One becomes a Jew in one of two ways: 1)by being born to a Jewish mother; or 2)by converting to Judaism. In your situation, the first question is whether you are referring to your maternal or paternal grandmother. If this is your maternal one, then you must try to ascertain whether her mother was, indeed Jewish, which would make you Jewish. While it may create a strong suggestion, being from Israel in itself does not make one Jewish, both now and 60-80 years ago when your great grandparents may have been living in Israel.
Assuming we are referring to your maternal grandmother‘s parents, your first detective steps should focus upon speaking to any family members who may have information about your great grandmother, i.e where she is buried so that you can check for any Jewish reference on her grave, Jewish traditions that she may have passed on to family, whether she was married in a synagogue, or Jewish documents she may have left behind etc. You may also want to contact the Israeli government and its Interior Ministry through your local Israeli consulate or embassy, or directly, to see whether they have any documentation on your great grandmother. You can also try Itim (http://eng.itim.org.il), a wonderful English speaking organization that helps people deal with personal status and other religious issues in Israel. You may also want to consult with a genealogist who may be able to get you your answers.
If you are able to ascertain that your maternal great grandmother was Jewish, and there is a direct maternal line between her and your mother, then you are Jewish. If that is the case, I welcome you back to our family and hope that you will learn more about the wonderful heritage that we share. In any event, I wish you luck in your sleuthing, and applaud you for taking the time to check such a crucial area of life. Please let us know what happens and if we can be of further help.
It is hard to know from that one simple piece of information but it is possible that you come from Jewish ancestry, you can definitely explore more to find out. The best resource for such information online is http://www.avotaynu.com/wwwsites.html which is a database of Jewish geneology websites and resources.
In traditional Jewish definitions a person is Jewish in one of two ways:
1. You are born to a Jewish mother
2. You choose to be Jewish and go through an official conversion process.
During the course of change over the last few decades there are Jewish community, for example much of the Reform movement, which accepts patrilineal descent, that is you can be born of 1 Jewish parent, mother OR father and you are considered, if you consider yourself, Jewish. So the define of who is a Jew is still changing in some communities while in others it has remained the same for many many generations.
The best thing for you to do to verify where you come from is to go on a bit of a hunt and try and find some more information about your grandmother's family through one of the resources above!
Question: “I have heard that my grandma's parents came from Israel. How do I find out about that? Does that make me Jewish?”
You have asked two different questions, one not necessarily having any connection with the other.
First about your great-grandparents’ origins.Discovering facts about lineage and heritage is a booming business on the Internet these days.It would not be appropriate to recommend any one site over another, but through a Web search under terms such as “heritage”, “ancestry”, “family tree”, “ellis island”, you may be able to find the correct resources for investigating the route that your great-grandparents took to and from Israel, to where they bore and raised the family who bore and raised you.
Jewish identity is something completely different from the place of one’s origins.Your Jewish identity is dependent upon the Jewish identity of your parents, and their Jewish identity is dependent upon their parents’ Jewish background.So for your personal Jewish investigation, you should be in touch with members of your family for their remembrances of the origins of your family.
There are histories and customs within the Jewish community about Jewish identity, and let me summarize briefly here.
In biblical days, it was the practice of the ancient Israelite community to assign tribal identity to the child based upon the tribe of the father.Property inheritance rights and, in the case of the tribe of Levi, priestly lineage all came through the father’s identity.Also, as the Israelite community grew, it became the custom to assimilate non-Israelite women into the tribes of Israel.Accordingly, one born into the Israelite people had their Israelite identity inherited from the tribe of the father, since the mothers were usually from foreign or uncertain origins.
In Rabbinic times, this practice was reversed.There were many instances where the men of the Jewish community, now engaged in international commerce, were gone for long periods of time and/or disappeared altogether, and the mothers might have had children whose fathers were now gone.In addition, invaders would come to the land of Israel, or to Diaspora communities, committing acts of rape, which resulted in children whose fathers’ lineage was at best uncertain, and at worst foreign.To affirm the Jewish identity of those children, the custom changed to follow the lineage of the mother, the understanding was that “you always know who the mother is”.This was the accepted practice for nearly 1700 years or so.
In modern times, the Reform rabbinate of American Judaism, partially responding to the effects of intermarriage and hoping to nonetheless maintain the Jewish identity of children from mixed marriages, expanded the definition of Jewish identity.In a resolution in 1983 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=mm&year=1983), the Reform rabbinate declared that the Jewish identity of a child would be based upon two factors: that one parent is Jewish, and that the child participates in “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people”.The entire text of this resolution can be found at the URL above, but is summarized in the two “resolved” paragraphs which I present here:
“The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
“Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.”
The final sentence of this resolution is vital, in that one’s Jewish identity ought not to be determined except through discussions with a Rabbi.
It is important to say, on the one hand, that Orthodox and Conservative American movements denounced this resolution as being completely outside of Jewish practice, claiming that such a resolution would lead to certain assimilation and dissolution of the Jewish community.On the other hand, research is beginning to demonstrate that the children of mixed marriages are widely identifying as Jews according to many indices, when they are connected to synagogues that reach out to and accept these families as Jews, providing educational opportunities and permitting participation in the various aspects of their communities.More information on the current research is available at http://www.joi.org/.
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