Thanks to a New York Times article, there was quite a bit of discussion last week about whether a baby conceived with a non-Jewish egg donor but carried and raised by a Jewish women is considered Jewish. And here on Kveller, Jordana Horn eloquently proposed that rather than question the identity of such a baby, we should embrace this child into Jewish life, with which I wholeheartedly agree. As long as any child or family considers itself Jewish and lives accordingly, should it matter what a small group of Rabbis declares is that child’s identity? No, of course not.
That said, two weeks ago my husband and I took our four-year-old son to the mikveh to complete his conversion.
Our younger son S. was born through gestational surrogacy. He is 100% biologically our child but was carried by another women, in our case a non-Jewish woman.
My husband and I have no doubt S. is Jewish. Neither does S. He sang the Ma Nishtanah at our Seder, sings Shalom Aleichem each Shabbat, and will spontaneously burst into Adon Olam, to the tune of Call Me Maybe, while playing with Legos. But because of the circumstances of his birth, there are those who might question whether S. is indeed Jewish.
Interestingly, the halacha, (Jewish law), regarding gestational surrogacy has changed in the four years since S. was born. Back then the accepted Rabbinic interpretation was that Jewish identity was based upon the woman who gave birth. A child born through surrogacy was to undergo what is called a conversion b’safek (doubt), meaning we are not sure if the baby is Jewish so just in case we perform a conversion. Thus, at S.’s bris, the mohel did not say the traditional blessing for circumcision but instead chanted the bracha for conversion. The next steps were to go in front of the Beit Din, the Jewish court, and then to have S. dunk in the mikveh, ritual bath.
Four years have passed by since S.’s bris. All the while, it was hanging over my head that we never completed the conversion. I was postponing it for a very specific reason. While our family keeps a kosher home, celebrates the holidays and sends our children to a Jewish day school, we are not Orthodox. Yet, it was important to me for S. to be converted by an Orthodox Beit Din. Regardless of how I feel about the political control the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has, it is the reality with which we live. As a mother I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that no one could ever question S.’s Jewish identity. But I was scared that if I asked an Orthodox Rabbi to lead the conversion, he would refuse. Using the George Costanza way of thinking that if you don’t go to the doctor, he can’t tell you you’re sick, I thought if I don’t ask the Rabbi, he can’t tell me no.
This April, I finally mustered the courage to contact an Orthodox Rabbi. As Jordana wrote, we should be able to look to rabbis “as a source of welcome and inclusion,” and luckily, with this Rabbi we could. He was warm, understanding and incredibly helpful. He assured us that this conversion was not about S.’s Jewish “identity” — of course S. is Jewish — but about the technicality of his Jewish “status” within the eyes of the Rabbinic court. He also informed us that the accepted halacha has changed, and now genetics is considered the basis for status as a Jew. Without outright telling us not to do the conversion, he implied it wasn’t necessary. But I still wanted to go through with it. First, because having started the process with the conversion blessing at the bris, I didn’t want to feel like S. was stuck in limbo. Second, because if the halacha had changed over the past four years, it could potentially reverse during S.’s life. So we made an appointment to meet the Beit Din at the mikveh a few weeks later.
As “Mikveh Day” approached, my husband and I discussed the upcoming ritual with S. and his older brother. We intentionally did not use the word conversion, or mention anything about this ceremony being done to “make S. Jewish.” We explained to them that S. got to perform a special ceremony for people who had not been in their mommy’s belly in which he would swim (naked!) in a small indoor pool called a mikveh. Next thing I knew the boys were running around the house shouting “Party in the mikveh! Party in the mikveh!” Hey, if that could keep S. excited and not scared about it, fine with me – let’s party!
On Friday May 24, S. was immersed in the mikveh. When he emerged, the three Rabbis of the Beit Din signed the conversion document, one of the Rabbis led a meaningful misheberach prayer that S. should live a long, happy, fulfilling life as Jew, and then together we all sang Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov. Afterwards, my husband, S., his brother and I celebrated with deli sandwiches and new Star Wars Lego watches as, I believe, is the traditional Jewish custom.
And, after four years, I finally felt that our surrogacy process was complete.