Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Should Synagogue Membership Forms Ask If You Are a Convert?

KvetchingEditor has written about a topic that should concern all converts/converts-in-training: Membership in the Community: Invading Your Territory.

The "Problem": Synagogue membership forms that ask whether a person requesting membership is a convert. Some forms go on to ask for the converting beit din information, etc. Enough information to verify the conversion. Just about everyone does (and should) agree that the rabbi is entitled to know this information. 

I don't have a problem with this. You may disagree. In fact, I'm sure most of you do.

I have been involved in the orthodox community for over 7 years, and I've considered living in many communities throughout the US in that time. When I considered each community, I looked at the orthodox synagogues. I would estimate that I've looked at the membership forms for 25-30 synagogues. According to my memory, 100% of those forms asked whether the person applying had converted. I never even considered that a synagogue membership form wouldn't ask that because of the issue of the rabbi's need to know whether the convert is halachically Jewish.

The number one argument I'm seeing is "Are they asking born Jews to prove their status?" No one seems to find my response worth addressing because everyone is ignoring it: the same form asks for both parents' Hebrew names (and yartzheit dates if they have passed away). If you are unable to provide one (or one that is clearly an English name), I'd imagine that you will be asked to provide some proof of Jewishness. Sure, you can lie. You can also lie and check the "no" box beside "Convert?" Liars gonna lie and haters gonna hate :) Liars will be caught when there is a lifecycle event. If the convert (or a female convert's child) wants to get married or bar mitzvahed, proof of Jewishness is required by the officiating rabbi. (Or when they enroll their kids in a Jewish school.)

Let's examine an underlying assumption: why is it a problem for non-halachic Jews to join the synagogue in the first place? As I said in What's Up with Membership Fees, I think that the grand majority of synagogues do not allow converts to join whose conversion is not halachic to their standards. However, some orthodox synagogues (granted, very few) allow anyone to become a member, even members of other religions. Why does it even matter? I've spoken with several rabbis about this, and they all said that synagogue membership can be used by an unscrupulous person to justify their Jewish status to others. According to these rabbis, people in the Jewish community put some stock into shul membership and believe that the synagogue is responsible for "vetting" the status of members. Quite frankly, I agree. Who is in a better position to verify than the synagogue, the center of Jewish communal life?

What is the other underlying problem? There is normally a membership committee (sometimes including the rabbi), and those members will see the form and know the convert's status. A lot of people hold that the mitzvah of not oppressing the convert includes any mention of the convert's status. I'm of the "minority" approach that doesn't prohibit knowledge of the status, but prohibits drawing negative inferences from it or speaking badly about the person based upon that. I think that the "majority" approach (I really don't know which is the halachic minority/majority-this is percentage of the converts themselves) is premised on the assumption that any statement about convert status is or can lead to those negative results. To me, the "Jew is a Jew is a Jew" argument doesn't solve this problem. If that were the case, why isn't there a prohibition against calling someone a baal teshuva? 

What is the alternative? Give memberships to anyone who pays the proper fee? Regardless of what a membership form says, any convert should still approach the rabbi and volunteer their information so that the rabbi is aware of any issues. For instance, if you are a single female convert, then the rabbi can steer you away from single kohanim. 

To be honest, assuming I disagreed with this widespread policy, I can't imagine a better alternative that will still serve the interests of the community. That just leads to arguments of individual v. community. To me, halacha is unique among world religions for the protections offered to individuality, but there are also strong protections for the community. It's a balance. Converts, widows, and orphans are already singled out for special protections. 


I don't get it. I apologize for any jumps in organization. This has been written quickly because I should really be spending my time studying.

UPDATE: A new point. By demanding that every Jew provide proof, we're just dragging everyone else into the status wars converts face. I don't think that making more victims is a fair way to create more justice. We should be treated kindly and with respect because we deserve it, not because we shame the rabbis into shaming born Jews too. That is not true change.

18 comments:

  1. ==== BEGIN QUOTE ====
    If that were the case, why isn't there a prohibition against calling someone a baal teshuva?
    ==== END QUOTE ====

    Good argument... except that there is :)

    Some sources at http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2008/12/baalei-teshuva-hurting-their-feelings.html

    [I don't recommend some of the comments...]

