Converts, BT’s…Heck Everyone – You Can’t Control What Others Will Think Of You

An interesting discussion wandered across my social media feed this week.  It began with a post suggesting “Comebacks For Converts,” basically a list of ideas for dealing with nosey questions that converts often encounter.  The post itself is pretty good and has some good ideas.  The discussion that ensued, however, made me think for a bit.

I’ve been on the receiving end of intrusive questions and even rude comments from Jewish people regarding our conversion process, so I understand that these kinds of questions or remarks can be unwanted or even hurtful.  From what I understand, they can be even more hurtful for Jews of Color, converts or not.  I’ve also come to understand that BT’s (those who came to Jewish religious observance in adulthood) also often wind up in some of these situations.

The fact is that, as a gross generalization, Jews are a much more close culture and what might seem a rude or intrusive question in other contexts can actually be perfectly innocent and well-meaning.  I would say that the majority of the questions I’ve been asked about our conversion process fall into this category.  People are genuinely curious and sometimes even inspired.  I understand not everyone wants their conversion process to be fodder for someone else’s spiritual inspiration, but for me…it kind of helps me feel like what we’ve been through does serve a higher purpose.

If I’m really busy or feeling put on the spot, I might just politely ask them if we could meet for coffee some other time because it’s a really long story, but I don’t really feel offended when a born Jew is genuinely interested in the hows and whys of how I wound up next to them at the kiddush table.

Then there are the other category of remarks or questions, the kind that you really can feel are more intended to cast judgment, gather gossip, or even to try to draw lines that exclude.  I’ve been very fortunate to only run across a few of those, but it’s interesting that most of those experiences were earlier in our conversion process.

My favorite story is one of the first times I went to a get together in my first Orthodox community.  There was a non-observant Jewish woman there who looked at me, rather pointedly and said, more of as a statement, “You were BORN Jewish, were you?”  When I responded honestly, she didn’t speak to me the rest of the evening and I’ll admit, it stung.  I was new to the community and to Jewish gatherings and I wanted so much to belong, to be accepted.  I pondered over her words and attitude like rubbing a worry stone in my pocket, trying to make sense of them.

In the end, the conclusion I came to is that, for these types, their reaction to me as a convert or potential convert is so much more about their own relationship to Judaism and Jewish identity than anything to do with me…and I have no control over that.

For some secular or non-observant Jews, converts rub at some of their sorest spots as Jews.  Maybe it’s guilt that someone who wasn’t born with the same obligations as you is taking them on voluntarily and absolutely rocking it.  Maybe it’s that your identity as a Jew is more tied to culture and race than religion, like the woman who once casually told me, “Sorry, I don’t believe in conversion,” with an apologetic smile and shrug.  Thinking on her response, it made perfect sense considering that she didn’t really believe in most of the Torah, of which conversion is definitely part.  Her rejection of conversion was right in line with what it meant to her to be a Jew.

The fact is, no matter who you convert under or how hard you try to be the perfect convert or BT, there will always be some people who are not going to accept you because your background is different than their own.

For me, it was a part of my process to come to terms with that, to find a way to be at peace with it.  It’s not my job to try to force every Jew I come across to change their mind about converts and even if it was, snappy comebacks or brute force probably isn’t going to be the best way to do it.  Instead, I think it’s good to realize that these perspectives aren’t about me.  In most cases, the people I’m interacting with barely know me or my family or our story.  It’s just their own baggage that I happen to be bumping into.   It also helped for me to recognize that this is more of a “people” thing than a “Jewish people thing.”  No matter what group you’re trying to be a part of, if it’s a big enough group there will be people there who may not think you belong or who want to show that they have more of a right to be there.  It’s a human thing and far from unique to Jewish folks of any persuasion.

It also makes a really great social filter, too, which can be handy.

If someone is pushy or rude to me because I’m a convert or convert in process or treats you poorly because you weren’t born frum when we barely have met them, it’s actually a really handy clue that those are probably not going to be your people and you can politely excuse yourself to invest more time and energy in other people who don’t have that reaction.  I realize I don’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea or best friend and these folks are actually doing me a favor by helping me scoot past to people that I may have a lot more in common with and a better chance of finding friendship with.

I think a big part of coming to terms with those rare times when someone Jewish dumps their Jewish baggage on me in passing has also been coming to a place where I have picked through my own “convert in process baggage” to a point that I feel secure enough in who I am and where I’m headed that I no longer am looking to every Jew I meet for approval and some kind of confirmation.  You won’t accept me or view me as being of value before or after the mikvah?  Ok…I can leave that with you to work through and move along to all the other people who will be happy to be in my life and support me and include me.  I don’t have to take your opinion as having some kind of weight or bearing on the Jew I am working to become.

