Jewish…with a Problem

Halves: Half, and have not

It was the night before my twenty-second birthday. I’d come to the “coffeehouse” night at the Orthodox synagogue in Washington, where I’d been attending services for a few months. I was proud to be asking Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kasher Israel in Georgetown how to kasher (make kosher) my kitchen. Instead, I found myself on an island of shock in the middle of the noisy kiddush room, the chatter of learning all around me, while I struggled to hold back tears of shame. I’d just been told I wasn’t Jewish.

This was months after I’d decided to make a real commitment to learning and performing mitzvot (commandments from G-d), and I was devastated. I had gone to Hillel my junior year in college to make a place for Reform students and discovered that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. I began hanging out with the Orthodox students and discovering the joy and peace of Shabbat and holidays.

My senior year the feminist side of me was still resisting Orthodoxy. I wrote my own column in The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois, devoted almost exclusively to feminist issues, and traveled on a bus overnight to Washington, D.C. for the Roe v. Wade anniversary with the campus pro-choice group. Then the Hillel rabbi insisted I go to Israel during the winter break of my senior year.

I participated in Kabbalat Shabbat services on the top of a mountain in Tzfat, dancing with other women while the sun went down. On that trip I decided that observant Judaism was the truth. I went back to Hillel that first Friday night after my trip and went to the Reform services. After five minutes I walked out and went downstairs to the Orthodox services. The mechitzah (separator between men and women) has never bothered me since.

This reality forced me to re-examine my entire way of life, my entire identity as a radical feminist who had never before considered immersing herself in the Orthodox community. It wasn’t until I’d experienced Modern Orthodoxy that I realized Judaism isn’t sexist, it’s only that communities can make it so. Today I do not feel that my involvement in the synagogue suffers because I cannot read from the Torah on the bimah.

But as Rabbi Freundel stood in front of me that evening, my suffering was immense. Everyone was still talking on the other side of the room, but for me, time had stopped. Rabbi Freundel kept saying how sorry he was. It was the second time that night he’d had to tell someone they weren’t Jewish. And the first person had his mother with him. He advised me not to tell my family. They’d only be hurt that their good efforts were insufficient, he said.

I was angry, hurt, confused and ashamed. I had gone to Hebrew school, even been confirmed, I went to a Jewish summer camp and retreat every year, participated in youth groups, and been raised as a Jew by what I had always thought of as two Jewish parents. I even joined a Jewish sorority in college. How could someone tell me I wasn’t Jewish? “I’m so sorry to have to be telling you this,” he said.

As the baalei teshuvah (those who return to the faith) movement grows stronger each year, and the intermarriage rate continues to hover around 50 percent, the routine questions asked by almost every rabbi before marriage—such as, “Have their been any conversions in your family?”—will continue to lead to heartbreaking pronouncements that a potential marriage partner may not actually be considered Jewish, at least not by Orthodox and Conservative standards.

I’d always thought that because my mom went to the mikvah as part of her conversion, it automatically meant her conversion was done in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law. But there’s another twist; her rabbi was Conservative, not Orthodox. And it turns out that Orthodox rabbis will not accept the conversions performed by their Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform colleagues.

I have friends who have encountered situations like mine so often that they’ve started calling it “Jewish, with a problem.”

Rabbi Freundel says the most common reaction he gets after giving this unwelcome news about sudden non-Jewish status is anger Some people are angry at their parents, he says.

Me? I wanted only to be accepted and to fix the situation I was in.

When I first discovered this issue, I didn’t even think I wanted to get married, much less become Orthodox. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine not being part of the Jewish community so I told the rabbi I would start working on the conversion and just kind of figure things out as they went. Fast forward a couple of months and I am working hard on my conversion reading list and meeting with the rabbi regularly. But deep down I was sure I could never keep kosher and be shomer shabbas (follow the laws of the Sabbath). Then I fell in love with an Episcopalian.

Fast forward another six months and I’ve given up. I’m engaged to—and moving in with—my Episcopalian fiance. I told the rabbi that, while I understood I couldn’t keep working to convert, I wanted to keep learning. But at a certain point, when I was feeling very strong in my relationship with my fiance, I became very angry about the whole situation. I defiantly joined a popular Conservative synagogue, We kept a kosher home, but after a few months I found myself having to agree to some compromises.

