Where to start becoming Jewish when family roots discovered

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  • #604658

    aurora77
    Participant

    Hello, I have been reading things on this website for a year or more and am finally getting up some courage to ask for suggestions about where I can start becoming Jewish after discovering some roots on my mother’s German side of the family tree –studying it for the first time tipped me off.

    It would seem like between my maternal great grandmother and maternal grandmother, the Jewish background was hidden as these German Jews of means fled Germany between World War One and Two, landing in Brazil for a number of years before coming to the United States.

    The assimilation continued but certain things struck me as being Jewish — for instance, even though the family affiliated with a Lutheran Church (I myself was confirmed in my early teens), my maternal grandmother said things like Judaism is the only true religion. Then there are some food/cultural things like the kugel my aunt makes for Easter based on “an old family recipe.”

    I had begun getting my feet wet by doing a lot of reading and going to services at local synogogues. I am trying to figure out how to keep growing into Judaism. I feel passionately about preserving this almost lost part of my family. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one with this interest in my family.

    Thank you for any insights or suggestions.

    #991051

    yichusdik
    Participant

    I congratulate you for working up to ask for help in this. I do a lot of genealogical research on my family, so I know how exciting it is to find something that is surprising – in this case, perhaps life changing.

    My first suggestion is that you contact your local orthodox rabbi or local orthodox beit din (rabbinical court). There are Rabbis who can help guide you through the process.

    My second suggestion is to write down everything you can remember about your family’s heritage, and collect whatever documentary evidence you have. Speak to older relatives if you have any of advanced age from your mother’s side to develop more information.

    You may want to also research online to find community records, relatives, etc. I would suggest (mods, please allow) jewishgen.org as somewhere to begin that side of the research.

    My third suggestion is that you consider very carefully what identifying yourself as a Jew will mean to you. As you must know if you have been reading here for a year, there are a multiplicity of opinions and perspectives in the orthodox world. But there is one thing all agree upon, and that is that where there is a question of Jewishness and a conversion pro forma (known as giyur lechumra) is required, as with any conversion, a sincere, wholehearted, and devoted lifelong commitment to the observance of mitzvos in an orthodox manner is a requirement, the abandonment of which will invalidate the conversion.

    Finally, you seem to be able to find Jewish resources on the internet, so I won’t belabor you with suggestions. There are many sites to learn from, but nothing online will compare with building a relationship with an orthodox Jewish family or community where you live.

    I wish you much hatzlacha (success) in your journey.

    #991052

    mik5
    Participant

    Hi,

    Do you know what Chabad-Lubavitch is?

    #991053

    aurora77
    Participant

    Hello,

    I apologize for some confusion I have had about which thread of mine was open; it seems like this one is (I was trying to get rid of one with grammatical errors in the title).

    Thank you very much for the two replies I have gotten thus far.

    Yichusdik, these are wonderful suggestions and offer me good places to start. If only my Mom Mom and great aunt were still alive; I have so many questions for them, and they passed away when I seven and about ten. I also appreciate the Hebrew and Yiddish translations, as I only know a little bit of each language.

    Mik5, I have heard of Chabad-Lubavitch, but I am not familiar with their particular beliefs and practices. I am interested in learning more about all of the ways of living a Jewish life.

    Thank you again all for these very helpful suggestions and for taking the time to explain these things to me!

    It may be relevant that I am a woman — from reading here, I think that my gender will be relevant to where I can go to further explore Orthodox Judaism?

    #991054

    snjn
    Member

    Partners in Torah is a free service where you are paired with an Orthodox mentor and you study or talk together once a week by phone any topic that YOU choose to learn about in Judaism. You can check out their website and sign up for a free personal Jewish mentor.

    #991055

    aurora,

    I salute you for wanting to find out more about your roots and wanting to grow in your knowledge about judaism.

    I would highly recommend http://www.aish.com. In addition to a tremendous collection of articles about judaism, there is an “ask the rabbi” feature where you can ask an authentic rabbi any questions you have and get an authentic answer.

