Campaign: If Children Are Not Jewish – Tell Them
For years, the Ami conversion learning center has received desperate appeals from Israelis who did not know they were not Jewish until after they had begun planning their weddings. Now, the center is appealing to parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their status in childhood, in hopes of helping future couples avoid distress.
The problem of young adults who are unaware that they are not Jewish according to Jewish law is particularly widespread among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, explained Rabbi David Benissan. “There, religion is thought to follow the father. Also, in the former Soviet Union they were treated as Jews,” he said.
In Israel, he said, “The parents avoid telling their children that they are not Jewish in childhood with good intentions, so that the children will not feel different from the rest of society. It truly comes from a good place, from the parents’ love for their children.”
In an open letter to parents, Rabbi Benissan explained the likely results of covering up the truth – results he deals with regularly in the course of his work at Ami. “I often meet young couples who are just months before their wedding… and then they discover to their shock that one of them is not Jewish (or may not be) because their mother is not Jewish."
“At that moment, the couple (the Jewish partner included) feel as if the sky has crashed down on them. They feel that their world has been destroyed, after spending their entire life believing they were Jewish and even keeping Jewish tradition to some extent,” he continued.
The belated discovery can create tremendous financial and social pressure, he warned, as couples often are informed that one partner is not Jewish only after having reserved a wedding hall and invited guests. “After the initial shock they turn to us and ask us to help them prepare for conversion, in hopes that we can do so by the planned wedding date – but that is usually not realistic (the standard conversion process takes 10 months), and their world collapses again as they understand the serious problems they face,” he explained.
“Dear parents, your children are Israeli and are loved and accepted by all, but we must remember that according to Judaism a child’s religious status follows that of the mother, and many of our wonderful youth are not considered Jews by Jewish law,” the rabbi wrote. “My request, dear parents, is that you inform your children of their mother’s non-Jewish status (or uncertain status) at an early age, by the end of high school at the very latest, so that they can choose conversion if they wish, in the army or elsewhere, but not at the minute before their wedding.”
“I meet more than a few young people who are angry at their parents for not telling them the facts,” he cautioned.
In addition to appealing to parents, Ami has taken steps to help those who discover their non-Jewish status only in adulthood by creating special conversion programs involving intensive studies for couples or small groups.