Conversion Genealogy

Genes Don’t Constitute the Covenant; People Do

I have never submitted my DNA for analysis of my ethnic identity, and I am determined not to do so. I suspect that the findings would be unsurprising: My family has been traced back to each ancestor’s immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, all as Jews.

This week, though, we read about an older lineage, dating back to Abraham and Sarah, biblical ancestors whose historicity cannot be attested. For millennia, Jews have seen themselves as descendants of those first men and women who set off from hearth and home to serve one God.[i] We who live the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah today are their descendants, whether or not our genealogy could be traced back to them, and even if such people never lived. The patriarchal/matriarchal “history” is true, whether it happened or not.

I have often pointed to my own skin color and asked, “Does anybody believe that this pigmentation is naturally occurring in the middle east?” My question is as facile as it is rhetorical, and is meant to illustrate that each Jew – including those like me, with a “purely Jewish” known lineage; and those unlike me, people who entered the Covenant in their own lifetimes – enjoys an equal claim as an heir of our Jewish heritage. Even though the origin of skin pigmentations is more complex than I let on,[ii] a careful study of Jewish history indicates periods of significant conversion and/or intermarriage that brought people of diverse origins into the Covenant.[iii]

Modern rabbis face the “Jewish lineage” issue frequently. With some regularity, people present themselves to us as Jews on the basis of a DNA test, despite having never known that some of their ancestors were Jewish. Christians with an ancestor who might have been Jewish at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition may come to us understanding themselves to be conversos, Jews who have merely pretended to be Christians, albeit for five centuries or longer. Others come to us because they have recently learned a previously deep, dark family secret that a grandmother or great—grandmother was Jewish. When the claimed lineage is direct in the maternal line, we may be faced with an assertion that the person is already Jewish, not requiring conversion. Indeed, if that lineage can be proven, some rabbis would agree with that claim.[iv]

American Reform Judaism, from its outset, downplayed Jewish genetics, and even peoplehood, emphasizing religiosity instead. In 1885, our Reform forbears wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As time went on, the matter became more complicated. In 1937, particularly mindful of European persecutions, Reform rabbis wrote in the Columbus Platform: “Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by a heritage of faith.” They further emphasized, “The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community.”

In our own age, too many people, groups, and nations hang on to disappearing notions of their genetic purity. Israel’s nation-state law and the rise of white nationalism in the United States are particularly pernicious examples. Liberal Jews must not participate in racial purity tests, however well intentioned.

Ever eager to work with candidates for conversion, I welcome each one with open arms. When a conversion inquiry comes from a person with a Jewish partner, I do not assume that their motivation for seeking conversion is purely “for the sake of the relationship.” When a person comes with no familial connection to the Jewish community, I am confident that, with time, the ger tzedek, righteous convert, can become an heir to the Jewish heritage no less than those who have been Jewish all their lives. When greeting people who approach my office with claims to Jewish ancestry, but no Jewish upbringing or education, I am eager to help that person explore whether or not Jewish faith and community are right for them.

Then, if and when the time comes, when the person emerges from the mikvah, after a long and comprehensive process, that person is a Jew for all purposes[v] a lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, and also Rebekah in Genesis 24 and
[ii] Ann Gibbons, “How Europeans evolved white skin,” Science, April 2, 2015.
[iii] See, for example, the statement in Exodus 12:38 that the Children of Israel left Egyptian bondage with a “mixed multitude;” or modern scholarship, for example: James Xue, Todd Lencz, Ariel Darvasi, Itsik Pe’er, Shai Carmi, “The time and place of European admixture in Ashkenazi Jewish history,” Plos, April 4, 2017.
[iv] Traditionally interpreted Jewish Law, loosely based on Mishnah Kiddush 3:12.
[v] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b.

On Welcoming

My family’s move from New York City to Westchester last summer reminded me about the fine art of genuine welcoming. We had explained to the few people we knew in Larchmont how it seemed an idyllic place to raise a family. To make a home. To grow old together. My husband and I commented on the quality of the schools, the abundant options to enjoy the outdoors, and the outright friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone we encountered during our touring. The few people we knew were so encouraging. So were those we met along the way. It is scary to uproot a family of five, yes, but we could do it, they said, and make our lives alongside theirs. They fielded endless questions and offered their ready and helpful friendship.

Moving my family, while continuing to build a rabbinate around interfaith and conversion work, has made me extremely sensitive to these facts: Adjustment to a new way of life is difficult. Belonging takes time. And perhaps the most important: Every encounter in a new place– especially the first one– is a potential game changer. Those very first words and acts of welcome leave an indelible mark. The follow up care and concern only solidify the foundation.

Leviticus 19:33 saysThe stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself… My understanding of this verse is that we are not only commanded to accept non-Jews and converts into our community but we are to show love and kindness toward them. Abundant, abundant kindness, as we would the natural born Jews among us.

We don’t have to turn interested parties away three times, or bring up three hardships they might encounter, or put any other obstacles in front of them. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll doubt themselves, doubt their intentions, doubt religion, doubt their choices. Our job is to walk them through the inevitable vulnerability and insecurity and steadily march them toward their goal. We must be the steadfast and solid voice of encouragement: You can do this. Our community wants you. You belong with us.

Isn’t it true? We should be so lucky that anyone is interested in Judaism. It is a fabulous, modern phenomenon that non-Jews want to marry into our community, much less become Jewish themselves! This was not the case throughout most of history. There is no reason not to feel utter respect, compassion, and excitement toward anyone remotely interested in our tradition. It deeply angers me to hear the stories (which I am treated to weekly) of rejection, humiliation, insensitivity, and discouraging first encounters with clergy. To what end were these actions meant? The tradition is not ours to give or withhold. Judaism belongs to whoever will have its blessings and join its struggle. Was Naomi standoffish, arrogant, and nasty with Ruth?

We need to be fearlessly inclusive. We must have a visible, remarkable openness to those who want to join our ranks—conversion or not. Our past validates this: Hillel, Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and many more wrote about embracing the gentile. And our future depends on it. The landscape of liberal Judaism is inextricably linked to how we handle issues of interfaith marriage and conversion. The borders of our community are not fixed. We are privileged to augment our numbers with those attracted to our tradition and teachings.

My worlds collided when I was waiting on a friend to have coffee with me in a Larchmont bakery. I ended up sharing my story with a stranger at the next table. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, “but we always have Passover seder with our neighbors and for years our kids celebrated Hannukah with a family down the block.”

Her comment reminded me of initial meetings in my office when people recount experiences from their childhood with Jews. They pave the way, they say, to being open (and attracted) to Judaism. At a recent Bet Din of a 79 year old, she spoke to us about the very first Jew she knew—a warm, kind, open, inspiring woman who was the principal of her elementary school. Seventy years ago, a Jewish principal left an impression on a young girl who would then go on to seek out Jews her entire life, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and convert in a late chapter in her life.

In every encounter, a Jewish future hangs in the balance. We must personify being a light unto the nations. It is commanded of us as Jews, and demanded of us as Jewish professionals.

Rabbi Lisa Rubin is the Founding Director of Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism & Conversion Program. Exploring Judaism, operating since 2010, serves 80-100 people a year who are considering living a Jewish life and/or converting to Judaism.