What If the Religion You Choose Doesn't Want You?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the perception that Abby Seitz, a 19-year-old journalism student, is struggling with:

I converted to Judaism through the Conservative Movement at the end of my freshman year of college. I was first drawn to Judaism as a 13-year-old girl at Sports Broadcasting Camp. About 60 percent of the campers were Jewish. There had only been one Jewish student in my elementary and middle school in Virginia. I was fascinated by my new friends and their talk of bar mitzvahs and BBYO.

As I learned more about Judaism through the Internet, I began to feel like my angsty teenage existential crisis of anxiety and questions had been answered. I was raised Catholic and did not feel comfortable questioning how one man could encompass both a god and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t understand why the Church took such staunch political positions—especially ones that I morally could not comprehend.

The first time I stepped foot in a synagogue was a few weeks before the High Holidays in 2012, when I was a sophomore in high school. The rabbi at the small reform congregation an hour from my house would not let me begin the conversion process until I was 18.

In the meantime, I read as much as I could and looked at colleges that had a Hillel. I stopped eating out because the food wasn’t kosher-certified.

I wasn’t able to fully live a Jewish life until I moved to Chicago for school in the fall of 2014. While I watched my peers battle homesickness and the difficulty of learning to cook and clean and take care of themselves, I was trying to navigate Jewish social norms. I was shocked when I would go out with my Jewish friends and they would mix meat and milk, or skip services on Yom Kippur.

My freshman year was easily the most eventful: being told by Chabad rabbis I would never be a Jew, being broken up with because my mother isn’t Jewish, the constant personal inquires of, “Oh, you’re a convert? Why did you do that? How do your parents feel about that?”

The biggest religious choice was not standing before a beit din, a court of three rabbis, and declaring my belief in the 613 mitzvot of Judaism, or denouncing my belief in Jesus. It wasn’t giving up Goldfish because they aren’t kosher-certified or spending most of my free time in September trying to make up homework for classes that fall on the High Holidays. The biggest religious choice I ever made was joining a people who, at every turn, did not seem to want me.

If you’ve had a similar experience, a different one, or would like to add context to this reader’s experience, drop us an email. Meanwhile, here’s a great piece in Jewish Journal by Noga Gur-Arieh, who addresses several of the factors raised by our reader: “Conversion Complications: Why is it so hard to convert to Judaism?

Update from a Jewish reader, Alex, who articulates the complexity of how ethnicity, history, and citizenship all relate to being Jewish and practicing Judaism—in all its varied “streams”:

Your reader raises interesting points, but it makes it look like Jews and Judaism as a whole are exclusionary and rejects convert, which is only a half-truth. The reality is much more complex because there are substantial differences between traditional and liberal Judaism.

It is true that Judaism traditionally does not seek converts. While during antiquity Judaism was open to converts, Roman and later Christian prosecutions of Jews and severe state sanctions for conversions led Rabbinic authorities to discourage conversions as well. In fact, if someone wants to convert, the rabbis traditionally need to discourage the person at least three times, to make sure that only those most committed to Judaism and most diligent in seeking to convert join the Jewish people.

Another issue is that Judaism (like some other religions) is based on descent—in the Jewish case, on matrilineal descent—and that, traditionally, we, the Jewish people, regarded ourselves as being descended from our ancestors who stood at Sinai 3,000 years ago when we were granted the Torah upon the Exodus from Egypt. So, in a way, our religion is tribal-based.

Throughout human history, it’s been generally unusual, but not impossible to join another human nation or tribe. (For instance, I could not become Korean or Chinese if I wanted to, although of course, in modern nation states it’s possibly to acquire citizenship). Unlike some other descent-based religions which do not accept conversions—like the Zoroastrians and the Druze—Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.

Although there are many intermarried couples (including my own), conversion to Judaism is still relatively rare, particularly for the Orthodox stream of Judaism. The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open. I believe that your reader’s problem is that she is drawn to traditional Judaism (which is much more restrictive) rather than liberal Judaism (which is more welcoming). So, if she wants to feel more welcome, she should look for more liberal synagogues and date more liberal Jews for whom her conversion status isn’t a problem.

As the personal questions people ask (“why did you convert?” and “how do your parents feel about it?”), she should not take it personally. Such questions typically reflect inquisitiveness rather than standoffishness or hostility. Most people usually stay within the confines of the faith there were born in, so a person who does something atypical obviously elicits curiosity. Once she provides a reasoned reply, most Jews I know would accept the answer (and her as a fellow Jew) and move on.