Mixed-heritage Jews possess equal claim to religious identity

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By Jacqueline Hyman, opinion editor, @jacqbh58

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In light of the recent changes to conversion laws in Israel which allow municipal rabbis to perform conversions recognized by the government, I’d like to offer my perspective on what qualifies one as being Jewish.

As someone with a mixed background, I have been questioned about my “qualifications” for my entire life. My dad’s side is Jewish, and his grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. But my mom is Filipino, and her entire side of the family is Catholic.

According to Halacha, this means I am not Jewish. According to a huge portion of the people I’ve encountered, this means I am not Jewish. But what actually qualifies a person as being Jewish? Is it just their lineage, or is it the way they feel in their heart?

Sure, people can convert, but for some, this might just be a way to gain acceptance from the Jewish community. I know that if I were to convert in the future, that would be my only reason for doing so. Or so that my children could gain acceptance from the Jewish community, if that is how I were to choose to raise them.

I think this is unfair. I have had people, Orthodox Jews, and even non-Jews, ask me “You’re Jewish?” because of the way that I look. I don’t look like a ‘typical Jew,’ whatever that means. And every time, I say yes. Sometimes I explain my heritage, after which I have had countless people tell me straight to my face, “Oh, so you’re not actually Jewish.”

That hurts. What is that supposed to mean, I’m not actually Jewish? I was raised practicing both Judaism and Catholicism, and I have identified strongly with Judaism over the years. My family enjoys Jewish traditions; we go to services on high holidays and have Shabbat dinners every Friday night. I love the culture and the practices with which I have grown up.

I shouldn’t have to explain myself to everyone who comes along and questions my identity. I am so glad that they have changed the laws in Israel. But I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to convert to be considered Jewish. And according to the Jerusalem Post, there are going to be people in Israel who will not recognize the newly-made conversions of these rabbis.

I don’t think that’s right. I think that those people will be hurt to feel out of place, just like I am. They will be hurt and maybe even ashamed, and they shouldn’t be. Those people, and anyone with a mixed background such as myself, have every right to call themselves Jewish just as much as Orthodox Jews do. If they want to identify as Jewish, they should be proud of that. They shouldn’t stumble over their explanations as doubtful people push their own opinions.

Judaism is a religion and a culture. And just like any religion or culture, yes, it gets passed down through family. But religion being “passed down” through the mother’s side is not something that should prevent others from linking themselves to the Jewish religion, and it is not something that people should be judged for. People cannot tell another individual what that person’s religion is. That is something the individual can judge for him or herself, and something from which one should never shy away.

 

Jacqueline is a freshman journalism and English major. She can be reached at jbhyman@terpmail.umd.edu.

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