Recently, I discovered a fourth cousin - or, better, she discovered me.
The discovery began with an e-mail from a college student who had come across my surname in connection to another name she had been researching in an effort to fill in some branches on her family tree. After a few electronic communications, we figured out that we were indeed related. I was delighted to have a more complete picture of my own family tree, as well as to make the acquaintance of a charming young woman, who in turn was thrilled to be reconnected to a "new" branch of the family. She had particularly wanted, she told me, to make contact with her Jewish relatives, because she is interested in exploring Judaism.
Her mother, it turned out, had been born to Jewish parents but the father, my correspondent's grandfather, had died shortly thereafter. His widow then married a non-Jewish gentleman who adopted her child. My fourth cousin's mother had then been raised as a non-Jew, and went on to marry a non-Jew herself. Two children resulted, one of them my e-mailer from the blue. My newfound cousin, though, never liked church and, aware of her Jewish roots, had decided to explore Judaism more deeply, and has been studying assiduously on her own.
I reassured her that she was on a noble quest (one I myself undertook several years ago, and which led me from the Reform movement to Orthodoxy) and also that she would be accepted openly and without reservation as a Jew by other Jews, since she had been born to a Jewish mother, as her mother had been.
When I related the e-mail conversation to my wife, she said, "Wait a minute. Does the Reform movement consider her Jewish?"
Her question was a pithy one. A Jew by choice, my wife is quite familiar with the various Jewish movements' varied standards. When she underwent a Reform conversion, she fully understood and made peace with the fact that the Orthodox world would not accept her conversion. She knew, too, as Reform Rabbi Mark Warshofsky, chair of the responsa committee for the Reform movement, would later write, in explanation of why Reform would not accept "Messianic Jews" into the Reform movement, that each group has its own rules for defining who belongs to the group. To challenge those rules, he wrote, was tantamount to denying the group's right to define itself. At the time, my wife was not involved with the Orthodox community and so the issue of her acceptance there was of little concern.
When, though, we decided to become more observant and connected to the Orthodox community, my wife undertook the process of an Orthodox conversion.
What my wife knows, and what prompted her question, is that under Reform's misleadingly named "patrilineal descent" decision, any child born to a couple where only one partner is Jewish must have been raised as a Jew to be considered one.
And so she knew the answer to her question before I spoke it. "Actually," I said, realization dawning, "no."
Though I had been fully aware of the implications of the Reform position, and realized, at least hypothetically, that there could be scenarios where a Jew would be recognized as such by the Orthodox but not by Reform, it was suddenly no mere hypothetical. My cousin would be welcomed as a Jew in Orthodox synagogues anywhere on earth, but only as, at most, a candidate for conversion in a Reform temple.
My confrontation with a personal reality then spurred me to consider the larger Jewish societal implications. Given the high rate of intermarriage (some say as high as 70% for Reform) and the fact that the great majority of children of intermarriages are not being raised as Jews, there must be hundreds of thousands of American Jews - by the definition of traditional Jewish religious law - who are not considered Jewish by the Reform movement.
What struck me further was how amazing it is that the Reform movement routinely accuses the Orthodox of sowing Jewish disunity for daring to define the word "Jew." Reform leaders chastise the Orthodox community for maintaining standards that exclude those who are born non-Jews and undergo non-halachic onversions, thus "reading people out" of the Jewish community.
But with their own "patrilineal" policy, Reform rabbis read fully halachically Jewish Jews out of our people at a drastically higher rate.
Thankfully, my cousin is unaware of all this - at least at this point. I told her what I believe - reflecting what Jews have believed for at least 2500 years: that she is a full Jew, and that I would consider it a privilege to assist her in her quest to reclaim what is rightfully hers, her Jewish heritage.
And I know what my community's reaction will be should she choose to reclaim her full religious heritage. The same as mine: "Welcome home, Jewish cousin!"
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Eric Sholom Simon, a Research Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is
a former member of the Executive Committee of the UAHC Commission on Synagogue Affiliation. He and his wife are currently active in Jewish outreach and educational activities in Northern Virginia, where he studies and teaches Talmud and Jewish thought.]