    I would also recommend a visit to shabbat.com where you can look for an opportunity to spend a Shabbat with a jewish family. Nothing else can come close to experiencing judaism in real life! (And maybe you can share your aunt’s kugel recipe with your hostess! 🙂 )

    #991056

    yytz
    Participant

    Welcome to the Coffeeroom, Aurora! If I were in your position, the first things I would do are 1) join the Orthodox Conversion to Judaism yahoo group, 2) acquire a copy of the Gerus Guide by the group’s moderator Rabbi Aryeh Moshen, and 3) contact your local Orthodox rabbis (including Chabad and non-Chabad) and attend their services. I encourage you to continue your genealogical research (mainly because I love genealogy myself), but keep in mind that you don’t have to be able to prove Jewish ancestry to convert.

    I would also read books on Judaism from an Orthodox perspective, as well as websites (such as outreach-oriented sites such as Chabad, Aish, Simpletoremeber, and Breslev Israel). At some point you might be interested in reading the book on converts (gerim) in chassidic thought by Dov ben Avraham (who himself is a convert with some Jewish ancestry).

    I agree with yichusdik’s suggestions, with one caveat. From the way he phrases it, it sounds as though abandoning the observance of mitzvos will invalidate the conversion. This would suggest that you can convert, be an Orthodox Jew for a few years, and as soon as you get tired of it you can stop being observant and poof, your conversion is invalidated and you’re no longer obligated in the mitzvos.

    It doesn’t work that way. When you convert to Orthodox Judaism (the only real way to convert to Judaism), you make a commitment to be observant for life. If soon after the conversion you are not living a completely observant life, that will be taken as evidence that the conversion was not valid, because you did not accept the mitzvos. That is the only way a conversion can be nullified.

    #991057

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you snjn and charlie brown! Your suggestions give me great places to start and I’m looking forward to making this kind of outreach.

    I wonder if there are occasionally other people like me in Orthodoxy who have discovered Jewish family background and then begin the process of becoming Jewish?

    #991058

    golfer
    Participant

    Hi aurora!

    Other posters have already given you some excellent suggestions. I just wanted to try to clarify something. You wrote- “from reading here, I think that my gender will be relevant to where I can go…” Your gender is not relevant to where you can go to explore Orthodox Judaism. All the sites mentioned, and other organizations involved in “kiruv”- bringing Jews closer to experiencing Judaism, will welcome you regardless of your gender.

    Wishing you the best of luck!

    #991059

    YehudahTzvi
    Participant

    I am unclear. Was your mother’s mother’s mother Jewish?

    #991060

    Nechomah
    Participant

    Aish Hatorah is a great resource. Even knowing my whole life I was Jewish, their programs helped define what that meant to me and how to put in practice living a Jewish life. They have programs like Discovery, which I believe is given on college campuses and other locations throughout the year, as well as many local and online programs. If you ever decide to come to Israel, they have a girl’s school and also Jewel, where you can learn in a full-day environment for however long you are interested – scholarships are available. There is also Neve, which I believe now has programs including college course work so you could do both at the same time, but don’t quote me on that.

    There are many resources out there available and I truly hope that you avail yourself of what is out that and find yourself living a truly Jewish life and give your ancestors Jewish pride (nachas).

    Just as a side comment – Chabad/Lubavitch is a chassidish organization and often appeals to the emotions as a motivator. Aish HaTorah has programs that appeal more to the intellect.

    GL (hatzlacha) in your search.

    #991061

    aurora77
    Participant

    So many wonderful comments, and I want to try to respond to everybody! Many thank yous to everybody, especially for the good wishes in my endeavors to become Jewish and connect with my family’s roots.

    YehudaTzvi, I believe that my mother’s mother’s mother, my great grandmother, was Jewish, and that my mother’s mother was raised for a portion of her life as Jewish (while still in Germany, before moving to Brazil between the World Wars).

    Yytz, thank you for the warm welcome and your reading suggestions. I have also been meaning to go back and read Guide for the Perplexed, which I read a few years ago when I first began my exploration of Judaism through reading.

    Golfer, thank you for your clarification on possible gender constraints.

