JOI’s New Program Associate David A.M. Wilensky talks Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness

My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.

We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.

Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.

Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”

That’s a happy memory, to be sure. Then again, if you can remember your own mother converting to Judaism (and you haven’t converted yourself), you may run into trouble in some parts of the Jewish community. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements – the largest and smallest Jewish denominations in the U.S., respectively – are currently the only denominations that accept patrilineal descent. Raised in the Reform community, I was taught that I was a Jew, unequivocally.

After college, Brent, Jon, and I moved to South Orange, N.J. I was surprised to find myself regularly attending a suburban New Jersey synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement, which does not accept patrilineal descent. As a fair-skinned, dark-haired guy with the last name Wilensky, I look like what most Americans – indeed, most American Jews – expect a Jew to look like. (Whether that’s a reasonable, good, or accurate expectation is a whole other issue.) So I could have chosen to “pass” at my new synagogue. I must admit that I was tempted to do so.

On the other hand, I have always been proud of my diverse heritage. Most importantly, I didn’t want to be dishonest with my new community, which, for a suburban synagogue with no other members near my age, had been quite welcoming so far. So, when asked if I’d like to help lead services one week, I set my personal beliefs about patrilineal descent aside and declined the offer.

Not long after, the rabbi and I met for coffee one day. I told her about my heritage – and she said, “Why’d you even tell me? We never would’ve known!”

In the end, I decided to undergo a Conservative conversion – not because I, personally, saw a need for it, but because I had found an otherwise nice Jewish community that I wanted to participate in fully. Luckily, I am confident in my Jewish identity. My Conservative conversion did nothing to shake my sense of who I am; I still see myself not as a convert, but as a natural-born, lifelong Jew.

I know that I was fortunate to have the positive, affirming Jewish upbringing that I did. It’s easy for me to walk in the door of a strange, new synagogue. I have no problem being completely open about my background. But not every member of the extended Jewish family has had the same luck. Many don’t find it easy to walk in the door of any synagogue, let alone a strange one in a new place. For any number of reasons, many lack the confidence to be open about their background.

The Jewish community has given me so much – but that doesn’t blind me to its shortcomings. On a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, the Jewish community has an unsustainable tendency to be somewhat less than warm and welcoming. Though it has come a long way, the Jewish community is still often too complacent in its attempts to reach out to all those who wish to engage in—and be a part of— the Jewish community. The task of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is among the most important work before the Jewish community today: the task of making the Jewish community accessible and welcoming to all – to those who are insecure about their level of Jewish literacy, to Jews-by-choice and those who are intermarried or interpartnered, to the children of patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and to all who struggle to find their place in the Jewish community. And that’s why I’m thrilled to join JOI.


  1. The truth is that even if your mother were Jewish, if you weren’t raised religiously as a Jew, there is no guarantee that you would ever be welcome in a synagogue. I know: I tried. And gave up, after at least five years of studying and trying to find an inclusive community that was interested in Jewish learning, and something deeper than Israel and the Holocaust and being ethnocentric around Yiddish culture. Does not exist. Never going to happen. The truth is that Jewish communities are closed, and they don’t want to be open. All complaints to the contrary are totally disingenuous.

    Comment by Sara Davies — July 23, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  2. I like your writing. I heard that the JOI has squashed efforts in the past to reach out to children of Jewish fathers. It’s cool that they hired you, maybe things will be changing.

    I’m also the child of a Jewish father and I was brought up Reform - my mom never converted, my parents were divorced and had split custody. Anyway, I was really appalled in college when I found out, like you, that someone out there considers me not to be Jewish, since the large Reform synagogue I grew up in always taught that I was a Jew.

    I’m a fan of the statement that “religion is not a rational construct”. It’s logical to say that a person’s background and upbringing mold who they are. It’s logical to say, hm, maybe a father’s influence is more extreme in the case of someone whose mother abandoned the family and less so in the case of someone whose father did, with every degree in between. But to base a policy decision on centuries-old scripture that reflected a very specific zeitgeist for Rabbinic Jews - to deny patrilineal half-Jews their heritage or reject them from a Jewish community - is akin to making daughters the property of fathers, to banning gay marriage because the bible said so. It’s prejudiced/sexist.

    I’m sure there’s a rabbinical precedent that policy decisions should be based on logic and what’s good for the children. We don’t allow polygamy anymore. Women aren’t the property of men. Women can pray at the bima, be rabbis, for the majority of US Jews. It’s time that the matrilineal law be abolished for the same reason that women aren’t property of men anymore - we no longer enforce other sexist policies, so why this one?

    At the end of the day, you can never deny someone their background or their sociological/ethnic heritage. I will always be half-Jewish/Eastern European and half-Italian Catholic, raised in the Reform tradition, regardless of those who try to avoid discussing children of mixed marriage or the arrogant people who tell me that their definition of “Jew” is the only one in the world that matters.

    Comment by Tikvah — August 14, 2013 @ 6:52 am

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tikvah! To clarify, the Jewish Outreach Institute has never squashed outreach to patrilineal Jews. On the contrary, JOI has long been at the forefront of advocating for more inclusive Jewish communities. We believe there are ways for any Jewish community or organization to welcome people who share this background with you and I, regardless of how an individual Jewish community or organization views the Jewish legal status of patrilineal descent.

    Comment by David A.M. Wilensky — August 14, 2013 @ 11:04 am

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