Wednesday, February 9, 2011

When Is It OK to Say "I'm Jewish," Even If You Really Aren't?

If you're like most people, you haven't really thought about this question.

But yes, there are times when you will be asked if you are Jewish, and you should answer a simple "Yes," even if you've had no conversion. (And even if you've taken no formal steps at all!)

Here are the usual suspects:
a) When you're requesting a religious accommodation. School, employers, meal requests, etc. They're required by law to at least try to accommodate you, and most (especially colleges) will do so easily and may even have standard procedures. My understanding is that they can't even inquire into your statements about your religion, except for clarification of the details or to request a letter from a clergy member. And of course, they can question if they think you're a liar :) That's normally cleared up with a clergy letter though.

My community rabbi was clever enough to come up with a letter for me to give to my school that satisfied my needs, but also didn't say, "I certify that this girl is a Jew." There is a legitimate worry there because people who are less-than-honorable can abuse these kinds of documents to try to "prove" a Jewish status that doesn't exist. Here's what the main part of it said (edited for privacy, of course): "Kochava attends and is affiliated with my congregation and practices orthodox Judaism. Because of this, she is strictly forbidden to work and take tests or classes on the Sabbath and Festivals." Then it went into an explanation of what holidays are included and an explanation that these dates don't correspond to the Gregorian calendar. That was just plain great writing for a conversion candidate.

b) When filling out hospital forms. Listing yourself as Jewish will send a rabbi to you instead of a preacher! G-d willing, you should never need the counsel of a chaplain at a hospital, but you want them to send the right one if the need arises! It can also affect the mortuary they call if you were to pass away in their facilities. You will probably be asked for this even if you're not being admitted. The hospital just wants this information in their records in case the day comes when you're brought in for an emergency. You might not be able to express your wishes if you're unconscious!

My take on this:
1) They have no right to inquire into your Jewish status and private life.
2) Most people who will be asking this question don't even know anything about Jewish status to begin with. Be thankful for the American Christian tradition that has trained people to think you are a member of a religion as soon as you say you are! (Even many American Jews believe this!)
3) If you did launch into the "No, but..." explanation, you've opened the door for them to try to deny you a religious accommodation.
4) If you've had a conversion already but are pursuing a different one, congratulations! You're definitely legally Jewish for secular legal purposes! You should have no qualms saying, "Yes, I'm Jewish" for these secular purposes.

BEWARE: Be cautious giving the simple "Yes, I'm Jewish" answer if you suspect that the person may rely on that information for the sake of a mitzvah. For example, if you are asking for a religious accommodation from a professor who is Jewish, there is the risk that the professor may one day try to count you in a minyan. However, you could wait to give the qualification until it actually becomes an issue. If there were a more direct connection between the statement and a mitzvah, tread carefully. Use your best judgment.

Can you think of any other situations when this rule of thumb might apply?


  1. I just posted not long ago about this being a big source of frustration to me! I quite often get asked what I am... but all sorta of people. I never do know what to say so I take situation by situation.

    Like the (non-frum) Jewish guy in the hallway at a hotel I was staying at - he was just DYING to tell all about his nephew's bar mitzveh he just attended. He was so happy to see a jew, that I couldn't break his heart lol. I just let it slide.

    Like the people in my son's boy scouts troop who are ALL Christian - and constantly invite us to christian celebrations (like christmas, halloween etc) - I tell them we can't b/c we are Jewish. The ones I know more personally know I'm converting.

    ... I think I come into these circumstances because I look religious. I have been dressing modestly and covering my hair for years now... even in Christianity, so even before my conversion most people assumed I was jewish, oddly enough.

  2. Just one piece of input about hospitals- sometimes there is a chaplain assigned to a particular unit who will be the one to come in first, to talk/pray/whatever. You can ask them for a clergy person of your own religion if you want, but many hospitals send whichever chaplain is on, because it is an interfaith job. As a student chaplain, I've seen any number of Christians, Muslims, atheists, etc, etc, along with the Jews. But going in knowing whether I'm working inside or outside my own faith is a useful piece of information...

  3. Many American Jews think you can become Jewish just by saying you are? What makes you say this? I have never met a Jew who expressed any such thing, and I have only belonged to Reform congregations, so it's not like I'm only hanging out with frum folk.