    Nechomach, thank you for more basic info on Chabad/Lubavitch. I feel a real draw to Judaism both emotionally (I think due to my hidden family history) and intellectually. I often felt very moved in synagogue when the cantor and congregation sang — moved to tears. I am not close to Orthodox synagogues so I would go to services in the only local Reform and Conservative synagogues. The other reason I went to them was so that I could have some English translation so I could begin to understand what was transpiring during the services. I loved watching bar and bah mitzvahs, even though I didn’t know any of the people. I kept imagining me doing that some day!

    Thank you again everybody, I am trying very hard to take everything in that you are saying. It is very kind of you all to give of your time and knowledge to someone like me who is rather lost but trying to find the way pretty much on my own.

    #991062

    aurora,

    My pleasure! I hope the suggestions you’ve gotten here are helpful in your search!

    #991063

    aurora77
    Participant

    Yes, very helpful and welcoming, thank you Charlie Brown!

    #991064

    yytz
    Participant

    You’re welcome, Aurora! To answer your earlier question, yes, it definitely does happen that people are inspired to convert after finding out about Jewish ancestry. I’ve heard of Hispanic people converting after finding out about Jewish roots, for example — though I’m sure it happens with other ethnicities/countries of origin as well.

    #991065

    yytz
    Participant

    A couple additional things on the topic of reading. When reading Guide to the Perplexed, keep in mind that the hashkafa (theology) of that book is not really representative in some respects to what people believe now, because it was a reaction to the dominant non-Jewish philosophical trend of the time, Aristotelianism. Regardless, I highly recommend reading the book Horeb by Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, including the introduction by Rabbi Isadore Gruenfeld. It’s an amazing work. The introduction in particular is very helpful for understanding the history of the differences between Reform and traditional Judaism (which became known as Orthodoxy after the creation of reform).

    #991066

    RebRY
    Member

    Hi aurora, I am a convert. My father is Jewish my mother is not. You live in Brazil? I met someone once from the Jewish community there. I was reading the posts and I saw that someone recommend Chabab Lubavitch. I would highly recommend not to get involved with them. stick with Aish Hatorah or Ohr Sameach websites. Contact your Local Orthdox Rabbi (Not Chabad).

    #991067

    shmoel
    Member

    aurora:

    IF it is determined that your mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish (per Jewish Law), then you are considered 100% Jewish without the need for any conversion.

    #991069

    YehudahTzvi
    Participant

    “But there is one thing all agree upon, and that is that where there is a question of Jewishness and a conversion pro forma (known as giyur lechumra) is required, as with any conversion, a sincere, wholehearted, and devoted lifelong commitment to the observance of mitzvos in an orthodox manner is a requirement, the abandonment of which will invalidate the conversion.”

    shmoel: Thanks for answering this. I had to read the whole post a few time as I did not understand why and geirus would be required.

    #991071

    aurora77
    Participant

    Hello all,

    I am back again from dinner and a meeting and am reading the new wonderful comments you left for me. Many , many thanks!!

    YYTZ, it’s funny you should mention the situation of Hispanic conversos, as I have just finished reading a brand new and excellent book called The Forgetting River by Doreen Carvajal regarding her own personal quest in this regard. In fact, I rather think that it was that book that got my courage up enough to inquire in this forum!

    RebRY, alas I do not reside in Brazil — it was my great grandmother and her six children who resided there for about a decade between the World Wars (my great grandfather refused to leave Germany, but my great grandmother insisted upon leaving and never going back because of how the people were treated there). II do dream of going to explore there someday in Sao Paulo where they lived, as well as going back to where they came from in Heidleburg Germany. I would be interested in hearing about your experience if you are ever so inclined!

    YYTZ, it is good to have that context from you about The Guide for the Perplexed…the title is really what caught my attention because I was so perplexed, so I thought it would be a good way to dive into what I think would be considered Jewish philosophy?

    Shmoel, it would be absolutely amazing if something like that were ever possible, but I am afraid that it would be a very uphill battle: the family lore has always been that everything was lost in the ship voyages from Germany to Brazil, and the family members involved have been deceased for a very long time. In addition, at some point my mother’s family affiliated with a Lutheran church is this country, and my mother was confirmed and my parents had me confirmed.

