There are three groups of people mentioned repeatedly in the Torah that the Jewish people are reminded to be careful to be kind to: converts, widows, and orphans. To me, the one commonality these groups all share is that they lack much or all of the support of a Jewish family.
In some ways, I’m so much more fortunate than most conversion candidates. I have Jewish family on my husband’s side and I even have observant, Orthodox family that I can turn to with questions and who understand what I’m going through. My husband’s mother and stepfather have been a constant source of love and support throughout these years and they are role models I look up to for the very best of what Orthodox Jews are. They are loving, accepting, and kind as well as generous with their time when it comes to teaching us and cheering us on. Not even every born Jew has that and even not every frum from birth Jew has that kind of support.
In other ways, I can relate to the grouping of converts with widows and orphans. Choosing to join the Jewish people meant losing my family for quite a while. When we first began this journey, my family disowned me…right before our civil wedding. They refused to attend and then disowned me, cutting off all contact for about 6 months. My in-laws all attended our wedding and I worked hard to overcome any sadness that none of my family were there, but…I did feel abandoned. 6 months later, my family began speaking to me and we never spoke of what had happened. They do not mention my wedding anniversary or send a card or gift. To them, it isn’t worth mentioning.
The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is a difficult one to keep sometimes, but I’ve worked hard at it over the years. I call my mother every erev Shabbos no matter how my family are treating me. I went to my niece’s wedding reception even though she will not come to my wedding. I try to ignore any ugliness and focus on where we can connect. I change the subject of conversations to gardening, the weather, the crops…anything we can still share.
My family are not coming to our chuppah in a few weeks.
When I called to tell them it was happening, I gave them a graceful out where they could decline to attend without feeling like they needed to cut off contact again. I told them that while they were welcome, I would understand if they felt too uncomfortable to attend and that it would be small and simple anyway, nothing to miss. I minimized its importance to me to spare their guilt and I did my best to gracefully accept their refusal, instead planning a trip to visit them.
They won’t visit our home, uncomfortable with the Judaica there or the community around us.
My family are a big part of who I am. They raised me and taught me so many positive things that I still carry with me. It’s important to honor them and I’m certain that this is difficult and complicated, too. They’re likely doing their best with where they are and where they came from and this is the best that they can offer right now. When I look back, we’ve come so far from when they disowned me and cut off all contact.
I’m not an orphan, even if it sometimes might seem so to my community.
I ache that my closest friends will probably never meet my parents or my brother. I ache even more that my in-laws, who are amazing people, will probably never meet them. Ironically, I think they’d find they had a lot in common. My family, though, are trapped in their fear. Ironically, it’s not even a fear of religion, but of language and culture. My family don’t want to be somewhere where English isn’t spoken. They won’t attend a ceremony that is in a language they don’t understand, with traditions they don’t know. They are afraid of people who are different from them, who look different or act differently.
I’m no orphan, but soon…I will be a convert and sometimes that, too, is a lonely thing to be. This change in my relationship with my family was just one of those things I had to accept as part of this path, part of the cost of moving forward to being Jewish.
But yes, please do be kind to converts…you never know what the convert in front of you might have had to go through or give up just to be there with you.