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.
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.
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.”
You can help reassure your parents by stressing the ties that will always bind you together. Many converts tell their parents that the religious education and moral example they received as children started them on the path that led to this unexpected but fulfilling destination. The decision to become a Jew is thus a continuation of the values and spiritual roots learned from parents. The bottom line is that while you may be choosing a different religion, you are not converting out of your family.
Regardless of your reassurances, however, your conversion may hurt or anger your parents, and their feelings may cause you to respond with strong emotions of your own.
When there is acrimony or an outright break, it helps to remember that hurt feelings usually mend. Some parents need a period to mourn, adjust, and make peace with the idea. Sometimes the anger is short-lived, but there are cases where it takes years before a reconciliation is possible. It is up to you to keep the lines of communication open.
Every family is different. In some households, intimate conversations are completely taboo and there may be little or no discussion of your decision. There are families where conversion becomes the focus of unrelated and long-standing family issues. And sometimes converts confront the painful fact that members of their immediate family harbor anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and Judaism. If that is the case, it’s important to gently but emphatically confront bigotry whenever it arises, “I can’t believe you said that, Mom. You raised me to believe in the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. Talking like that about other people goes against your own religious beliefs, and now you’re talking about me and people I know and love.”
The more difficult your own situation, the more important it is that you find support. Turn to your rabbi, your spouse, teachers, group leaders and classmates in your conversion course, and other Jews-by-choice. Some converts have found it helpful to speak with their parents’ clergy, or a trusted friend of the family who can act both as a sympathetic sounding board for their feelings and as an advocate for you. If there is a family breakdown, it may be useful to seek professional help to sort out the underlying family dynamics.
Since you are the person responsible for turning your family of origin into an interfaith family, it also becomes your responsibility to answer their questions about Judaism and Jews. Don’t wait for them to ask for information. Recommend or give them a few of the books and articles that you found useful; these can introduce them to some of the basic vocabulary of your Jewish life and provide a foundation for further discussion. Don’t recommend any book you haven’t read yourself, and don’t limit reading suggestions to “Introduction to Judaism” literature. Sometimes, fiction or biography conveys information in more personal and compelling ways.
And don’t expect books to teach your family everything they want or need to know. If your parents have never been inside a synagogue, invite them for a tour–perhaps accompanied by your rabbi. This is an especially good idea if you want your parents to attend a synagogue service honoring your conversion or if a Jewish wedding is in the offing.
Nevertheless, your parents may not be ready for a full immersion in Jewish life and culture. Some converts have unrealistic expectations of family members, who may be too overwhelmed or confused to comfortably attend your conversion service or to participate in a Jewish wedding ceremony. Respect their limits. And respect your own, too. Taking on a new religious identity is an enormous change, and your needs take precedence. As you grow more comfortable and confident as a Jew, you will become a better teacher and guide for your family.
Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).