    I wish I had the knowledge of the Jewish laws and intricacies that YehudaTzvi and you have, but I suppose that I must start where I am. At least legal systems are of great interest to me, as I am a child advocate attorney for abused and neglected children/wards of the state. And I love learning new languages!

    #991072

    yichusdik
    Participant

    A couple of clarifications. YYTZ, yes, sorry my phrasing was confusing.

    And Shmoel is right. If it is provable beyond question that your maternal grandmother and her mother were Jewish, then your mother was Jewish, which makes you 100% Jewish. But I would not want to presuppose the response of a rabbi or beis din you consult with, who will scrutinize the evidence regarding your status, and who may, MAY, require a giur lechumrah.

    #991073

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    Hi aurora! You may want to consider purchasing a Siddur (Prayer Book). Artscroll Publishing has a Hebrew Transliterated with English Siddur.

    They also have MANY other books (including a Jewish Law And Practices (Halacha) Series) which may be helpful to you. Visit there website: artscroll.com

    #991074

    aurora77
    Participant

    That is awesome SayIDidIt, that will be so helpful to me as I try to learn Hebrew. Thank you!

    Yichusdik, and really every commentator here, thank you for sharing all these nuances of the laws with me. Is it standard that an Orthodox person who does not make his or her career as a scholar has such in-depth knowledge of the laws as the commentators here do?

    #991075

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    aurora, you said you love learning new lang. so I would suggest you start learning basic Hebrew starting with the alphabet. This will give you a boost later on when you will want to pray and learn!

    I wish you much success on your journey!

    #991076

    aurora77
    Participant

    When I read the news and conversation here as I have for the past year or so, I sometimes feel rather daunted because the issues are so interesting but I wonder if I will ever be able to have a truly intelligent conversation about even one of them without devoting the entire rest of my life to intense study (I currently plan to continue working as a child advocate attorney, which I do love).

    #991077

    yichusdik
    Participant

    aurora, many of those who post here have had multiple layer of Jewish education, from elementary to high school, learning Torah, Talmud, Jewish law and lore. Many of them have also spent one, two, or many more years studying Talmud or Jewish law in post secondary rabbinic schools and programs. Many of the women have spent a year or two post high school at seminaries. Beyond that, it is normative among many of those who post here to engage in Torah and Talmud study every day, even if only for a short time.

    There are also several posters with extensive secular education and academic experience.

    As with any venue of discussion, you will find open minded people and closed minded people.

    I find that with a few exceptions, even those I disagree with here usually have something to teach me.

    #991078

    Sam2
    Participant

    Aurora: Grab a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Both Artscroll and Metzudah have published one with an English translation, though in my opinion the Artscroll one is better (especially because of their footnotes). It is not so long (it’s not short either though) and familiarizing yourself with it would mean that you would at least have a passing knowledge of almost every concept that can come up in day-to-day life.

    #991080

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    Also, stick around here (in the CR)! We are (mostly) one big happy “family” and we love “converting” new members!!

    About your above comment, with time you will start to understand more of the topics discussed. But then there are some that even I don’t try to figure out!!

    #991081

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you SayIDidIt, that is a good suggestion. I am finding that, at 35, it is still possible to feel like a child who has so much to learn. It is both exciting and overwhelming!

    #991082

    shlishi
    Member

    aurora: I’m curious how you found this place the first time?

    #991083

    aurora77
    Participant

    How impressive that the education of everyone here is so deep! That is really awe-inspiring, Yichudsdik and Vochindik.

    Thank you for the warm welcome and encouragement, SayIDidIt! I have really gotten the sense that a lot of the commentators know each other and genuinely care about each other.

    Sam2, thank you for another great reading suggestion.

    #991084

    aurora77
    Participant

    Hello Shlishi,

    I think that I must have been doing what is pretty much my daily scan of news at Jewish websites and newspapers. I have been trying to familiarize myself with the various issues. And then I came across the Yeshiva World website over a year ago and have been reading up at least several times a week to get a sense of Orthodox concerns, beliefs, etc. I have just been reading quietly and taking it all in for over a year now. There seems to be a great deal of humor, even where commentators disagree!

