I had one reader have a very negative reaction to a writing I did yesterday about the current state of conversion. Basically, by writing about my experiences and some of the other issues I have known about, this person was discouraged from attempting an Orthodox Jewish conversion herself and her image of the Jewish people was changed. The words were strong and it made me question if I’d done the right thing writing what I did. I’m including an excerpt here:
Your article sickened me, I had to stop reading it – I was so horrified by what I read. I have admired your culture and religion for most of my life. I have considered converting, more than once. You have saved me, by writing this, from making a terrible, terrible mistake. I thank you for that. But, I have no tolerance, whatsoever, for “human error” harming good people, who are so very sincere.
Something has, obviously, gone terribly wrong. Or, perhaps, I was wrong all along.
Good luck to you, but this information has left me heartbroken. Not for me, but for you.
There is a concept in Judaism of a “chillul Hashem,” basically, this is the idea that if you as a Jewish person commit an act or speak in a way that brings shame to the Jewish people, it can be serious enough to be an offense against G-d, desecrating His name. The idea is most often used in reference to causing scandals or spreading gossip, but I began to wonder if I had myself committed a chillul Hashem by being so open about issues with the current process of Orthodox Jewish Conversion. That was not my intention and I’m still not completely sure. Sometimes it is important to talk about problems so that we can raise awareness of them and work together to improve them, but maybe a public blog isn’t always the best forum. I’ll need to think on that one a while and I may or may not remove some posts based on it.
However, another thread in this comment stood out for me and it’s one that I do find often repeated among conversion candidates and is worth talking about.
I often will speak with conversion candidates who are head over heels in love with Judaism the religion, but struggle with the Jewish people and I also meet conversion candidates that really love the Jewish people and living among Jews, but struggle with Judaism as a religion.
One of the complicated things about Orthodox Jewish conversion that I think makes it different from a lot of other religious initiations is that by converting to Judaism, you’re really signing on to both the religion and the people. There is no way to accept one while rejecting the other and still be successful as a convert.
Part of this is due to the communal nature of Orthodox Jewish observance, which I have written about previously. At some point, in order to convert, a conversion candidate has to move to a community and live among Jews. Men need to pray with a minyan 3 times daily and even for women, life kind of revolves around the Jewish community. Being an Orthodox Jew means spending most of your free time with other Orthodox Jews doing Orthodox Jewish things. Not feeling love or acceptance either for or towards your fellow Jews can make those hours very long and painful.
While there is a lot of diversity between communities and cultures, there are some generalizations, at least here in the US. Most Jewish people here have a culture that at times can seem like a loud, boisterous family. Every Synagogue has its characters, from the gossipy yenta to the guy who sings obnoxiously over the chazzan (prayer leader) to a whole wide variety of people you might not otherwise choose to socialize with. Now, though, as a convert or conversion candidate, these people are family and you can’t exactly just avoid them. For people unfamiliar with the culture, I like to use the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as an imperfect example. People talk over each other, elbow their way to the kiddush line, and can be very blunt. At the same time, there is tremendous warmth and I’ve seen Orthodox Jews come together to support a family, with some of the people most generous with their time or resources being those you thought couldn’t stand each other.
Conversion is like dating an entire people with all their strengths and weaknesses, flaws and potential. You have to get to know them and learn if you can accept them as they are and if they can accept you. After so many thousands of years, they’re not going to change to please you any more than your spouse could suddenly get rid of every trait that annoys you about them. For me, that did take some time. Since my first crush with Judaism was with the religion, it took me a while to reconcile the fact that Jews, as a whole, are not a perfect reflection of the religion they follow. I had to learn to accept that as humans, they would not always live up to their own ideals, let alone the pedestal I’d set up for them. Just like I had to learn to love Mr. Safek for who he is instead of expecting him to always be a superhero, even though he might himself want to be a superhero.
And I do deeply love the Jewish people as a nation. I love the life and warmth and genuine caring I so often see. I love the stubborn determination, the lively disagreements, and I love Israeli directness. The more I “date” the Jewish people, the more I begin to see their “negative” traits more as loveable quirks and also as the flip side of the traits I so admire about them. I’m also just as defensive about them to others as I might be if someone outside the family poked fun at one of my husband’s quirks. Some jokes are only funny when you’re around all family, you know.
I have also met conversion candidates who already loved the Jewish people, sometimes having grown up among Jews and just really fallen in love with the culture.
Sometimes, though, these conversion candidates struggle with learning to love the religious aspects of Judaism. Often, they admit that they’d rather not take on observance fully and really just want to be part of the people, but they also want to be fully recognized as part of the Jewish people, with the ability to go to almost any Synagogue and be welcomed as a Jew or go to Israel and register as a Jew. They may seek out an Orthodox conversion not because they want to live an Orthodox lifestyle after conversion but more because they want the best stamp of approval of their Jewishness they think they can get.
Some eventually do fall in love with Orthodox Judaism, after lots of questions and wrestling and those converts seem to blend seamlessly into the Jewish community while I’m still eyeing the kiddush line with some trepidation. The ones that do not, though, very often wind up giving up observance not long after conversion, if they make it to conversion and they can cause real issues for others in the process as well as a lot of regret for the Rabbis that helped them.
It’s easy for a potential convert who is drawn to the religion of Judaism to become frustrated with the lapses of actual Jews and it’s easy for a conversion candidate who is drawn to the Jewish nation to be frustrated with the strictness of Orthodox observance or the basic tenets of Jewish faith. Still, in order to find fulfillment and happiness as an Orthodox Jewish convert, it’s important to learn to love both.
If there’s one thing that history has taught the world, it’s that Jews and Judaism are stubbornly inseparable. It’s important that a convert feel that’s a good thing.