Friday, November 19, 2010

Is There a Stigma Against Converts?

Is there a stigma against converts?

As you might guess from me starting this blog, I'm incredibly open about being a convert/conversion candidate. In fact, I don't think I've ever been in the conversion closet!

In my experience (over 6.5 years now), there is no stigma against converts today. Sure, there's the odd duck every so often (though I only know this through the grapevine). But if someone is going to dislike me for being a convert, then I'm not too inclined to make their acquaintance anyway. I will be better off not dealing with that kind of negative person. Also, if you haven't already guessed, I'm considered a "strong" personality, which means people tend to have very strong feelings about me. Being a convert is the least of the reasons for someone to dislike me!

But while I don't think a stigma generally exists, I do believe that there are still negative stereotypes about converts lingering in the backs of Jewish minds. To make an analogy to racism, racists have negative stereotypes about the group, but inevitably have one or two friends of that group because "they're not like the others." Similarly, born-Jewish individuals generally seem to love individual converts, but may harbor negative stereotypes about the group as a whole. Notably, these stereotypes are also held against BTs.

Let's look at the main stereotypes subconsciously held against converts and BTs:

1) "Converts and BTs are not suitable marriage partners."

This is undoubtedly the most hurtful of the stereotypes. Professional matchmakers continue to ask their available singles whether they would be willing to marry a convert or BT. This alone seems like a chilul Hashem (and/or sinas chinam) to me, but what do I know? The only time this matters is when one partner is a kohen because of the laws related to who a kohen may marry. And I'm ok with that. On the bright side, any man who says he would be unwilling to marry a convert or BT is not the kind of person I would like to marry anyway. Let them opt out of my pool, please.

However, this sentiment is rarely so obvious. Here comes a personal story! Be warned, this is one of the most hurtful comments that I've ever had, and I have a much thicker skin than the average bear. I was dating a very nice Jewish boy, and his parents even liked me! But one day, they decided to sit him down and tell him why a convert cannot be a proper Jewish wife. They said that, even though they liked me personally, converts have no traditions and that the beauty of a Jewish marriage is learning to combine your traditions to make your own tradition. They honestly believed this. The boyfriend told me about this, and I blew it off at first, but about 24 hours later, I was in tears. I have traditions! Converts have the option of choosing our traditions, but I also have traditions that are just "what I know," and I've done those things for years. It was most painful that people who liked me, and liked that I was dating their son, could still believe that I was personally incapable of being a proper Jewish wife. Basically, that's saying that I can't be a proper Jew at all. And that's what I think that stereotype boils down to: Converts and BTs just aren't "good enough" Jews.

2) "If you haven't been frum your whole life, you must have been a sex-crazed maniac at some point."

Besides the fact that the FFB community has its own problems with sex-before-marriage today, there is an assumption that any convert or BT is not a virgin. Even worse, there is often an assumption that you were promiscuous and have had many partners. This ties heavily into the stereotype above, but it deserves its own bullet point simply because even casual conversations may include comments that refer to your sexual past. Whether this is true or not is none of their business, and these kinds of comments must be objected to in every single case. It's not appropriate. Nice people generally don't realize they have a stereotype in their mind until it's pointed out. Let's be honest, most converts and BTs who adopt an observant life in their mid-20s or later probably are not virgins. However, there are many who are. And regardless, it is not an appropriate topic of conversation or jokes.

I'll share a personal story of the above so that you can see that this does happen. It was awful and embarrassing at the time, but it's pretty funny in retrospect. The place: in synagogue (conservative), waiting on the afternoon minyan to begin. We're all regulars and know each other well. I was the only non-grandparent who regularly showed up. The conversation turned to how I came to Judaism, and I shared that I had once been engaged to a reform Jew (a very long time ago now). Then one of the men said something along the lines of "She's had more Jewish inside her than I have!" Oh yes. He said it. And jaws dropped, including my own. Inappropriate. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't have corrected that kind of inappropriate statement, but thankfully, all the ladies jumped to my aid and chewed him out. From conversations with other converts and BTs, this is not that unusual of a comment, though people are usually a bit more subtle.

3) "This is just a phase, and they'll go off the derech again."

