Telling Parents About Conversion

Plenty of empathy and emotional support can help most parents to understand and ultimately accept their child's decision to convert.

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Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).

When you become a Jew, the redefinition does not end with you. You transform your family of origin into an interfaith family. And if you are marrying or married to a born-Jew, your partner's family likewise acquires a set of non-Jewish relatives and the interfaith label.

It's hard to predict the reaction to news of your conversion--on either home front. Some families are delighted, some are dismayed. Some open their arms, some turn a cold shoulder. Whatever the initial reaction, it may help you to recall that even eagerly awaited transitions like weddings tend to make families act a little crazy.

But unlike the stresses associated with more conventional passages--like getting married or having a baby--conversion lands you in the middle of largely uncharted waters. There are no glossy magazines called "Modern Convert" with special articles addressed to "The Mother of the New Jew-by-Choice." Nevertheless, other people have been down this road before you; their support and example can make an enormous difference.

Telling Mom and Dad Can Be Scary

"Mom. Dad. We need to talk." For many Jews-by-choice, the prospect of this conversation is the most daunting aspect of conversion, and with good reason; all family ties are deep and complicated and many are tightly knotted. Some people wait to convert until after their parents die. Others keep the fact that they have become Jews a secret for years--decades even.

"It would have killed her," they explain. "It would only break his heart." Some devoutly religious parents respond to the news of conversion with dismay and genuine fear for the immortal souls of their child and grandchildren. Secular parents, on the other hand, may be bewildered that a child of theirs would make any religious commitment at all. Then again, families can surprise you with unexpected support. Some Christians express relief and joy that a previously unchurched son or daughter has found a spiritual home in Judaism, and many parents respect the convert's desire to give his or her children an unambiguous religious identity. Still, telling your family that you are becoming a Jew is rarely an easy conversation.

However and whenever you decide to deliver the news, remember that your parents will need time to adjust to the idea.

Just as becoming a Jew is a process that unfolds over months and years (both before and after the formal ceremonies), becoming an interfaith family takes time, too. Telling your parents that you're going to convert is just the beginning. You will be explaining the meaning and implications of your choice for years to come because your parents will be coming to terms with having a Jewish child--and perhaps Jewish grandchildren--for the rest of their lives.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.