert. I have always understood that if my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.
Answer: The question of who is considered a Jew is a contentious one, and one that varies from community to community, Beth. That said, when you’re dealing with a community that is governed by halakhah (Jewish law), as Conservative and Orthodox communities are, you can safely assume that they will accept as Jewish anyone whose mother is Jewish, and anyone who has undergone a serious conversion.
But both categories–motherhood and conversion–can be complicated. Conversion is a notoriously sticky issue, and each community has its own standards of whose conversions it accepts, and whose it does not, based on a variety of issues. Motherhood, too, is not as simple as you might think.
According to Jewish law, your status as a Jew is determined by the person who gives birth to you. If that woman was Jewish, then you are a Jew. This means that a Jewish mother who adopts a non-Jewish child does not pass her Jewish status to the child.
I spoke to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for the Rabbinical Assembly (the organization of Conservative rabbis), about your particular situation. He wondered if you can determine whether your birth mother is Jewish, and said, “If she was, then you are Jewish by birth. If not, you would need to go through the conversion procedures, even though your adoptive mother was Jewish. Given that you are interested in learning more about your Jewish heritage in any case, I would encourage you to do that and then, if necessary, you can simply dip in a mikveh under the supervision of a group of three rabbis and rest assured that you are Jewish. ”
An Orthodox rabbi would almost certainly give you the same answer as Rabbi Dorff (though the study requirements for an Orthodox conversion may be different). A Reform rabbi, though, would likely ask you some questions about your upbringing. According to the standards of the Reform movement, to be considered Jewish you must have been brought up as a Jew by at least one Jewish parent or convert. If you weren’t raised to consider yourself Jewish then a Reform rabbi may ask you to go through a conversion before you would be considered Jewish.
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