This is also an argument for why we're not suitable marriage partners, but again, deserves its own discussion. Of all the stereotypes, this one seems the most logical to me. However, having a practical perspective on life and people is different from holding a stereotype and using it against individual people. Sure, in any group of people who "frum out" (Added to the Glossary for your convenience) and turn their lives upside down, at least some percentage is likely to go back to their old life. That's people for you. But it's not right to make that assumption and use it against someone. Deal with the problem when it occurs rather than assuming it's going to happen. Who knows, you might end up pushing them to go back to the secular world by showing how closeminded the frum community can be!

In summary, converts are Jews. Period. No qualifications. It's a miztvah to treat converts with respect. It's also a mitzvah to not hold a conversion against someone.


  1. I really think that any person who takes the step to change their entire life around and become Jewish is absolutely amazing!
    It's pretty sad when people don't see it this way. Focusing on the unbelievable amount of strength it must take to become a Jew makes me stand in awe of you!!

  2. Another stereotype is that BTs/converts are illiterate or clueless. My path to Orthodoxy is too complicated to summarize here, but one prominent feature was the years I spent in a conservative Jewish day school as a child. There I learned Hebrew and had limmudei kodesh classes (taught from a conservative perspective). Now when I'm at an Orthodox shul, shiur, whatever, anyone who knows I wasn't originally Orthodox translates every Hebrew word like twenty times for me. So frustrating...

  3. Hehehe, Sarah, I was on my first date after my conversion with a man who had seen me on the other side of the mechitza at weekday morning services, that's right I said weekday, he offered to teach me borai nefashos. I said, "we had pasta, al chamichiya..." he said, "I don't know that by heart." I said, "no problem, I do. However, you really should learn it. It's not tznius for a man to be yotzei (sp?) to a woman."

  4. I am a convert. I know the feeling of converting. It is rough on the other side. People have actually sat between me and their sons so my non-DNA Jew body won’t be near them.

    This make me think of 2 things:
    1. “A Jew is A Jew” and the only people who don’t believe that are people who think G-d is a liar. If they think G-d is a liar in what makes a Jew a Jew then perhaps they think HE is a liar in other things
    2. The bloodlines need some “New Blood.” There are a couple of diseases that Jews (particularly Ashkenazi) are more prone to have. Mix in a little of something else and we can keep those dormant genes dormant. Plus add some pizzazz to Jewish features

    I’ve been attacked for being Jewish. Anti-Semitic people don’t seem to care that I am convert. They just see a “Super Jew” shirt wearing Jew with a Chumash under her arm and attack me. Is that Jewish enough for the masses?

  5. Anonymous Nov.26

    I am a convert and I have been attacked in public for being Jewish. No one came to my aid.

    I wonder how much more Jewish do I have to be?

    Some people are sooo anti-semetic that they hate me simply for my faith and wearing a Star of David.

    AS a Jewish Convert, and a woman of color it is like walking a mine field everytime I walk out of my front door.

  6. Anonymous #2: What a terrible situation! I'm sorry to hear it!

    It's unclear whether you mean physical or emotional attacks. Regardless of which it is, I think you should seriously consider moving to a different community (or maybe different part of town, if that might help) if that is at ALL possible. You don't have to take that! And your sanity and well-being is worth whatever inconveniences a move might present. Thankfully, I've heard comments like yours few and far between, so there are many places where you could live an open Jewish life without these kinds of issues hanging over your head.

    As a woman of color, do you think that affects how these people are treating you? (As opposed to another convert who could pass as "Ashkenazi.") Of course, this question only applies if the first attacks you described are coming from other Jews. It sounds like that's what you mean from the "how much more Jewish do I have to be?" comment. And while it can be little consolation, someone this Shabbat tried to encourage me that when people say things like that, it's because THEY have a problem, not that YOU have a problem. Or putting that in Chavi terms, "People are crazy. And your crazy is not my problem."

  7. Like Anonymous #2, I am wondering about converts of color. I am a black woman who married a non-observant Jew. We are now divorced, but one of the issues that remain is the religious upbringing of our son. He had a hospital circumcision because we could not find a willing moyel. Our son attends a liberal Jewish preschool 3 mornings a week (it's a good school and my former mother-in-law is on the board). He is one of 4 non-white kids and 2 non-Jews. He is very interested in Judaism. I spoke with the school's rabbi who said, my son can't be converted because half the week, he lives with me. He said that as a converted child, he needs consistency. I pointed out that I do not practice another religion and that I'm willing to commit to taking my son to services and keeping him in Jewish day school. (I just don't want to convert my own self. Plus he sees his Jewish grandparents every week and all Jewish holidays. The rabbi still turned my son down. I am worried that there is a stigma because of his color/race (he's biracial, but looks fully African American because both my parents are 100% Nigerian). The other non-white kids in the class are born Jews. The only non-Jews are white. I have no idea if any of the Jewish kids are converts. Have you any ideas?

