I have been raised a Roman Catholic my entire life. I have always loved the Jewish faith and customs. I have recently discovered that my mother and her parents and her entire ancestry were Jewish. They converted to Christianity to avoid persecution in Poland before coming to America. I now have a whole history, culture and way of being that I was unaware of. I want to study and learn more of Judaism. I do not yet know if I want to convert. What should I do? Thank you for your answer. Eleanor
If you have sufficient documentation that your mother was Jewish, you probably will not need to “convert” because you will be already defined as Jewish. However, I suggest that you contact a Rabbi close to your residence and show him your documentation of your lineage. If you know which area in Poland your family lived, then I suggest reading up on the history, culture and ideas of that place. Was your family associated with a specific Hasidic tradition or with a memorable Synagogue? If you don’t have many details, you can post questions on the web and search sites like http://www.jewishgen.org, http://www.jgsny.org, http://genealogy.org.il; http://www.iajgs.org/blog. Perhaps search on Facebook and maybe you’ll find family relatives, some of whom might be practicing Jews.
There are many great classics for beginners starting to explore Judaism. For starters, To Be a Jew and To Pray as a Jew by Haim Donin, To Be a Jewish Woman by Lisa Aiken, and The Art of Jewish Prayer by Yitzchok Kirzner and Lisa Aiken. These are excellent places to start. Once you have read these, you will probably have many more questions and will also have some ideas about additional areas of Judaism that you would like to explore.
In order to decide how and if you would like to live your life as a Jew, it is best to join a Jewish learning program near your home or online via the Internet. You might begin your inquiries here on JVO with dozens of fascinating questions. By browsing the answers, you’ll get an idea of what directions are available and which Rabbis you might like to contact.
What an amazing discovery about your family's past (and potentially, its future)!
As you certainly know, there have been many times in Jewish history when we have needed to disguise or deny our identities in order to survive. As a rabbi who runs a program for people converting to Judaism, I have been overwhelmed by the number of stories, like yours, of people who rediscover Jewish roots in the most unlikely of places. I am moved by the fact that quite often these people report that they have felt a life-long affinity toward Judaism, even if they couldn't place its source. I believe that our hearts know things about us that our minds often do not.
I encourage you to learn more about Judaism, so that you can gain an understanding of the customs, traditions, and practices that your family carried for many centuries. You can do this for signing up for a class at a local synagogue or Jewish community center (if you are in Southern California, I encourage you to check out the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, which I run). There are also a great many website (one of the best is MyJewishLearning.com) and, of course, tons of books. You can check out a good list of suggested reading by clicking here.
In the end, your decision about whether to embrace Judaism as a new spiritual path for you, or to retain your Roman Catholic traditions with a new and deeper appreciation for your cultural roots is a very personal one, which doesn’t need to be made now. Beginning with learning is always a great first step.
I wish you great inspiration as you seek, and offer blessings that you find meaning in the answers that you receive.
First, let me commend you on your initiative. It can certainly be a surprise to discover that your past may not be what you always thought it to be. Not everyone would be so motivated to explore that past.
Second, let me affirm your choice to look before you leap. The history and traditions of the Jewish people are fascinating, but are culturally and religiously distinct from what most non-Jews know. In your exploration you may find much that appeals to you, but also issues that cause you concern. For that reason I recommend that you find someone to serve as a guide for you: a local rabbi, a Jewish educator, or a Jewish studies professor. It should be someone knowledgable who you feel you can trust and who can hear your particular concerns, which means that it has more to do with your personal response to that person than it does with their affiliation with any particular movement in Jewish life. They can help guide your study and respond to the questions that will inevitably arise.
Conversion is a lifestyle choice. On one level you are joining a people, their fate becomes your fate. On a more personal level you commit to a spiritual path that will affect your life in ways that cannot be predicted in advance. There are a new set of holidays among other ritual practices. Judaism views the ethical and spiritual nature of the world in a distinct way. Through the process of conversion you adopt a new way of being in the world. It is a process that begins with learning, moves into practice and ends with commitment. It takes time – and you may discover along the way that it feels perfect or that it is not a fit at all. You are wise not to set that as a goal at the outset.
Finally, let me encourage you to enter this journey joyfully. Regardless of whether it leads you to make life changes, it will enrich your understanding of your family and the world. That can only be a blessing.
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