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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How to Tell Your Parents

There is no "right" way or time to tell your parents about your decision. However, psychologists who work with converts suggest that it's better to give your family some time to grow accustomed to the idea. If you present them with a fait accompli ("I'm becoming a Jew next week"), they are likely to feel shut out, cut off, and hurt.

If possible, let your family in on your decision-making process. Tell them you've been celebrating Jewish holidays with your fiancé's family. Let your parents know when you've signed up for an "Introduction to Judaism" course, and talk to them about what you're learning and thinking. Then, when you tell them that you've decided Judaism is right for you, it won't come like a bolt out of the blue.

Given the geographical distance that divides so many families, many converts begin the process by letter. A long, thoughtful letter has the advantage of giving you time to choose your words carefully; it also permits your family time to think about their reply.

If you decide to make an announcement in person, do it in a private and neutral setting rather than at a family celebration or holiday party. Even if you're fairly confident that your family will be supportive and even if you've been preparing them for years, it still may come as a shock. The last thing you want is for your Jewishness to be associated with the time you "ruined" your parents' anniversary dinner.

While there are exceptions, this is a conversation best had without your Jewish partner in the room. It's not fair to put him or her in the middle, especially if your family harbors any suspicion that you're converting "for" him or under pressure from his family.

Matters of faith and religious identity are not easy to discuss. Religion is a taboo subject for many people precisely because it's so easy to give and take offense. When you tell your family you plan to become a Jew, you break this taboo wide open. Matters of faith can become the subject of a heated debate in which people (including you) may be offended or hurt.

Their Reaction

However, questions are not necessarily insults or attacks. Since it's likely that your parents and other family members will be genuinely curious about your decision, it may be a good idea to plan how to answer such questions as: "Are you converting just to please her (or him)?" "Why can't he (or she) be the one to convert?" "Since when do you believe in God? That's not something we taught you." "But you love Christmas!" Some rabbis say that they consider these kinds of conversations to be a legitimate test of a prospective Jew's readiness and sincerity. If you can't explain yourself to your parents or remain firm in your resolve when challenged, you may not be ready to convert.

Even if they have no theological objections to your choice, family members--especially parents--may perceive your decision to convert as a rejection of them and everything they believe in. Although all parents have to let go of their children and accept their independence, religious conversion is an unexpected form of separation. It is a declaration of difference that may engender fears of abandonment, loss, or betrayal--even if those words are never spoken. Your family may worry what your becoming Jewish will do to your relationship with them, and wonder what it means for you to become one of "them" rather than one of "us."

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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.