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A Jewish convert’s dilemma

On referring to a Jew by choice as the child of Abraham and Sarah -- what about my real mother and father?

Today’s Jam

I converted to Judaism ten years ago, and continue to feel very happy about this crucial life choice. I am part of a warm and vibrant traditional, egalitarian minyan, with good friends and regular opportunities for study, celebration, and volunteer service. One thing that has bothered me for several years now is that whenever I am called for an aliyah (the honor of reciting the blessings before and after reading a section from the Torah), I am welcomed as “David, the son of Abraham and Sarah.” The problem (as you can likely guess as rabbis) is that my parents’ names are Marty and Christine, but since they are not Jewish I am referred to as the child of our biblical ancestors. I feel affirmed to be included in the house of Israel in this way, but I also feel deeply uncomfortable not saying my actual parents’ names at this important moment in the service. This is a significant issue for me because my folks have been consistently supportive of me throughout my life, including during my conversion process, which was not easy for them as devout Roman Catholics. What do you suggest I do?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield…

Rabbi Hirschfield is president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Ledership
Dear Son of Abraham and Sarah, and Marty and Christine,

You are not alone in your challenge, which of course, is really a new and interesting opportunity. It reflects the reality that, like you, most converts to Judaism today do not imagine that they are cutting themselves off from their biological families of origin. What used to be a rather stark either/or, is increasingly a both/and situation. Honoring that with integrity is not simple, nor is there one right response to this situation, especially in this format, which is about ethics, not law.

The claim that converts not only alter their present and future, but can lay claim to the Jewish past as fully their own, is a radical and wonderful notion that took centuries to take hold among Jews. You really are born again when you convert, and claiming Abraham and Sarah as your parents indicates that. Simply claiming your lineage through Marty and Christine would diminish your claim to full membership in the Jewish past and therefore, to the Jewish family, if not the Jewish faith.

You could argue that when called to the Torah, you really are there as the son of Abraham and Sarah, and in that moment, those are the parents to properly acknowledge. I suspect however, that as the loving son of supportive parents, you know that without Marty and Christine you would not be standing there either – and not only for biological reasons, but because without them you would not be the person who chose to convert.

Perhaps you should be called up as the son of all four of your parents. Perhaps we all need to get comfortable with being named in different ways in different settings. After all, we don’t typically use last names in most liturgical settings, but most people don’t feel that they have disrespected their grandparents.

In moments of change, I think the best course of action is mindful experimentation. For starters, that means thinking about this out loud with your community, and being willing to try different approaches, fully aware that each has both gifts and possible costs. My guess is that wherever you land, if you follow that path, you will land in a good place.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield Is the president of CLAL, The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership; Listed for many years in Newsweek as one of America’s “50 Most Influential Rabbis,” think tank President Brad Hirschfield, is the author, most recently, of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism; A regular commentator for The Huffington Post and one of Patheos.com’s Experts, he contributes frequently to Fox News and writes an online column, For God’s Sake, for the Washington Post where he also hosts live Q and A’s about values, ethics and faith in politics and popular culture;

Rabbi Allan Lehmann says…


If you were asking to omit Abraham and Sarah due to reluctance being singled out as a convert, I would try to think that through with you, and hopefully to embrace positively your connection with our Jewish ancestors. But that is not what prompts you. You are asking a powerful and sensitive question. The Jewish identity that you embraced, including the ancient ancestry that we now share, is clearly a vital part of who you are. You “feel affirmed to be included in the house of Israel” by being addressed as the son of Abraham and Sarah. At the same time, you know how important it is to honor your own parents. While your process of becoming a Jew was not easy for them, you and they have continued to cherish the ties that connect you. You also wish to express your relationship with your own parents at the sacred time of being called to the Torah.

So how might you proceed? I think you have a few alternatives. You could continue to use Abraham and Sarah, you could be called as son of Marty and Christine, or, as Brad suggests, you could be called up using all four of those names. All four might sound a little cumbersome, but given the specific question you are asking I think it is a really good and workable way to go. Some would suggest that you find a way to say your parent’s names in Hebrew, but I would just go with their names as they are. Look forward to your next Aliya opportunities and try them on for size!

Whether in his office, the bet midrash or the classroom, Allan Lehmann counsels, teaches and advises rabbinical students in his role as associate dean of the Rabbinical School. Before joining Hebrew College in 2007, Lehmann served for seven years as Jewish chaplain and Rabbinic Hillel director at Brandeis University. Prior to that, he served for 20 years as the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Gainesville, Fla. Lehmann and his wife, Joanne Schindler, often host Minyan Olat Shabbat at their house in Newton Centre on Friday evenings.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi says…

Both of my colleagues’ responses are representative of the tension between competing values; of the tension between our Jewish tradition and the realities of human beings standing before us. This is an age-old struggle and one that deserves our careful attention.

This case, of how a covert honors both Jewish tradition and their non-Jewish parents, is indicative of how leaders strive to harmonize competing Jewish and human values. My colleagues seek out a response that both honors the value-system exemplified by the traditions of our Torah service and the ways in which we name ourselves and our children in the presence of Torah and God; and the other universal value system, the value of honoring one’s parents. But honoring ones parents, kibbud av v’em, is also a core Jewish value.

It seems to me that one should be able both to honor Torah and honor one’s non-Jewish parents. Especially in a context in which many people have non-Jewish parents and grandparents who are actively upholding Jewish communities. How can we not celebrate them and honor them for the ways they too have brought us and our children to Torah and community life? How can we stand before Torah and God and deny them? How can we stand before our children and deny our lineage?

Conversion itself is perhaps the highest praise of our people and our tradition, that one comes from another tradition and chooses it; chooses to cast one’s lot with the Jewish people and chooses to embrace Jewish values, but not at the expense of other universal and human values.

Taking into account all these arguments, it seems that the only adequate response in our day is to simply be who we are, fully, and with full declaration of our complex identities, especially in the presence of Torah, God, and community. Converts could and perhaps should be called to the Torah in the fullest sense of who they are, as they understand themselves; with their Hebrew names and their parents’ names, as they understand their lineage: and if those names are Christina Mary and John Paul, say them; and add to it Abraham and Sarah. We born Jews often have ridiculously long names too.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi serves the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar and heads the Office of Community Engagement. Rabbi Sabath also serves on the North American faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute and previously directed the Hartman Lay leadership, Rabbinic leadership, and Christian leadership programs. Ordained at the HUC-JIR 19 years ago, Rabbi Sabath also earned a PhD in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Now, what do YOU say?

Do you know a convert in your congregation that has struggled with this issue? How have they resolved it? Are you a convert to Judaism? Do you agree with the compromise that our panelists suggest, offering the convert the ability to name all four ‘parents’ when called to the Torah? We welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)
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