Converting Infants and Children

A child must be formally converted if adopted or born to a non-Jewish mother, except within Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, which accept patrilineal descent.

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In the following article, the author omits mention of Reconstructionist Judaism, but in this matter, the movement, like Reform Judaism, accepts the notion of patrilineal descent. Reprinted with permission from www.convert.org.

Parents may want to consider converting their infants or children to Judaism for a variety of reasons. Some Jewish parents are intermarried, and the gentile spouse does not plan to become Jewish, but both parents agree that the single religion of Judaism will be in the child's best interest. Perhaps either a gentile parent in an intermarriage or a couple made up of two gentile parents decide to convert to Judaism, but their children were born before the conversion. Perhaps a Jewish couple adopts a gentile child. 

converting infantsIn all these cases, conversion to Judaism can be seen as a desirable option for the infants and minor children. (A minor child in Jewish law means the child is under age 12 for a female and under age 13 for a male.)

When Must a Child Be Converted?

In the case of intermarriage, the child of a Jewish woman and her gentile male spouse is universally recognized as Jewish, so that the conversion of the infant or child is unnecessary. A more delicate and difficult situation arises when the infant or child is born to a Jewish father and gentile mother. The Orthodox and Conservative movements do not recognize such a child as legally Jewish, so that, in such cases, Orthodox and Conservative parents need to have their child legally converted to Judaism.

Under the Reform movement's patrilineality principle, the child of a Jewish father and gentile mother is presumed Jewish if the child is raised exclusively in Judaism and engages exclusively in public Jewish acts. The children, then, are legally Jewish. However, some of these Reform parents may voluntarily choose to have their children converted for various reasons, such as wider acceptance of the child's Jewishness by the non-Reform Jewish community.

Jewish parents in all movements need to convert adopted gentile minors for the minors to be considered Jewish. The adoption itself, or even the raising of the children as Jewish, does not make the child Jewish.

Jewish Law Regarding Conversion of Children

The conversion of an infant or child has Jewish legal sanction. According to the Talmud (Ketubot 11a), it is permissible for a religious court (a beit din) to convert a gentile infant. The basis in Jewish law is that it is a privilege to be Jewish (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 268:7). Therefore, a minor can be converted even though not mature enough to understand the act because making the minor Jewish is performing a favor for that infant or child.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.