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  2. LOL, thanks Mike :) You'd think people would talk about this more since I'd bet there's a lot more BTs than converts!

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  3. I'm not sure the comparison between a convert and a BT works. Anyway, I've never understood why people have an aversion to letting people know that they converted. Converts should be proud of what they did; and there are more of them/us out there than we think there are.

    In my circumstance, I asked my Rabbi what to do, he told me that I should be open about it to anyone that asks but it was not something that I needed to publicize. It seemed like a smart policy to me (and still does).

    Every community has it's "other" and the convert community always thinks that they're not good enough. That no matter what, there's some sort of p'gam on them for not having been born Jewish. Even if that were true, there was an issue and you dealt with it appropriately. So why be ashamed?

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  4. Unless the Jewish status of born Jews is checked in some fashion the only people screened out are 1) those ignorant enough to not know non-O conversions are not acceptable to the Orthodox 2) those honest enough to admit that they are a convert, but dishonest enough to want to hide the fact that their conversion was not Orthodox, and 3) those unfortunate enough to have a conversion through a beit din not politically acceptable to the particular shul. 2 seems like a tiny set, 3 shouldn't be screened out IMO, and 1 is going to be discovered in casual conversation pretty quickly once they join. So is it worth the hurt feelings to do this?

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  5. Nate--In general, I have no problem divulging my status, but I would prefer to choose the time and place. I find it annoying to be expected to answer the "why" question when people already know me. I know it is customary in many groups to pour out one's Inner Truth and most personal history right after filling in "Hello-u Name Is", but I was raised to think that this is overbearing and risky. I would prefer to pull out my spiritual journeys and stories like a fine wine--among friends and not until after the main course.

    There is a type of BT that tends to overshare. I find them embarrassing and dangerous. Even the ger who is sensitive about divulging his background is refreshing compared to this. On the other hand, I willdisclose my history to other converts immediately whether I feel like it or not because I believe we have a responsibility to mutual support.

    Should this be disclosed in a shul mbership form? Maybe, but I'm not sure this alone counts as part of a "need to know" basis. The rabbi should know, and the gabbai will almost inevitably find out, as will friends in the community as one gets to know them.

    I know I'm a snob, but in general, it would be a good thing if gerim could feel safer about sharing their stories and BTs shared maybe a little less. We're more interesting, and in general work harder at not being bizarre.

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  6. @Nate - You make it sound as though it's entirely up to us converts whether the status of "convert" is something to be proud of or ashamed of. In fact, the reason I (and so many other converts) feel a need to hide our status is because converts (and, in a different sense, ba'alei teshuvah) are treated as second-class Jews by those lucky enough to be born into a frum family. If I want to be sure that I will avoid such treatment, I cannot divulge my status. If I do, I risk invasive questions at best and total shunning of myself and my family at worst, depending on the community.
    I am proud of the sacrifices I've made for God, but unfortunately the rest of the frum world doesn't see it that way. I don't hide my status because I'm embarrassed of the beautiful way I've transformed my life - I do it because, unfortunately, most frum people will see me as less frum, less Jewish, less "one of us" once they discover that I am a convert. (And I'm actually zera yisrael so I'm not even a "full" convert.)

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  7. Seriously? There should be one question about status: Are you Jewish? Either everyone's status should be investigated, or nobody's should be.

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  8. Personally there is a time and place to discuss such things. I don't feel the need to know each and every detail about why someone chose to become Jewish in accordance with Halacha that is.

    If you converted through an recognised Orthodox Beis Din then I have no reason to question you're Jewishness nor am I in the position to do so.

    Quite frankly at the end of the day it's none of my business. I'm sure some people might be more open whereas others not so. People's privacy needs to be respected.

    I am a very private person and at the end of the day if such documents need to be shown then it should be done in a dignifed manner with discression.

    There will be times when documentation needs to be shown but as I said this can be done in a dignified manner.

