Question: My husband and I are both Jewish. We are planning to adopt a child whose birth mother is not Jewish (the birth father is unknown), and we hope to raise the child Jewish. Does the baby have to have a formal conversion? Is it really possible to convert babies, since they don’t have free will and can’t actually choose to become Jewish?
Answer: Conversion is one of the stickiest wickets in the Jewish world today, Sarah. Conversions of all denominations are being called into question by various institutions and organizations, and everyone is trying to answer the complex question, “Who is a Jew?”
Halakhah (Jewish law) does allow for the conversion of babies and children under the assumption that being Jewish is a privilege that the child would want. The caveat is that when the child is 12 or 13 he or she must be presented with the option of renouncing his or her conversion. If, at that point, they choose to accept Judaism or are silent, they are deemed adult converts.
The main issue with converting a child, as with an adult, is who oversees, and thus who recognizes the conversion. Every Jewish institution has different rules and policies about what conversions they do and don’t accept, so though it may seem odd, you should start thinking about what schools, camps, and synagogues you want your child to go to.
If you’re thinking about a Jewish day school, it’s best to call the school and ask what their policy is for adopted and converted children. They may say that they accept all conversions, or only the conversions of one or two specific rabbis or denominations. There’s a lot of variety, so it’s best to do your research now, if possible. You may also want to talk to a few different rabbis about how they do conversions. If they convert your child are they expecting you to maintain a certain level of religious observance?
Unfortunately, conversion politics are notoriously fickle, so no matter what you choose, there’s some risk that later on your child will encounter a person or organization who doesn’t recognize his or her conversion. This is something you may want to discuss with your child as he or she gets older, but for the time being, you just choose what makes the most sense for your family. You may also want to ask any other Jewish families that have gone through adoptions what they did about conversion and if they were happy with their decision.
In terms of the particulars of the conversion, it depends on if it’s a boy or a girl. If the baby is a boy, he needs to be circumcised by a mohel first (ideally, on the eighth day after he is born). If the baby has already been circumcised, a mohel will perform something called a hatafat dam brit, which draws a drop of blood from the baby’s penis. Then the baby is immersed in a mikveh (you or your husband will go into the mikveh with the child, to ensure his safety) under the supervision of a beit din, a group of three rabbinic authorities. One of them will recite the blessing for immersion on behalf of the child, and the child will be given a Hebrew name, and then declared Jewish. Baby girls only need to be immersed in the mikveh (this process is called tevilah) and given a Hebrew name.
These steps are required for a Conservative or an Orthodox conversion. A Reform conversion may simply entail circumcision for a boy and taking on a Hebrew name, but can include tevilah for both boys and girls. You can talk to your Reform rabbi about what you’d prefer.
It’s worth noting that an Orthodox conversion is the most likely to be recognized by the greatest number of institutions and organizations later on, but if your family is not Orthodox, you may have trouble finding an Orthodox rabbi to perform the conversion.
Regardless of the kind of conversion your baby has, all three major movements agree that before the child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah he or she should be given an opportunity to denounce the conversion.
I spoke with Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, Director of Conversions at the Rabbinical Council of America, and he said, “The person must be made aware that they were converted as an infant or a minor and be given the option to opt out. You have to tell them.” There isn’t a set ritual or liturgy for this conversation, but authorities agree that you (and/or a rabbi) should sit down with your child, tell him about his conversion, and make him aware that if he doesn’t want to be Jewish, it is fully within his rights to leave the faith.
As I said before, even converting an infant is a complicated and sometimes intimidating process. The best thing you can do is know your options and work with your rabbi to make the journey appropriate for your family.
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Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.