Ask A Rabbi: My Great-Grandmother Was Jewish; Am I Jewish Too?

“I just discovered that my great-grandmother was Jewish, but the rest of my family is not. Does this mean I’m Jewish too? How do I find out how to be Jewish?”

What an interesting discovery about your family heritage! It’s not uncommon for individuals to discover that family members in previous generations had a Jewish background.

For many centuries, the Jewish community has determined a person’s Jewish identity by the identity of the birth mother. The child of a Jewish mother was Jewish irrespective of the faith and cultural identity of the father. This idea is usually referred to as “matrilineal descent” and is still the practice in Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities. In recent years, liberal streams of Judaism have broadened that definition. Reform and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism consider a child of one Jewish parent to be Jewish, regardless of whether the Jewish parent is mother or father. This idea is usually called “patrilineal descent,” although “bilineal” or “equilineal” descent is really more accurate.

In your case, traditional Jewish communities would consider you to be a Jew only if there was an unbroken genealogical line from your Jewish great-grandmother to you, i.e. your Jewish grandmother is your birth mother’s maternal grandmother. Liberal streams of Judaism would not consider you to be Jewish, as neither of your parents was Jewish and you were not raised with Judaism.

There are many opportunities to learn about Judaism that are open to everyone, regardless of one’s personal religious identity. You would be welcomed at an introductory class offered by Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, like “A Taste of Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” In addition, rabbis are accustomed to receiving and welcoming calls of inquiry like yours. You can call a synagogue to make an appointment to speak one-on-one with a rabbi if you so choose.

Any person can become Jewish by completing a formal process of conversion to Judaism. This typically requires a year-plus period of study, practice and personal reflection under the mentorship of an ordained rabbi or cantor, which culminates in a religious ceremony of conversion.

May your recent discovery lead you to wisdom, joy and blessings!

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Rabbi Julie Zupan is the clergy liaison at Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, which welcomes interfaith couples and individuals exploring Judaism. She also works with young families at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston and is an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a program of Hebrew College.

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