We sit alone. Occasionally someone crosses the divide, bridging that gap. Other families laugh, their freedom ensured by birth. The men breeze in and out of Shabbos services at will, an aliyah guaranteed. The women sit and talk, their unbound hair and jeans comfortable to them. They look at us, the outsiders who look foreign, separated from them, oddly enough, by observance of halakhah. The Rabbis rush to greet them, eager to make them feel welcome. We sit and wrestle with it all as usual.
To be a conversion candidate, often, is to be alone, particularly in a community where few are observant. There are many practical reasons for this.
For one, the level of observance that a conversion candidate must keep in order to convert and keep their conversion is often a level that makes non-observant Jews uncomfortable. Women who prefer not to cover their hair may feel guilty or judged around someone who does, likewise with modest dress. It’s not much easier for the men. My husband sits next to a 14-year-old boy who pauses from his iphone long enough to take his aliyah while, year after year, he is passed over. My children question, why, when they have grown up this way, they are treated so differently. I struggle for the explanations that will not make them hate Judaism.
I know all too well just how hard it can be to work through that anger at the unfairness of it all and get back to the joy and the light that’s still there.
Holidays can be particularly hard for converts as they are for anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mold. Depending on the community, it can be a time of sudden influx of more secular Jews and it can sting for a struggling convert to see them so openly welcomed where we are often working so hard to be accepted. Some communities also will not allow conversion candidates to be invited for Yom Tov meals, leaving them to be home alone during holidays. In some cases, again depending on the community, there may be more restrictions than usual on what the conversion candidate can do or participate in, making someone who so longs just to be one of the crowd, painfully aware of how different they are.
Then, for those of us on a longer conversion path, holidays are a painful reminder of the passage of time. Another Purim means another year passed. While others laugh, I sit, thinking of the children I gave up and will never have, not wanting to bring them into the world somewhere between Jew and non-Jew. I think of other simchas that will not be, like my 13-year-old sons bar mitzvah that didn’t happen because he’s caught, like us, in conversion. I guess people can sense that sitting with us is almost as awkward as sitting with someone with a chronic disease. They rush to the arms of the secular Jews they only see a few times a year, a flurry of joy passing by our table like a fluttering breeze.
I work to find the joy in the little things. I work to distract the kids and help them ignore any negativity. I try to keep my eyes on a future where, not too far off, we’ll be in a larger community with more observant families. I know it will still be hard, but I also know that if we’re just patient and keep doing our part, we’ll get to the mikvah. I just wish more people understood the pain that converts often face.
If, in your community, you know a convert or conversion candidate, please try to spend some time with them, especially during the holidays. It doesn’t take much, just a warm welcome when you first see them or a few words of kindness and that often becomes the thread they hold on to while they weather difficult times. Just a few moments sitting and talking with them can make a huge difference.
Especially as we approach Passover, remember, we were all once strangers, too.