My very good friend over at Jewish Thoughts wrote a great blog post today about Orthodox Jewish converts, questioning how the Orthodox community treats them. After detailing some of the painful things that she has seen with the converts that she knows, she asks some very good questions.
So what exactly should we do?
I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?
As someone who’s been the conversion process for almost 7 years now and who has traveled between different communities as part of that process, this is definitely something I’ve wrestled with. Conversion wasn’t always the beast it is today. As little as 20 years ago or less, conversion was a local affair. Congregational Rabbis were entrusted with teaching converts, ascertaining their readiness for conversion, and then assembling a Beit Din to witness the conversion. Conversions were rarely questioned after the fact and while converts did encounter stigma and judgment, they did not often have to fear their conversions somehow being revoked after the fact.
There were downsides to this. Some unscrupulous Rabbis used this system to abuse converts, either extorting them for money or even sexually harassing them. There were some pretty big public chillul Hashems and scandals. There were more mundane problems as well in that what a convert needed to know and be committed to doing prior to conversion varied widely. My mother-in-law, unfortunately, found herself in the position that many converts later did, having thought that she’d had a “kosher” conversion only to find it questioned many years later, after she’d had children, and having to undergo a second conversion and watch her children also suffer. Without some kind of uniform standards, it was hard for a convert to know if their conversion would be accepted in other places or in years to come.
I’d say that most born Jews who haven’t been privy to the details of a convert’s process lately probably aren’t aware that the system has changed a lot from how it was previously and I think that is a big part of the problem. Many assume that conversion is simpler or easier than it is or don’t realize the beast it has become.
For this as well as some political reasons that I don’t feel qualified to discuss, there was a narrowing of the conversion process, moving it to more centralized control. Now, a local congregational Rabbi can sponsor a conversion candidate and a few isolated Rabbis can still handle their own conversions, but by in large it is some form of regional Beit Din that handles most of the conversion process and standards are both more stringent and uniform, although different Beit Dins can still vary on some details. Even being a sponsoring Rabbi, though, has become more risky in the eyes of Rabbis. No one wants to help convert insincere converts, who later leave observance for whatever reason.
It’s said that converts should be discouraged and turned away 3 times. This is taken from the story of Ruth where her mother in law, Naomi, attempts to send her back to her people three times before finally giving in and bringing her with her to Israel. What this has become in modern times, though, is something else entirely. In some cases, “discouragement” means that scheduled meetings are missed by the Rabbi or repeatedly rescheduled. Paperwork is frequently “lost” and has to be filled out multiple times. It’s not uncommon to have to switch from one Beit Din to another for any number of reasons. I like to file most of this under “bureaucratic discouragement.” It’s often hard to be able to tell if this is just inefficiency in a system or if it’s intentional unless you hear of someone else whose meetings are kept and paperwork isn’t lost. Those who mentor converts tell them to expect it. Keep multiple copies of paperwork and keep confirming and rescheduling appointments.
Other times it’s more overt. We were part of one community where the local Rav instructed families not to invite converts in process over for any Yom Tov meals. This Rabbi also would avoid shaking a male’s hand if he was in the process of conversion, shaking the hand of the man next to him and on the other side of him. It was his belief that a conversion candidate essentially should be socially shunned until the process was complete, even if that process took years. B”H, that’s not a majority opinion and we are no longer in that community, but similar social isolation often does happen to converts, even after conversion. In other communities, the level of stringency of observance required of conversion candidates or converts can actually separate them from their community, where a majority do not hold to the same. There’s also more mundane social discouragement, like being left out of some Synagogue activities or the intrusive questions at kiddush.
And then there are the mind games that some Rabbis and Beit Dins do play. I have heard of married couples, questioned separately and told that their spouse has decided not to convert, just to see if they are so committed to conversion that they’ll agree to leave their spouse in order to complete their conversion. I’ve left a Rabbi’s office in tears myself after a dose of “discouragement,” although he was also very eager to make sure I knew about a fundraiser they were doing as I wiped my tears on the way out. There are vague answers that leave converts in knots trying to figure out what the “right” thing to do in a halakhic situation is. There are unclear procedures that leave a conversion candidate never quite sure how to plan. Do you buy kitchen things you need now, knowing you might have to throw them out at any time because you’re suddenly approved to convert? On the other hand, it could be years from now, so is it wise to wait? Do you have another child? Will you be able to marry in time to have children? What do you do if a good job in another city comes up? Moving would mean starting your conversion process all over again.
Even worse, there are many people in this process who were “born Jewish,” but whose halakhic status was later called into question. My husband is going on his second conversion process now to resolve questions of his halakhic status. He had a bris, a bar mitzvah, and went to an Orthodox Jewish day school. For years, he hasn’t been able to have an aliyah, carry a Torah, or be counted in a minyan. He’s lived for years not knowing if the next time he is again called to the Torah if he’ll be called as his father’s son…or as Avraham’s, his father’s line cut off because of a paperwork error in his mother’s conversion before he was born and another paperwork error in his gerus l’chumrah before his bar mitzvah.
