Families and Jewish Differences

Bringing us together, tearing us apart.

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This is all the more vital for ba'alei teshuvah or other observant individuals living in a parent's home. Respecting a parent's choices, not criticizing their activities or judgment, and making space for difference should be high priorities. Insisting that the family home suddenly become kosher (or "more" kosher) is both impractical and inconsiderate; to set rules in one's parents' home usurps their proper, sacred roles. Discussing the introduction of some separate dishes, utensils, pots, and refrigerator space for kosher usage is a more appropriate alternative.

What Do You Mean, 'I'm Not Jewish'?

The issue of Jewish legal status causes a great deal of distress in the larger Jewish community, and individual families may echo this larger trend, for example when a relative's spouse or child has a conversion. Conservative rabbis do not accept conversions without the halakhic requirements of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), circumcision for males, and a rabbinic court; most Orthodox authorities do not recognize Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative conversions. Both Conservative and Orthodox authorities do not recognize the Jewish ritual status of people who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

The personal status issue becomes a bigger challenge around lifecycle ceremonies, when participation in synagogue honors may not be offered to some relatives who are expecting them. On the other hand, Orthodox relatives may feel the need to refuse service honors or remove themselves from rituals such as a prayer service where bar or bat mitzvah is celebrated or a wedding ceremony when the individuals involved have questioned Jewish status.

Finding acceptable alternatives--such as leading a prayer for the country or offering a toast at the reception--is important to recognize the familial connection and emotional bond between relatives.

Discussions surrounding Jewish identity should be approached very tentatively. Jewish identity is multifaceted and includes ethnic, familial, spiritual, communal, and ritual elements. One approach to the issue is to verbally acknowledge that there are different aspects of Jewishness, only one of which is defined by Jewish law.

Another approach would be to never discuss the question of relatives' status. Accept them as beloved family members, respect them for their uniqueness, and let loved ones deal with their personal situations in their own way. Remember: sharing one's every thought or being totally (brutally) honest is not always appropriate from a Jewish perspective.

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.