And I think that’s part of the problem I have with posts that give snappy comebacks or give us permission to take offense at questions and comments.  Sure, most of them are absolutely against halakhah, but pointing that out isn’t likely to slow anyone down, particularly if they’re coming from people who don’t really value halakhah to begin with.  The problem I have is that it basically leaves conversion candidates and converts as well as anyone else who deals with this as perennial victims who have some kind of obligation to set all these folks straight.

Instead, I’d rather see us free to shrug and walk away, barely paying it any mind and instead living our Jewish lives proudly and in a way that maybe, just maybe might make some of them question their assumptions far more effectively than getting into a disagreement with them.  I’d also rather these folks be upfront with their biases so that we can avoid winding up joining a shul or community where they are the overwhelming majority or the loudest voices because we all deserve to be some place where we feel supported and wanted, regardless of our backgrounds.

Life is just far too short to worry about anything else.

3 thoughts on “Converts, BT’s…Heck Everyone – You Can’t Control What Others Will Think Of You

  1. I think what is important to realize with this kind of attitudes is that it is a form of racism. When people think that Jews with Jewish blood are better than Jews without, or treat born Jews better than converts, this is racism. It’s racism like treating white people better than black people is racism. And the thing with racism is that you can’t just “shrug it off” forever. People who have not been victims of constant racism usually think that you can just “not care what others think about you”. But it just doesn’t work that way. Constant racism is exhausting, it causes stress, lowers self-esteem. causes mental and physical problems etc. There are plenty of studies about the effects of racism on mental and physical health.
    When I was a new convert, my attitude was similar to yours. I thought that I will just “shrug it off” and not care what people think about me, that it’s their problem, not mine. Years of racist treatment have changed me a lot. I’ve completely changed my mind and realized that being angry is very (very!) important for your mental health and self-esteem if you are a victim of racism.
    If people treat you badly because of your skin color, and you try to shrug it off and not care and you just swallow all the little nastiness, eventually you will end up with a big ball of internalized racism, denied feelings, and hurt inside you, that will eat you from the inside out. It is important to be angry about the way you are treated.
    The same applies to converts who commonly are victims of racist treatment from born Jews. It is psychologically important to get angry and fight for your rights and dignity, even if it is in the form of snappy comebacks. this is empowerment. Being nice and polite and rational will work for a while, but eventually the weight of a million little things, little words, looks, little acts of discrimination, will crush you. This is the point where you need to get angry, in order to stay sane and to be able to have self esteem. I hope you will never have to reach this point, and that racism will always be a rarity for you. For those of us, for whom it isn’t, it is very important to be angry about the racist treatment you face, because shrugging it off will not work forever. It is sometimes hard for people who haven’t experiences a lot of racism themselves to understand the importance of anger.
    We are human beings, and we have feelings, and it is not good to deny them. The Torah doesn’t tell us to never get angry, but to get angry wisely. We are supposed to get angry about a number of things, like injustice. Sometimes you need to get angry, not bitter or hateful, hatred and bitterness are not good, they will also eat you from inside out.
    I think we should be more open to talk about the racism that converts face, and we should address the problem with its real name, racism. If racism is not fought, it cannot be won. If it is not talked about, racist attitudes will never change. The good thing about such snappy comebacks is that they have the potential to make people think about their ingrained (sometimes unconscious) racist attitudes towards converts. Not just the particular person they are directed at, but also other people around them.
    Pretending that racism against converts is not there, pretending that every convert is not a victim of this racism sometimes, pretending that the racism against converts (and every other kind of racism) is a problem of a group of individuals and not a communal, societal, cultural problem of the entire Jewish community, will ensure that the things stay as the are. If we want to end any kind of racism, including the racism against converts, or even to have less of it, we need to open our eyes and see it, and open our mouths and talk about it. There is no other way to change the worlds for the better.

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    1. I believe we have a choice. It might also help to know I’ve been in process for nearly a decade at this point, so it’s not like any of this is that “new” to me.

      I have a choice in how I frame these interactions. I could choose to frame them as injustice and racism and react like a social justice warrior…I see nothing wrong with taking that perspective and perhaps my righteous outrage would change one or two people…but at what price to me and my own path? For you, I can see that anger is useful and helps you have the energy to keep pushing your way past these incidents, but for me, I don’t think it would bring me the same kind of relief. In the past, in similar situations, I’ve found it to quickly sap my enthusiasm and light.

      I do agree that we each have to find our own way to handle situations like these and I applaud you for finding the way that works best for you!

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  2. We learn from Parshas Yisro that we have to be extra-sensitive to converts and go out of our way to be warm and welcoming. Under no circumstances should it ever be even mentioned that a convert was not “born Jewish.” However, as you have very aptly remarked, people who are guilty of these transgressions against Torah and Mitzvos are either ignorant, or, most likely, have their own issues with Judaism and react to their own insecurities touched by the presence of a convert.
    I truly admire your attitude, dear friend!

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