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.
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