I’m a Jew-by-choice. But my conversion to Judaism wasn’t voluntary. When I was about 4 or 5, my Catholic parents converted and took me and my siblings along with them.
I don’t have a great recollection of the process. I vaguely remember the mikveh, which just seemed like a trip to the pool. I remember standing in front of the congregation as our conversion was announced. But that’s about it.
But while I don’t really remember the conversion itself, my experiences growing up as a converted Jew were instructive. Indeed, considering every adult should be free to choose his or her own religious path, choosing to alter your child’s path requires additional consideration. Here are some things to consider before converting your children.
1. Do your children have their own religious identity? I don’t remember anything about my Catholic life. I was young enough at conversion that I hadn’t established any independent religious identity. But by the time I was in about sixth grade, I was firmly Jewish–deeply religious, probably more so than my parents. I couldn’t imagine being forced to change religions at that age. And I’d argue that parents shouldn’t choose conversion on behalf of kids who’ve developed their own religious identities–at least, not without their kids’ input, an open dialogue, and many discussions with the rabbi.
2. Your children may never fully fit in with their Jewish peers. One of Judaism’s great strengths is that many of its traditions are familial–passed down through generations and enhancing the Jewish experience beyond mere religious exercise. But your children won’t have that. They won’t understand the Yiddish references or the superstitions. They won’t be the great grandchildren of one of the congregation’s founding families. They won’t be a Cohen or Deutsch. They won’t have known their Jewish peers since birth. Instead, they’ll be outsiders. This can be overcome, but it requires you to be aware and vigilant in helping to guide your children through it.
3. Moving from the majority to an extreme minority matters. I always chuckle whenever I hear some refer to the “war on Christianity” because, inevitably, it comes from a place of not understanding what it means to be in the minority. And if you’re converting your children from a Christian religion to Judaism, you must be prepared for the fact that they’re moving from the religious majority to an extreme minority. Jewish families have experienced being in the minority for generations and have developed ways to explain their religious differences to their children. But your family hasn’t done that. You’ll have to be prepared to explain differences as simple as why you no longer celebrate Christmas to your children. And, more difficultly, you’ll have to be prepared for those moments when your children are stereotyped, or even discriminated against, because they’re Jewish–without any of that generational familial wisdom to fall back on.
4. Some of your extended family may have issues. This can range from events that you’ll laugh about years later–like my grandmother attempting to baptize my younger sister (the first of us born Jewish) in the kitchen sink–to events that are downright scary for your children. Sometime during my childhood, my Christian godmother decided it was her mission to save my soul. It started innocently enough–Christian-themed holiday or birthday cards. But when I was about 12, it escalated. I would still get the cards, but they were filled with handwritten notes graphically detailing how my soul was going to burn in hell. I was terrified. And my parents just weren’t prepared to handle it. Beyond events, you also need to be prepared for some of the extended family just flat out rejecting your children (and your children will know that they’re being treated differently than their cousins).
This isn’t meant to scare you off from converting your children. They can overcome any of those obstacles. They’ll make friends in Sunday school class. They’ll learn Hebrew on their way to becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They may even be able to help you with your own Jewish transition because they’ll be immersed in Judaism without decades of other religious traditions weighing them down (although, being kids, they may also judge your own Jewishness at some point).
Indeed, I can’t imagine living any other life than the Jewish one that I was forced to adopt. It’s a life that has evolved over the years–including a decade-long absence when I rejected all religion–and one that I’ve embraced with my own young family. You just need to be aware, if you’re considering this life for your own children, that it won’t be without some struggle. And I’ve always wished someone would’ve understood that when my parents were trying to make their own conversion decisions.