    #991085

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    Just trying to help…

    #991086

    aurora77
    Participant

    You have indeed been very helpful SayIDidIt. I have been very moved by the warm welcome. I am trying to develop a game plan of next steps in my Jewish learning. My implementation might be a bit delayed because I am caring for my mother as she undergoes chemotherapy, but I still did not want to put my spiritual development on hold!

    #991087

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    Also, a very good org. is Oorah (Partners in Torah, mentioned above, is one of there many programs)

    About the CR, most of us don’t really know each other. I honestly can say that I don’t know any current posters. In real life I may know some (though I doubt it) but here I only “know” people from hanging around here. Stay and post! You’ll see, its real fun (and addictive!!)!!!

    #991089

    aurora77
    Participant

    It does seem to be rather addictive!

    #991090

    Hi Aurora,

    I read your posts with much interest. I am impressed that you have stuck around here for a year despite some of the posts that probably seem like siblings hashing it out in the living room!

    Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have family records to document your mother’s lineage. There are sites like ancestry.com that have excellent census and immigration records, and their collections are constantly growing. My genealogy research was motivated by my hope of finding hidden Jewish relatives that would explain my drive to convert. I did manage to discover that two of my ancestors were Mayflower passengers. My great X 10 grandmother? Not a Jew. LOL…

    My hope for you is that you will have hatzlacha (success) and thrive in your path to discovery of your Jewish lineage!

    #991091

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you Giyoress al pi Halacha! I would love to hear more about your conversion experience if you’d ever like to share. It is mystifying, the drive to convert…it must be something spiritual calling out to us! The research of the family tree is an endlessly fascinating endeavor. It has helped me get a better sense of who I am and what I am being called to be. What you have discovered is amazing too! I dream about being on that PBS show Finding Your Roots, even though I’m sure I never would be because I am not famous or in the public eye, just an ordinary person.

    #991092

    farrockgrandma
    Participant

    Please try to reach out, if not in your own town, then the nearest large city with other Jews. Don’t go it alone. One take-away from the discussions here is the importance of community and support.

    #991093

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you farrockgrandma, that is so true. While I wish that there was someone in my family — a parent, sibling, cousin, someone (I have not married yet and I don’t have any children) — who would want to do this with me, I will try to take heart in becoming part of a community and maybe meeting others like me.

    #991094

    aurora77
    Participant

    I have a practical question for anyone who might know — I would have to drive to get to any Orthodox synagogue or group on the Sabbath. It seems to me from what I have read that that is not permissible? Are there some exceptions for someone who is at a distance? Thank you for your feedback as always!

    #991095

    yichusdik
    Participant

    Aurora, though no one would expect you to take a giant leap and begin observing all of the mitzvot at once, I don’t think anyone here would give a stamp of approval to someone Jewish driving on shabbat. Of course, many people who are on the path towards observance do so, but it is the “right” thing for an Orthodox Jew who is helping to offer a place to stay for shabbat or to be after shul for someone who has or will contemplae driving.

    There are probably a number of individuals and families in the nearest Orthodox community who would be pleased to have a shabbat guest who is increasing their observance stay over at their house. This is familiar territory for those who are involved in kiruv (bringing our brothers and sisters closer to their Jewish heritage).

    You will probably find that there are many people who are happy to help.

    This applies if

    #991096

    Sam2
    Participant

    Aurora: If you are not yet Jewish, speak to the Rabbi of the synagogue and maybe he’ll be okay with you driving. If you are Jewish, then no Orthodox Rabbi would ever tell you that it’s permissible to drive. I would advise finding a place to stay nearer to the Orthodox synagogue just for Sabbaths.

    #991097

    shein
    Member

    aurora77: Since you are not Jewish yet, until you become Jewish I do not see any problem whatsoever with you driving to an Orthodox synagogue.

    Also, you should know that traditional Judaism (aka Orthodoxy) does not recognize the newer streams (Reform, Conservative, etc.) as being Judaism. Any conversion through those streams will leave one considered as still being non-Jewish by traditional Judaism.

    #991098

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you yichusdik and sam2, this is very good to know. It is very kind of those families to go so out of their way to help newcomers like me who have next-to-no idea what they’re doing!