  4. Will there be a counter post or a follow up post to this as in the times where, unfortunately you do have to go "no, but..." and explain? I have heard many converts say they refuse to say that they are in the process because of undue prejudice. Unfortunately when it comes to bishul on yomim tovim, mevushal wine, minyanim, zimmun in bentching, aliyot/other honors in shul, and probably other times I am forgetting, it really is important for a convert-in-the-process to make that a point. I think the fear of prejudice should NOT be outweighing the potential for lifnei iver or causing someone else to sin because they assume you are halachically Jewish.

    However, in all secular situations I am totally 100% for just saying "I'm Jewish". Secular society wants to know what religion you PRACTICE. They don't actually care what that religion thinks about who you are! lol. If someone says they are an atheist, secular society doesn't care if they were actually baptized, or if they are born to a Jewish mother. It's all about the practices you have!

    1. As an atheist, some people (mostly christians) will ask me if I'm baptized to make a point. I don't know why. Then I tell them yes, and they're like: "so you're Christian!" so I tell them my mother's technically Jewish (though she is an atheist as well) and they end up confused. It's fun! Some people just can't believe someone can be an atheist for some reason, I find it disrespectful. Most of them don't do that to share the culture with me, but as if they won something by doing that, trying to force me into the Christian religion.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, guys! And Leah Sarah, fabulous idea!

  6. Susan, I mean "many" as being a actual large number of people, not in the sense of a percentage of the Jewish people. The people I'm referring to are primarily those who consider themselves culturally/ethnically Jewish and have had little to no exposure to "Jewish" as a religion. Because they haven't been taught that there are procedures for conversion, they simply don't know. Therefore, they default to the American Christian influence that says you're a member of a religion as soon as you say some special words. I've run into this a lot, particularly with friends/professors/spouses of people who are patrilineally Jewish with effectively no involvement with the Jewish religion. Today in America, that's an amazingly large number of people when counted.

    On a related note, in classical reform Judaism, there was not a conversion procedure as we know it today. Originally (basically pre-1960), reform conversion was a matter of "casting your lot with the Jewish people." That could be satisfied by marrying a Jew and being willing to consider yourself Jewish or simply affiliating with the Jewish people and participating in Jewish life. Of course, it's very different today!

  7. If I'm asked I say I am converting. I never refer to myself as being Jewish because I don't feel comfortable with such until after I'm official. I do find it annoying to be in the limbo but that's life :-)

  8. Think Jewish, live Jewish, and you'll be Jewish!

  9. It's ridiculous not to accept an invitation to a Halloween celebration, even a Christmas one.It's a time to share traditions and celebrate friendships and the fact that we are all different and yet can learn and appreciate someone else's holidays. Do you eat Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo? Corn beef & cabbage on St. Patrick's Day? Likewise, invite these folk to a shabbat dinner or a seder.

  10. First of all, we are a people and not a religion. (But true, you can join the tribe).
    And you dont convert to a religion, you join the Jewish people. While the classical halachic definition of modern rabbinical Judaism
    is that you are Jewish if your mother is Jewish (note that i say _modern_ and _rabbinical_), there are a large number of patrilineal Jews who consider themselves Jewish and a large number of Jews (halachic or otherwise), who are comfortable with them definining themselves as such.
    This has nothing to do with the lack of exposure to Judaism or Jewish education. It is that we are a people, and it makes perfect sense that half-Jews can be counted in if they identify as such regardless of whether they are patrilineals or matrilineals.
    On the other hand, I can find lots of arguments for upholding the halakhic definition too...

  11. It depended on how long of a conversation and how many questions I wanted to answer as to whether I told people I was in the process of converting or whether I just told them I was Jewish. Patients at work I just told I was Jewish. Usually they would ask as small talk and it would interrupt the exam. Anyone else who I didn't want a long conversation about the process with, I just told I was Jewish.

  12. We were specifically told in our conversion program: to the non-Jews, you *are* a Jew. To the Jews you are not-yet-a-Jew.

    I don't necessarily go around *broadcasting* that I'm in the geirus program, but I don't evade if I am asked. Then again, our community has quite a decent number of geirus candidates and BT's who are just beginning their journey back and people are quite open to that.

  13. I was born 25% ethnic jewish, and my religion and way of life is judaism, I do consider myself jewish even if many do not. You are who you say you are, and you are what you do, so if you believe you are jewish, you are, and many jews believe that and yes i have met orthodox jews and reform jews and secular they all feel the same. I am planning on converting and making it official but only after I learned as much as I can and when the time comes that I can live more jewish then I do now (after college)

  14. Can't we all just get along?

  15. I agree, I am a Noahide (converting) and whenever someone asks me my religious affiliation, I always say "Jewish/Judaism" to avoid a long discussion on the Noahide Laws.