    1. Originally posted: August 9, 2011 at 2:48 PM

      New Anonymous, your situation must be very difficult, both for you and your son! There may be a stigma as well, but the reason the rabbi gave you is legitimate for a rabbi of any movement. Similarly, adults who convert usually are not allowed to convert their children with a non-Jewish other-parent unless they have sole custody. Even if they trust your commitment to raising him Jewishly, you could remarry someone who isn't supportive of that or may influence you to become involved in a different religion. However, you are free to check with other rabbis to see if they would be willing. Because the non-Jewish parent is the one pushing for this, maybe that would make a difference. And once he's converted, the school rabbi will probably be forced to recognize it, even if he wouldn't have done it himself. However, it would certainly be a liberal conversion, and that can create problems if your son wishes to be orthodox later. However, that bridge can be crossed when you get there and shouldn't discourage his Jewish life now.

      Even if you don't want to convert (and you shouldn't feel pressured to do so for the benefit of your son), he can convert as soon as he turns 18 with many rabbis, and soon thereafter according to everyone else. As for racial stigma against him, the Jewish "appearance" is changing. A LOT of people converting today are Jews of color. The children being born today are increasingly racial minorities. Intercultural adoptions (which appears to be most adoptions in the Jewish community) are having the same effect. Your son will probably have some difficulties, but he isn't alone in having them. There are many good role models in the community he can look to. Perhaps you can help him meet Jewish men of color and encourage a kind of mentoring relationship. His children will face a very different Jewish world, one that I believe will generally accept him and his children as "just any other Jew." But of course, some communities are more diverse than others. LA in particular (with NYC to a slightly lesser degree) have a great number of Jews of all colors. Small communities can also be very diverse because of conversions and intermarriages. The ones in the middle are the most homogenous because there was just enough people to keep marrying inside the group. Statistically, the growth is most notable in the black Jewish community (I say black since not everyone is African American) and the Asian Jewish community (mostly because of adoption). However, in the last couple of years, whole Hispanic communities are converting en masse, so they're catching up.

      In short, I think your son has several options that will allow him to become Jewish sooner or later, and that the Jewish community is becoming more tolerant of differences every day. I think your story will have a happy ending for all of you.

  8. Depending on your background, you and your children may be discriminated against in different communities, especially in schools, etc. in ISrael as well as abroad. Be prepared for the teasing being done by children against other children, who were not raised properly, even if their parents are Rabbis. This happens a lot, and I've heard even to Devorah Schwartzbaum (Bamboo Cradle).

    My children have Chinese good looks, and my son had a horrible experience with the community and classmates (in EY, unfortunately). Even in America, in some communities, children continue to tease because my children look different.

    This is an ongoing problem.

  9. I have seriously been considering converting to Judaism. I'm not really anything at the moment, but I was raised Catholic. The love of my life is Jewish, and while he is not pressuring me even a little, I am considering it. However, my family does not even tolerate that I am dating someone outside of their religion. I know I shouldn't care. If I convert, it will be for me, not for my boyfriend or anyone else.

    This turned more into a rant than I wanted it to. Anyways, there is a stigma on everything. In my experience, it comes from outside the Jewish community.

  10. There is a stigma, but there isn't. What it comes down to is people. Some people like vanilla ice cream and others think it is disgusting. One Orthodox Rabbi and Rebbetzin invited a convert to partake of their Seder meal. Another Orthodox Rebbetzin revoked an invitation to a Yontif meal upon learning the invitee was a convert. Not everyone likes likes vanilla, but the majority do. Take heart!

  11. Myth: converts will always know less than even the biggest am haaretz among the FFB crowd. I converted 16 years ago. I was hareidi for 15 years before becoming more modern orthodox. I lived in Israel for 8 years, and fluent in Hebrew, and am planning a second aliyah. I have done siyyumim on both talmuds, the major rishonim (and some people have never heard of), tur v'shulchan arukh, and am becoming conversant in modern poskim. And yet, no matter how well I know the texts I have the "ignorant goy gene." Its just a part of Jewish life. I could do semikha and dayyanut and I'd still be an am haaretz to most FFBs.