    #991099

    SayIDidIt™
    Participant

    charlie brown said:

    I would also recommend a visit to shabbat.com where you can look for an opportunity to spend a Shabbat with a jewish family. Nothing else can come close to experiencing judaism in real life! (And maybe you can share your aunt’s kugel recipe with your hostess! 🙂 )

    Shabbat.com – check it out!


    About learning Hebrew:

    Unless you live in Israel (in which case you would need Hebrew even if you weren’t Jewish !) you really don’t have to learn how to speak Hebrew. The main thing you would want to concentrate on is learning how to read. And then write. As you probably know by now, we speak a mixture of English, Hebrew and Yiddish

    (to quote a song:

    To originate a language, a new way to talk and speak

    Is a most imposing challenge, a monumental feat

    And most are doomed to failure, before they even start

    But in the hallowed halls, of Yeshivos far and wide Our young men have discovered a new way to verbalize

    And a dash of Aramaic; a linguistic potpourri

    that’s called…

    Yeshivishe Reid Yeshivishe Shprach…)

    so speaking Hebrew is not a must. However, Siddurim (Prayer Books) and most Seforim (Books) are printed in Hebrew. There are many with translations but eventually you will want to Daven (pray-Yiddish) in Hebrew.

    There are three written forms of Hebrew used today: “Print”, “Script” and “Rashi (Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 C.E.) who wrote a very famous commentary on The Bible and Talmud)”. Print is used in (most) Seforim and printed text. Script, how we all write! And Rashi is used for commentaries.

    That is a “very” basic introduction.


    If you have specific questions on a particular issue or topic, I would suggest to start a thread so it could be discussed properly. But if you have a basic question or what a translation of a word, post it here and we will try to help you!


    As others mentioned, you should find a Rabbi (also sometimes called Rav) who can “take your hand” (as you probably noticed by now, we don’t shake hands with the opposite gender) and really guide you. Also, if you end up going to a family for Shabbos, you can get close to the women of the family and she can be a friend and mentor! The CR is a fabulous place, but a “live” person is 1000 times better!

    #991100

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you SO much SiDi!! Any basic information like this helps me and sort of lets me see the larger structure of what I am trying to learn. You have been helpful and kind beyond words, which I deeply appreciate.

    #991101

    oomis
    Participant

    I have just now come to this thread, and I applaud your courage. it is a huge challenge to re-think your life, and come to realize that some things whih you have held to be true about yourself, were not. This is a major step for you, and in my humble opinion you should start with small steps. I think Aish HaTorah Discovery seminars would be of tremendous benefit. Or Rebbetzin Esther Jungries’ Hineni (meaning “here I am”)organization. They are geared to educating and welcoming the Baal Teshuvah.

    If I understood your post correctly, you ARE Jewish by birth, as it is passed down matrilineally. If your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all unquestionably Jewish, then you are, too (really it only needs to be that you look at your own mother being a bona fide Jew (whether by birth or Orthodox conversion), but it is a good idea to check back further down her maternal bloodline).

    Much good luck to you in your endeavors to live a life that is your heritage. It is well worth it. Find yourself an Orthodox rabbi and his wife, with whom you can make a real connection, and try to spend your Shabboses in their community. Why travel on Shabbos, if you already are making inroads to committing to a true Torah life?

    #991102

    aurora77
    Participant

    Thank you oomis1105 for your warm and encouraging words! When I feel overwhelmed by all I don’t know, I try to focus like you recommended on the next small steps for me to take. The unknown is less intimidating when there are warm welcomes and hands like yours extended.

    #991103

    Mammele
    Participant

    Hi Aurora, It’s been a pleasure to read your comments, full of sincerity and appreciation.

    However — unlike what Shein mentioned — even though your Jewishness has not been proven yet, since your info. seems to indicate that you probably are, my humble opinion is that it would be kind of counter-productive to drive to a synagogue or to a Jewish family for a meal on Shabbos.

    With the high holidays approaching I can only echo what others have said: find yourself a real life mentor. It’s a leap of faith you need to take, and even more difficult if you are shy, but it’s one that you hopefully will not regret.

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