I am currently converting to Judaism, and am nearing the end of my conversion. One reason I began this process was because I discovered that my mother’s family was Jewish a few generations ago. Apparently they assimilated or converted out because of anti-Semitism. While it occurs on my mother’s mother’s side (far back, however, not very recent) the only “proof” I have is that of a few family traditions and the knowledge of other family members that we “were all Jewish” I also have reason to believe that some of my family who did not emigrate were victims in the Shoah. While I feel the process of converting is valuable for me personally, I often wonder if, with some research, I would be able to prove that I’m already Jewish. One rabbi that I know puts very little weight to this, almost as if my Jewish heritage doesn’t matter, and that I should just focus on my own spiritual journey. I find that hurtful, especially given the whole background of my situation. I don’t want to act as if my Jewish family never existed! Somehow I want my conversion to be an honor to them and a remembrance for them. What are some ways to approach this situation that balances both the doubt about whether or not I am halachically Jewish with sensitivity towards my Jewish heritage and towards my ancestors who evidently suffered for being Jewish? [Administrator's note: Jewish Values Online cannot advise you on your personal situation. For that sort of advice, please see the Rabbi with whom you are working toward conversion.]
I certainly understand your distress. I need to begin by repeating the administrator's note appended to your question: for specific advise about your personal situation you need to speak with the rabbi or rabbis who are guiding your conversion. That said, let me try to offer some words of orientation.
Rabbis will sometimes take a person's presumed Jewish background into account when deciding how to structure the educational component and expectations for conversion but there are two countervaling pressures. One is if they don't really think the evidence of someone's Jewish family background is that clear or compelling--as it sounds like in this case we are talking about a few generations ago. The other issue though is more conceptual. When a person chooses to become a Jew, Jewish law and theology demands that this be a really free-willed decision and that the individual in question understands what they are getting themselves into. A rabbi who encourages you to focus on your own journey may not be denying or belittling your own sense of yourself as a person of Jewish heritage but rather trying to insist that you take the conversion itself seriously as being more than just pro-forma, and understand that you have a choice in the matter. They may insist upon this even more if your Jewish heritage is somewhat more distant rather than pushing the conversion forward as much as possible in the case of someone who is probably Jewish already but just converting out of doubt. What I am saying is that you should think about this less as a denial of your heritage than as a concern to make sure that the integrity of conversion as a real choice is respected.
At the end of the day, you will decide for yourself how to integrate your sense of family heritage with your decision to seek conversion. In a way, you have the best of both worlds open to you; a sense of belonging rooted in history and geneaology as well as the merit of choosing for yourself to come beneath the wings of the Shechinah. But this personal evaluation and integration you seek may not be expressed in the conversion process itself nor should it necessarily be. If you can demonstrate that you are already a Jew by birth so be it, but if you cannot, it may be better to let the conversion process take its own path and to think separately about how to understand your relationship with the past. Just as some converts experience a sense that they "were always Jewish" or "had a Jewish soul" but nevertheless need to take the process seriously in its own right as what the Torah requires, so you may have an existential and familial connection to the Jewish people but need to regain that connection in practical terms through an act of choice and ritual. Your conversion process is important, but it is your future life as a Jew that you should be most committed to thinking through.
I am hopeful that these few words may help you to think about this matter in a way that provokes less distress so that you can focus on your decisions going forward. May you know only blessings.
When I visited the Czech Republic in 2010 a local rabbinical colleague told me that if you look back far enough into the history of any Czech family you would find a Jewish ancestor. While this might be an exaggeration, it points to the fact that in some European countries at some point in the past when relations between Jews and non-Jews were good, assimilation and intermarriage were not unusual. As much as bad relations (i.e. anti-Semitism) led some Jews to abandon Judaism, good relations –ironically - led to a similar outcome. The absence of reliable records, however, denies us the possibility of confirming the suspicion that many North American descendants of Europeans have Jewish roots. And without any such evidence, those whose lineage is not demonstrably Jewish are presumed to be legally non-Jewish.
Accordingly, those who have good reason to believe they have Jewish ancestry - but no proof - must go through a formal conversion process. There is no harm in studying Judaism as part of a conversion program. And there is no harm in immersing in the mikveh, even though later research may show that a formal conversion was unnecessary. But without a formal conversion now, a person with suspected Jewish roots cannot fully integrate within the Jewish community and be accepted unconditionally as a Jew.
I suggest that you look at the conversion process as a variant of Pascal’s Wager. The seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that to believe or not to believe in God’s existence is actually to wager that He exists or does not exist. If you believe He exists and He does, the reward is eternal happiness. If you believe that God exists and he doesn’t, nothing is really lost. The same is the case if you disbelieve and He doesn’t exist. But if you disbelieve and God really does exist, you lose all eternally. Thus we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God. Similarly, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by going through a formal conversion.
Consider your formal conversion an affirmation of your possible Jewish heritage, a tribute to your possible Jewish ancestors, and a re-commitment to the way of life that you suspect was part of your past.
No answer can be definitevely given by anyone who is not the rabbi involved in your conversion.
I am sorry you find this painful or hurtful. Think of it as removing any doubt, and perhaps it will be less so.
You must follow the process set out by the sponsoring rabbi. Whatever it may be, so long as it is reasonable and not abusive. If you don't believe or feel you can work with this rabbi, find another one to sponsor your conversion process that you can work with and trust.
Know that a break in Jewish practiice of one or more generations is felt to be a cut off of any link by some. The assimilation or conversion out of Judaism means that you are not considered Jewish; the link was broken. It is not simply biological, so your assumption that you could 'prove' Jewish ancestry and therefore be accepted is mistaken.
The actual Reform standard is that you must be born to a Jewish parent, AND raised in Judaims (generally, only in Judaism), AND undertake a Jewish education, AND Jewish rituals of identification (Naming, Consecration, B'nai Mitzvah, etc.). Only then is your Judaism fully accepted.
I hope that your conversion process is proceeding smoothly, or is completed at this time, and that you are now feeling happy about the process.
Copyright 2020 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.