Why I Hate the Phrase “Jew by Choice”

Hillel became my home on campus. My obsessive-compulsive disorder was undiagnosed, and Hillel kept my head from sinking too far beneath the water. I attended services weekly and slowly came back to a better mental space. Despite my best efforts and insistence that I wasn’t Jewish, I began thinking of myself as such anyway. Upon realizing this, I told our Jewish student life advisor that I wanted to convert and began the formal process. 

Just over two years later, I emerged from the mikveh. The ritual was meaningful, and I was glad to have experienced it. Nevertheless, I did not feel like it had made me a Jew. At some point, without my noticing, I had become Jewish long before.

Did I choose Judaism? Perhaps. I chose to go to Hillel, I chose to be examined before a beit din, and I chose to submerge myself in a mikveh. Yet, I chose neither my family history nor my now Jewish parents. My history and my family cannot be chosen or unchosen. Before I officially converted, I remembered wishing to myself that I wasn’t Jewish. I then realized that—according to the religious law at least—I wasn’t. I thought about what it would mean not to be Jewish, and realized it wasn’t an option. Paradoxically, the moment I no longer wanted to be Jewish was the moment I knew I was a Jew.

Because of this, I hate the term “Jew by Choice.” 

The phrase creates a false binary between those who choose to be Jewish and those born with Judaism. Not only does it assume that those who converted had a completely autonomous individual choice to opt-in to Judaism, it implies that those who were born Jewish have no agency in their Jewish identity. This sits poorly with me. I have multiple relatives who would halakhically be considered Jewish, but are not viewed as such by themselves or the outside world. 

What, then, does being Jewish mean? It is not only a religion—Judaism houses avowed atheists. It is not only a set of political beliefs—Judaism houses those with directly contradictory political positions. It is not only a culture—Judaism houses many cultures, as well as converts without a culturally Jewish background. 

I’ve come to see Judaism as a relationship with, rather than adherence to, a given set of texts, religious practices, histories, cultures, and/or political views. We can be Jewish by “refusing to cross a picket line” (as one civil rights veteran described the Judaism passed to him from his parents), by eating latkes, by keeping kosher, or by gleefully breaking kashrut.

The phrase “Jew by Choice” is meant to be affirmational, but instead erases the ambiguities of my experiences and the experiences of so many others. Individual choice plays a role in Judaism, as do societal factors outside of anyone’s control. This is true regardless of whether one had a B’rit Habat as a baby or was examined by a beit din in their twenties. How can I do anything but reject a term that dichotomizes what should be a messy spectrum?

Amelia Dornbush officially converted to Judaism in the summer of 2013. She now celebrates Shabbat without coercion, though does not do so as often as she would like.

2 comments on “Why I Hate the Phrase “Jew by Choice”

  1. Helen Plotkin on

    This is beautifully said. I’ve always been uncomfortable applying that phrase to converts, because there is some way in which every Jew I know is a “Jew by Choice.” I certainly am, despite having 4 Jewish grandparents. You have shown that the opposite is also true: None of us are really just “Jews by Choice.” Thank you, Amelia.

  2. Cynthia Fein-Wallace on

    This article so describes my feelings regarding the term “Jew by Choice”. My story is different than the author. Unknowingly, my Jewish journey began in seventh grade when I rejected the Christian theologies I was being taught and made up my own (turns out to a letter my invented theologies are very Jewish). The fact that later in my adult life I studied with a Rabbi, was examined by a Beit Din, experienced the Mikvah, even became a Bat Mitzvah only confirms what I already deeply knew to be true about myself. Rather than “choosing” or “converting” I felt that I had found my way home – a place that was already deeply familiar to me. I had been wandering in a dessert for 40+ years and I finally found my people. Thank you for articulating this!

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