Contemporary American Reform Responsa

42. Jewish Status and Mistaken Identity

QUESTION: A young woman has been raised to consider herself as Jewish. Her mother assured her that her "real" father was Jewish and that she herself had some Jewish lineage in her genealogy. She did not receive any kind of Jewish education, but had Jewish friends and occasionally attended some Jewish ceremonies at home and in the synagogue. Upon reaching maturity she discovered that there was, in fact, no Jewish ancestry at all. What is her status? (Rabbi E. H. Hoffman, Brookline, MA)

ANSWER: This young woman will undoubtedly need some counseling in regard to her Jewish identity and probably also in connection with her family life. After all, she grew up thinking that someone who was actually her father was not her father. We should be sympathetic to her and guide her in every way possible so that she may overcome whatever difficulties are present.

As far as her Jewish identity is concerned, we would follow the ruling of the Central Conference of American Rabbis:

"The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parents and child, to Jewish life.

"Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi."

This statement indicates that identity is conferred through lineage and acts of identification. In this instance the young woman in question has not fulfilled either one of these requirements, so we would encourage her to become Jewish through conversion. It might make her feel better to realize that even if there had been one Jewish parent and she lacked a formal Jewish education, the requirements would have been the same.

A young woman like this will need some special attention above and beyond what we normally provide for those who join us, and that should certainly be given.

July 1985

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.