Are Your Kids Jewish? Are You Sure?


Jewish schoolThis week the British courts took on the question of who is Jewish, and who gets to decide. In doing so, they set off a storm of controversy and raised some awkward issues for schools and families.

Responding to a lawsuit brought by a student and his family, the court decreed that a Jewish school cannot exclude a student simply because his mother is not Jewish. Instead, they are requiring the school to determine which students qualify as “Jewish” based on self-identity and religious practice.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Judaism knows that’s not how it usually works. Judaism is a matrilineal religion. Children born to Jewish women are Jewish whether they like it or not. Children born to a Jewish father and a not-Jewish mother are not Jewish, no matter how good their Hebrew is or how sincere their beliefs. My dad is Jewish, my mom is Catholic. Me: not Jewish.

That is, according to Jewish tradition. According to the British court ruling, the school must base its “test of Jewishness” on religious identity and practice, not race or ethnicity. Determining a child’s religion based solely on the mother’s ethnicity or conversion status was, the court said, a discriminatory violation of Britain’s Race Relations Act.

The British case is complicated by the issues of conversion and by factionalism within the Jewish community. The child in question is the son of a Jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism as an adult. Converting to Judaism is an intense process. This woman converted in a progressive synogogue, and the Orthodox school in question refused to accept the legitimacy of her conversion. The boy has been raised Jewish in a religious household, considers himself a Jew and practices Judaism.

Who should decide if this boy is “really” Jewish? Modern law or ancient faith?

Photo: David Lisbona