No, I don’t think this is what Torah tells us about converts at all.
The bigger question is what can or should we do about it? Unfortunately, most of us have very little power to make any change in this system. Most of us don’t have any influence on how young Rabbis are taught as far as how to handle conversion candidates and I think that it is likely that Rabbis have to learn so much and such a wide breadth of information that little time is spent teaching them how to handle conversion candidates with sensitivity. There is also the problem that some conversion candidates make it harder for all the other conversion candidates that come after them. I don’t think I know a single Rabbi that sponsors conversion candidates that doesn’t have some pretty awful horror stories of converts that were far from sincere, who went completely off the derech (gave up observance) quickly after conversion or disappeared from any Jewish community entirely. There are plenty of good, sincere Rabbis who deeply believe that the sins those converts commit are also on the heads of the Rabbis who helped them convert and they also fear that if they have too many of those “conversion failures” under their name that it will eventually harm the sincere converts that they have helped.
Over the years, I’ve dug at the mess myself and talked with Rabbis who work mentoring converts, Rabbis who work with organizations that help converts in Israel gain recognition of their Jewish status there, and even spoken with a Rabbi who has chosen to do conversions that aren’t accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate because he so objects to the current state of the system. The conclusion I’ve come to after all this, everything our family has been through, and the years I’ve spent in this is that the problem is just so much bigger than most of us have any power to impact. It’s one of those world problems that I think only Moshiach might resolve…and that resolution is that there will come a time when converts can no longer be accepted at all and the process will close.
In the meantime, what I think we all can do is do our part to be kind to converts and conversion candidates. If you have some at your Synagogue, sit next to them. Talk to them. Ask if there’s anything you could do to help with their process, like being a chavrusa (study partner) in their learning or helping them find good books for whatever subject they’re working on. Invite them to your home when you can and include them in Jewish activities. If you see that they’re being excluded from some Synagogue activities, ask your Rabbi about it. Sometimes, it’s just a simple oversight and bringing some awareness to it might help them remember to include them. Speak up if you see the local yenta (gossip) cornering a convert or conversion candidate, asking intrusive questions.
Mostly, whenever you can, just treat them like the fellow Jew that they so very much want to be.
The advice I give to conversion candidates who are grappling with all this is that they have to find a place of acceptance of it all if they’re going to ever find peace and joy in a Jewish life. There are double standards for converts, even after the mikvah. There will always be some Jews that won’t accept your conversion, for whatever reason. There will also be born Jews (mostly secular or really liberal) who simply “don’t believe in conversion” for whom Jewishness is more about race than religion. There will always be people that look down on converts or exclude them. The question the conversion candidate needs to answer is…even with that, can they still love Judaism and the Jewish people and find joy and fulfillment living as a convert? That question wasn’t easy for me to answer for several years, with so much hurt and anger, but eventually, I had to let go of the hurt and anger and find the answer for myself. My answer was “Yes, yes I can still find the joy and yes I can still love this imperfect, nosey, stubborn, and even sometimes rude people as my own.” Like I learned to love my husband’s imperfections because they make him uniquely him, I had to come to a similar place with the humanity of my fellow Jews, even where it moved them to be hurtful towards me. Still, I can definitely understand and empathize with those who made another choice and moved on.
The conversion process and the life that comes after it are not for everyone. It’s not an easy life, a “fair” life. It is, however, a life that is really full of amazing opportunities for spiritual growth if you look for them. I’ve learned more about humility, inner strength, emuna (faith), trust, and any number of things from my conversion process. I’ve learned to let go and trust Hashem in ways I never thought I could. I’ve been broken down to the point I was sobbing and wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, but I’ve also been built back up. I’ve seen the best and worst sides of Orthodox Judaism, but I’ve also seen the amazing potential of the Jewish people. In many ways, I think having to go through this has made me more passionate about Judaism than I ever could have been if it simply was my birthright.
It’s definitely not a path for everyone and those who choose to leave conversion are not weak. In fact, they’re probably just rational, logical people who are making the best choice for themselves in a rough situation. Perhaps those of us who stay are simply the most stiff-necked among them, the ones who would have fit right in with the unruly group Moshe was guiding through the desert. Perhaps it now takes an unreasonable process to shape people into a kind of unreasonable faith, to help uncover that Jewish neshama that was unreasonable enough to say that they would accept the Torah even before they read it?
All I know is that it’s my path for as much as I’ve tried to leave it, I’ve always come back. In that way, it is a lot like the kind of love that makes two people stubbornly stick together against all odds, for a lifetime…or leave their homeland and comfort to be a beggar in a foreign land with their mother in law, like Ruth. Being a convert means being stubbornly committed to the Jewish people even when they seem least deserving of your love and loyalty, just like a spouse that’s showing you their worst side.
I just often wish that the Jewish people worked harder to also show converts their best side, too.