For some converts, embracing Judaism brings a renewed sense of meaning, joy and purpose to their lives. However, those who choose Judaism also have an entire life filled with relationships, memories, and expectations to navigate. Establishing one’s identity as an adult, separate from one’s parents, is complicated enough. Add religious conversion and the waters become even more turbulent.
Some people who convert to Judaism wonder how to communicate with their families of origin about their decision. They might wonder how to assure their relatives that they love them even though they have chosen a different path. Is it OK to visit with family on Christmas? How do I explain that I no longer eat ham without insulting my grandmother?
Here are some tips for converts struggling to negotiate their new faith and their families of origin.
1) Make time to reflect: Spend time, by yourself and/or with your partner, before you communicate with your relatives. What are your issues and what are theirs? What are the difficult topics? If there are several, identify which ones are the most important.
2) Plan ahead: Before family visits, it’s helpful to communicate if there are life changes that might affect the visit. Have you started keeping kosher? If so, offer to bring food or send a grocery list ahead of time. If you plan to light Shabbat candles, communicate that ahead of time and invite others to join you if that feels comfortable.
3) Explain Judaism: Universal values like compassion, gratitude and humility underlie much of Jewish Jewish practice. Explain the meaning behind the rituals and holidays, what they mean to you and how they have enriched your life.
4) Find Ways to Participate: You don’t have to be Jewish to cook latkes or attend a Passover seder. And it doesn’t make you a Christian if you still eat dinner with your family on Christmas eve. Find ways for your family of origin to participate in your Jewish life (if they want to) and continue to participate with them in their unique rituals as much as you’re comfortable. Assure them that you still care about them and that you have not erased your past. Also, nothing is written in stone. A decision you make one year does not obligate you to do the same thing forever.
5) Acknowledge Loss: Recognize that your family might feel a sense of loss now that you have chosen a path different from the one in which you were raised. Share a simple statement like, “I know this isn’t what you expected.” Or, “I know this is different.” Then listen for a response. Acknowledge your own sense of loss as well. You can be happy to be Jewish and sad to leave a part of you behind at the same time.
6) Say Thank You: For the ways in which your family is supportive, thank them. For the ways in which, perhaps, they are not, talk about that too — either to them if you think they will hear you, or to a supportive friend. You are not alone. Many others have navigated these complex waters.
7) Forgive Yourself: If now is not the time for some of these conversations, you can still model respect without talking about it explicitly. You have made a courageous decision to live a Jewish life. In your heart and in your soul, you get to be you.
Rabbi Reni Dickman is the Chicago director of InterfaithFamily.
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