Without a doubt, one of the most difficult things about conversion that I’ve had to work on and help my children with is the reality of double standards. It’s one of those things that I think every Orthodox conversion candidate has to come to a place of acceptance with because it’s not something we can change.
A perfect example was this weekend on Shabbat. We were camping in our RV and we’re still working out some of the issues there. As a result, we again had a bit of cold and food in the fridge froze again. Our spirits were low as we all dressed and headed into shul, but there was the promise of hot coffee, heat, and davening ahead of us. We knew there was a bar mitzvah this week, so there might even be a bigger kiddush than usual and more kids for our children to spend time with. The Shabbos day ahead was bright!
And it was for a while. I feel into the familiar pace of davening and felt that familiar connection. Until…the seats began filling up with unfamiliar faces. I was an outsider again among these women, unconstrained by rules of tznius and unfamiliar with the Siddur. I always try to remind myself when an unknown family comes to our shul for a bar or bat mitzvah that maybe this could be the event that helps bring them to greater observance. Usually, though, after their simcha, we never see them again. Still, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin try to make everyone feel welcome and make the event special.
As the speeches wore on, I fell into negative thoughts. I mourned the fact that my 13 year old doesn’t get to study with a Rabbi as this boy did and that he has no bar mitzvah date ahead of him despite all his hard work studying and learning. I mourned that I don’t know if my daughter will have a bat mitzvah. I mourned that the very things that I must do in order to hopefully one day be accepted as a Jew are also the things that separate me from these visiting Jews.
By the time Kiddush rolled around, I was feeling pretty down and not really looking forward to fighting my way through a crowd to wash for hamotzei. We let the kids stay and went out to the RV to do kiddush ourselves, with frozen tuna salad sandwiches, but it felt better than being so much an outsider there. A few of the regular attendees echoed our feelings as they left early, too, to do kiddush at home.
I shook off my negativity as the day wore on, reminding myself that these are Jews and it’s wonderful that the bar mitzvah boy worked so hard and that you never know…maybe this experience will stick with him and he’ll come to great observance one day because he and his family and many visitors were welcomed warmly and treated so well. I should be happy for them because every Jew counts and is important and every little step towards mitzvos is a good thing!
The next day, we went to pick up our daughter from Hebrew school and my heart sank again. We were waiting with other parents and I was the only woman in a skirt with her hair covered. Soon, the conversation drifted to the latest and greatest non-kosher restaurants as the mothers and daughters in yoga pants chatted happily. I felt again…an outsider and when I saw my daughter, dressed in a very pretty dress with tights and a long sleeved shell, come rushing out to me, I remembered conversations, trying to explain to her why we had to follow one set of rules while others have another and consoling her when Jewish kids had picked on her for her tznius outfits.
As I sat there, my internal dialogue was one reminding me not to compare myself. The path of a born Jew has never been my path and will never be my path. Their options aren’t options that are open to me and all I can do is live the path I’ve been given the best way I know how. Often, this means I’m not invited to social engagements because born Jews feel alienated from me or they know I won’t eat non-kosher food. Other times, this means I’m excluded because I am not, in fact, Jewish.
The path of the convert is a unique one and requires a lot. During the conversion process, I think it’s particularly hard because the conversion candidate is often held to a higher standard of observance than the born Jew and yet…we don’t count. We aren’t celebrated in the same way and often exist on the outskirts of Jewish community. After conversion, at least there is the halakhic acceptance, but many converts struggle for social acceptance, particularly when they need to hold to a certain level of observance in order to make sure their conversions are never questioned.
And all of this are reminders of why we really do need to move to a bigger Jewish community with more resources for observance. It’s far easier to fit in when more people are keeping kosher, covering their hair, and dressing tznius. The level of observance we must adhere to becomes less of an obstacle to connection when it’s more common and it becomes easier for our children to feel accepted as well.
I sometimes wonder what it might be like if we were all born Jewish. Would I take my heritage for granted, breezing into shul for a simcha, but never really digging deeper into it? How would I feel about observant Jews? Would I have found the beauty and richness in Torah that I have as a conversion candidate? I believe everything happens for a reason and perhaps the reason I wasn’t born Jewish is because I would have given into the temptations of the regular world if it had seemed like an option. Whatever the reason…this is the path I was chosen to walk and all I can do is walk it in the best way I can.
Having a husband who was raised Orthodox also really helps at times like these. He can help me better understand some of the complex feelings that born Jews have toward Orthodox Judaism and why things are the way they are for many of them. I’m sure I’d probably have a very different perspective if I had been born a Jew and I should always judge favorably.
In the meantime, I’ve started painting some of the dark brown cabinets in the Shabbat RV to help brighten at least that corner of my world. It’s amazing how doing one small thing to make the world a little better can help shift your perspective to a brighter one!