When you meet someone who has become observant, they are usually either a Ba’al Teshuva or a Ger. I am both.
I grew up, like much of the current generation, in a relatively assimilated family. It is said that the majority of the Jewish community, outside of orthodoxy, are marrying non-Jews. Some of the non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism, but since those conversions are generally not done under halachic auspices, the non-Jewish spouses continue not to be considered Jewish. So what has become of the children of these marriages. Obviously, the children of those couples, where the husband is Jewish, are not halachicly Jewish, yet many of them were raised as Jews and believe that they are Jewish.
While doing “kiruv” work on college campuses, I developed several rules of thumb about how to tell whether a student was halachicly Jewish or not, through experience. One of them was by the student’s last name. If the student had a name like Goldberg or Rosenfeld, they were not Jewish. And if the student had a name like Diaz or O’Brian, they were probably Jewish. Intermarriage is so rampant out there that the likelihood is that almost every student has one non-Jewish parent. If they have a Jewish last name, then it is more likely that their father is the Jewish parent, and their mother is not Jewish. Whereas if the student had a non-Jewish last name, then in all likelihood the Jewish parent is probably their mother. Such are the ironies in a world of rampant assimilation.
Growing up, I was of the Goldberg/Rosenfeld variety. My father grew up in a reform Jewish household and my mother grew up belonging to the “Church of Christ” denomination. She married my father and converted to Judaism in their local reform temple. They brought me up Jewish in their reform temple. I was relatively involved in Jewish life as a reform Jew who was not halachicly Jewish. Later in life when I became interested in becoming observant, I learned that I was not considered Jewish according to the Orthodox standards I was learning about. I think that most other Jews, upon learning such news, would be turned off and reject that highly unpleasant message. However, my parents and community taught me to be open-minded towards others’ views, so I accepted that there were differing opinions about my Jewishness.
In addition to the normal hurdles faced by Ba’alei Teshuva, I also had to go through much of the same gauntlet that other Gerim go through because I had to go through a conversion to become Jewish, even though I had always considered myself Jewish until that point. There certainly were some interesting and amusing events that took place during that period when I was getting ready to be megayer, as I was living in all other ways as a frum teenager. One interesting fact, that I only found out about years later, was that there had been a meeting in NCSY’s national administration about whether to let this Shomer Shabbos/Negia/Kol Isha, tzitzis laiden kid who wasn’t Jewish on one of their trips to Israel.
Over the years, I have only met a handful of other Ba’alei Teshuva who had to go through Gerus because of the Jewish status of their mother. Most people are “regular” Ba’alei Teshuva who were always Jewish but became observant. It seems that it must be difficult for people in my situation to find their way back, which is a bit disappointing to me. If there are any of you out there, please comment! Hashem should help all of His children come back to him!
-Dixie Yid (http://dixieyid.blogspot.com)