As a Jew by choice, stepping into the waters of the mikveh to finish my conversion process is forever etched into my memory as one of the most meaningful days of my life. For many Jews by choice or converts* like myself, that day is both a culmination and a beginning; full of twists and turns. While we have all chosen Judaism, our experiences vary vastly.
Some of us experience deep grief and guilt around choosing a different way of life than was given to us by our families of origin. This is something I experienced, despite my parents being incredibly supportive of my decision. And, the ways our families react to our choice run the gamut from lovingly supportive to confused, and even disapproving.
Here’s how five different people, each a Jew by choice, shared their decision to convert with their families.
*The terms Jew by choice or convert are used interchangeably with the knowledge that one or both of these terms can be fraught for many and not feel resonant. The English language, while at times beautifully descriptive, can also be simultaneously limiting.
“I’ve never questioned their love and support.”
My family’s reaction to my decision to become a Jew was neutral but supportive. The child of a father who was the only one of his generation in the family to not really go along with Catholicism, I was raised in my early childhood by my mother who took me to a series of belligerently evangelical Protestant churches. When I went to live permanently with my father, my extended family did not expect me to conform to their faith. I grew up attending Catholic weddings, funerals and the occasional Sunday Mass when I had a sleepover with cousins, but choosing Judaism did not mean rejecting my family’s religion because I was never a part of it to begin with.
Religion aside, I have always been a little bit of a wildcard in my family. I am the loud, queer, aggressively liberal cousin who has never really understood how to dress, act or hold my tongue. My family is incredibly important to me and I’ve never questioned their love and support.
They accepted my decision to convert the way they accepted me dying my hair rainbow colors, coming out as bisexual, eloping, declaring myself a Socialist and putting off starting a career to have babies right after college. They may not understand or personally approve of my individual decisions, but they accept me for who I am and everything that goes along with that.
Ada Centonze (she/her) is a queer Jew by choice from upstate New York.
“I can still remember their parting words, ‘We love you, but we cannot support you in this decision.’”
I spent weeks preparing to tell my family about my decision to convert, and I blocked off two-and-a-half hours for the most difficult conversation of my life. When the time finally came, the news was a shock to my parents, especially since I hadn’t intended to convert prior to getting married. I can still remember their parting words, “We love you, but we cannot support you in this decision.”
Fast forward two years of living a Jewish life since that difficult conversation with my parents. I was now ready for the last step before becoming Jewish: immersing myself in the mikveh. Although they didn’t attend, I couldn’t help but think about my parents and how—even with their disappointment—they were responsible for bringing me into this world. They raised me as someone who could make this decision and choose this path.
While my new Jewish identity was sealed that day at the mikveh, I recognize there are certain biological and psychological aspects the waters of the mikveh cannot wash away: my mother’s smile, my father’s sense of humor and the love I have for them.
Joe Grasso (he/him), a father and husband who recently became a bar mitzvah, lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
“My mother was happy I had found a fulfilling, spiritual community.”
I came to Judaism quite young—I was 13 when I decided to convert, and the subsequent process of study and community integration defined much of my high school experience. A huge part of what made this possible was my family’s reaction to my desire to convert. Once my parents understood that my path to conversion was not a form of teen experimentation, and grew from deep theological conviction and a sense of homecoming, they were extremely supportive.
My mother was happy I had found a fulfilling, spiritual community. She remarked more than once that Jewish life, with its emphasis on community, justice-seeking, study and questioning made “so much sense for the person that [I am.]” My parents’ support came from a deep recognition of my personhood, and continues to be a gift.
My embrace of Judaism impacted my siblings differently. Suddenly there were new practices, music, language and references in the house and we didn’t all share the same enthusiasm. My newfound excitement for klezmer music, for instance, did not go over as well with my sister as we carpooled to high school together. My much younger brother, however, grew up in a house with both Hanukkah celebrations and Christmas and seders alongside Easter brunches. My siblings visited me often while I lived in Israel.
As the years have passed, my family has enthusiastically supported my Jewish life, even when it was outside of their comfort zone. They attended my chuppah in Jerusalem, my rabbinic ordination and more recently, my child’s naming ceremony. Their support has been one of the greatest gifts of my Jewish life.
Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson (she/her) converted to Judaism over a decade ago, and has lived and worked in Jewish communities in Israel, France, Latin America and the U.S.
“I was even told that I shouldn’t convert to Judaism because I’d never be truly accepted as a Black man and that I’d go to hell.”
I first began voicing my interest in Judaism at age 16, just a few short years after my mom told me and my older sister that we possibly had Jewish lineage on her side of the family. However, because we were practicing Christians, my interest in Judaism was looked down upon at the time. Much like my bisexuality, it was seen as something I should try to grow out of, and it was implied that if I chose to lead a Jewish life and be openly bi, it was an affront to my family and I’d be behaving ungratefully. I was even told that I shouldn’t convert to Judaism because I’d never be truly accepted as a Black man and that I’d go to hell.
Thankfully, my family has come around to the fact that I’m Jewish and, to a small degree, that I’m bi. I love my family but I can no longer pretend to be someone I’m not, and I feel like they’ve slowly become more accepting of this. They see that Judaism has transformed my life for the better in so many ways, and the change that I’m able to bring to the world as a Jew.
C.E. “Chaim Ezra” Harrison (he/him) is a Black/multiracial Jew by choice and Communications Manager at Keshet. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife Christy.
“‘Why after eight years of being married do you have to do it?’”
My path to Judaism was rather long. My husband and I had an interfaith wedding, officiated by a rabbi in 2009, and then spent the next eight years living Jew-ish and keeping a somewhat Jewish home. I embarked on the conversion path three times (different classes at different synagogues) before I ultimately decided to go through with my conversion.
For most of those years, doing anything Jewish felt more like “his family’s thing.” When I told my mom I was converting, I had assumed it would be an obvious statement after the past eight years. However, I think because I had taken a while to decide, it was a bit of a shock to her. It was almost like, “Wait, why after eight years of being married do you have to do it? If you didn’t feel like you needed to then, why now?” I had needed the time and space to explore Judaism more deeply to determine if converting was right for me and equally important: within what community?
While I was not brought up in a strict religious household, our church community and attending church were large parts of my upbringing. It was something I did more with my mom, as my dad was much less involved in being Episcopalian—both the religion and the community. So when I told my mom I was converting, I think it felt a little bit like I was “rejecting” my upbringing and the special bond and experiences we shared together.
I told her that while I understood how it could feel like a rejection, it was actually because of those experiences I had with her and with our local church community that I wanted to convert to Judaism. I yearned for that kind of community—full of service, spirituality and connection. I explained that she had given me such a good foundation and example of what spiritual community can mean that I sought that kind of experience for myself and my family. I am simply living out that desire within a different religion.
Molly Laufer (she/her) is a full-time freelance marketing consultant, a mother of two girls and a U.S. Navy veteran. She is a Jew by choice who converted after 13 years of living Jew-ishly and jokes that unlike the common assumption of Judaism rejecting you, she rejected conversion three times before finding the right time, place and community.
“Once [my grandpa] knew I’d still be willing to spend time with them on Christmas, and that I just wouldn’t be eating the ham, he was OK.”
Despite being raised Lutheran and going to a Christian day school my whole life, as soon as Hanukkah hit, my middle school bedroom was decked out with my mini menorah and dancing Hanukkah Harry. During college, when I visited my grandparents, I told them all about how I spent every elective in Jewish studies classes and then lit my Shabbat candles before diving into some Chicago deep dish.
Needless to say, when I told my grandparents that I was converting, they were not surprised. My grandma said, “I’m just glad you found something that’s meaningful for you.” My grandpa took a little more convincing, but once he knew I’d still be willing to spend time with them on Christmas, and that I just wouldn’t be eating the ham, he was OK.
I am grateful that my grandparents, who raised me, accepted my Judaism with open hearts. Members of my more religious Christian family struggled with the idea, but I found immense comfort in the family that I was gaining through Judaism.
Tani Prell (she/her) is the Chicago director of 18Doors working to foster interfaith inclusion. You can read her story about exploring her identity and embracing Loving Day for 18Doors titled, Loving my Mixed Self.