First, I let him buy food that was probably technically kosher but did not have a hekhsher (label of kosher certification). That seemed to work for a while. Then I had to agree to some more compromises, such as letting him keep a set of treif (non-kosher) dishes and buy unkosher meat. Meanwhile, I realized how unsatisfied I was with the Conservative synagogue and started going back to Kesher Israel.

And the more time I spent with Jewish families on holidays and Shabbat, the more I realized that I wanted a Jewish family of my own. The more my time was spent with the synagogue community, the more I realized that I was totally alone in this. Worse, I couldn’t even join the synagogue on my own as a Jew.

I talked to Rabbi Freundel again. He encouraged me to ask my mom for the name of the rabbi who had converted her those many years before, in order to find out, once and for all, if there was a problem. Rabbi Freundel said I was considered “borderline” because we weren’t sure of the status of her rabbi. So I had to tell my mom. I spent days rehearsing and writing down how I would ask her about this. She knew I was becoming more religious, and it didn’t seem to make much sense to tell her I might not be Jewish, and it might be her fault. I ended up mumbling about formalities and insisting that it really didn’t matter, I just needed the information to check it out for membership in the synagogue.

Rabbi Freundel handed down a verdict: the rabbi who had converted my mother was no longer Orthodox, and I should have a conversion just to be sure. Never shutting any doors to me, he told me that I could call him anytime if I wanted to do something about this.

Meanwhile, everything changed. My fiance and I broke up —over pie crust. I came home on a Saturday night after having been out all day for Shabbat and saw a pie crust package sticking out of the garbage. It was a brand that I knew was not only not hechshered, but contained lard. It was no big deal, I said, I wasn’t going to eat his pie and I wasn’t planning to burn down the oven. But just for future reference, I said, he shouldn’t buy that crust again.

Instead of saying “okay” and moving on, he got very defensive. In that moment, I felt the future open up in front of me. I could see all the struggles we were going to have for the next 50 years, and realized I wasn’t strong enough to keep having the same fights. We had both compromised ourselves away so much and yet we still weren’t happy.

For the couple of years I was engaged and in this limbo, I didn’t understand why G-d would want me to be so trapped and confused. I would think, “If this is a test, I’m not passing it.” But I did pass it. After my years of torture, going back and forth about what I would do, the decision seemed so simple and clear in the end. I could stay with him and not live a Jewish life, or I could leave him and live a Jewish life. The second we broke up I started keeping Shabbat and stopped eating out in treif restaurants. Nine months later I had my conversion ceremony. It was suddenly easy.

Four-and-a-half years later, I’m halakhically Jewish. I’m living on my own, kosher, shomer shabbas. Sometimes I learn two or three times a week, including Yiddish, Hebrew, parsha (the weekly Torah portion).

My identical twin sister, Lani, is currently very happy in her relationship with her boyfriend who is Hindu, from Surinam. She does not have the same views as I do about Judaism and the conversion issue. In fact, unlike me, she’s never really been excited about Judaism and the Jewish community.

She says, “My theory is that Orthodox Judaism—for you, and for a lot of people who convert—is about looking for the structure we didn’t have. It’s like any kind of cult where people who didn’t necessarily have a family structure, or weren’t happy with what they had, are looking for a group to belong to with rules and regulations. It’s an easy way to find a real family.”

While she says she’s okay with my life choices as long as I’m happy, for her Orthodox Judaism seems irrelevant to the modern world. “There’s nothing wrong with being religious,” she said to me recently, “But at this point in the 21st century extremism is just silly. I’m just somebody who thinks your relationship with G-d doesn’t have to do with rules and what you do and where you go and who you do it with. When I realized I didn’t believe in Judaism I realized I shouldn’t even bother myself to do the little things like holiday dinners, because I was looking for comfort in going but I wasn’t finding it.”

As for me, I have found my comfort zone, and in a way I’m lucky. At first I was frustrated that other people could be considered halakhically Jewish without being observant, but now I see all of this as a blessing, as a plan leading me to solidify this way of life for myself

At this point I’m not ready to advocate for any particular policy. I only know that this difficult journey has taken me right where I’m supposed to be.

Natasha Rosenstock is Associate Director of the American Jewish Press Association in Washington, DC.