    Be proud of being a Jew by choice. Nothing to be ashamed of and I agree with Chana said. Some people may feel the need to more open and vocal. That doesn't mean you have to as well.

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  9. Sarah--You put it simply, and well. Check everybody's status or nobody's. Considering the current confusion over background--anybody's--the status of a convert is much easier to verify and less likely to be problematic. And, as has been noted, there are fewer of us.

    Are we going to run background checks? Yeah, check 'em all. If there's a status problem, it belongs to all of us.

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  10. As Chavi pointed out, many people look at synagogue membership rolls as the modern replacement for pinkas ha-ir, the community register. Halachicly there is a difference; but socially the equation still creates real challenges.

    What's more, you are ignoring the fact that a born Jew indeed should be questioned at least briefly at least once in their lives - before they get married. It has been the halachic standard since at least the time of g'mara to verify a person's status before marriage. Any halachicly responsible rav is going to do this with a couple before they marry. The RCA even has a standard form/checklist to help ensure that this is done correctly, with information going back typically three generations. Unfortunately, I've seen a few young couples shocked to find out that one of them isn't Jewish only when they come to marry. Just about every Orthodox rabbi has at least one sad story like that from his own, or a colleague's, experience.

    Although somewhat less critical, the issue comes up at other times; but we aren't required to check quite as thoroughly for something like counting someone in a minyan or burying them in a Jewish cemetery. Nonetheless, we should be aware that this question does apply to converts and born-Jews alike. In the case of the convert, it is a matter of initially establishing their presumption of status/חזקה for the first time. In the case of the born Jew, we rely on that status from birth until or unless there is reason to examine it, such as before marriage.

    I understand the potential sensitivity for a convert who has already had to work to prove themselves, and now wants to be accepted as a part of the community. And the mitzvah to love the ger is flexible and subjective according the needs of the convert, like the mitzvah of hesed. So we really can't say to someone, 'you needn't feel that way.' I just hope that the newer Jews among us will realize that there really is no intent of harm or discrimination; and the requirement for verification of some sort is not as different as it first appeared.

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  11. One of my friends was unable to get married in Israel because he couldn't find sufficient documentation to convince the Rabbinate that he was a Jew. (His grandparents were brought up secular, so no history of ketubot, early synagogue affiliation, etc.) In America he had no problem finding an O rabbi who would perform the ceremony.

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  12. Everyone should have to prove their status before joining an Orthodox shul. Ideally, it would be done like this: the potential members meet with the rabbi, who checks them out just as he would before performing a marriage. Then, he gives his stamp of approval on their application, which goes to the membership committee. This way converts and born Jews alike have their status confirmed in a thorough, private manner.
    The rest of my thoughts here: https://foryourhonor.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/is-daring-within-us/

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  13. Chavi-We're machmir about nearly everything in Orthodox Judaism. We go machmir on meat, machmir on haircovering, and in some communities machmir on "lashon hora" (that leads to sex abuse.) Why not be machmir about not oppressing the convert?

    For instance, what if you want to set your child up with the child of someone who was the membership committee but they don't want to have their kids marry the child of a convert? Everything can lead to something else, which is why we are so machmir in Judaism. Jewish people, of all denominations, have proven to me time and again that they simply cannot handle treating gerim with respect and respectful distance. (i.e. No, you cannot ask me what my parents think of my conversion before you know anything else about me--this is appalling derech eretz.)

    There is a lot of pain involved with conversion for many people, but I've noticed time and again that you don't seem to see this. Human feelings and embarassment and dignity are a PART of halacha.
    Did you know that in Israel there is a movement against gerim making aliyah because it will say ON their teudat ze'ut (a cross between a drivers license and social security card that is very public and seen by everyone) that you're a ger. WHY does the ministry of the interior think everyone, from your grocer to banker to landlord, has the right to this information? When I make aliyah, I plan to punch a whole the card over where it says "ger" because I don't want to give other people the opportunity to oppress me. To ask me about "shiksa" mother. To ask me if my father is circumsized. I'm simply not interested.

    I've read a lot of your blog posts, and I have to say, I think that you have a narrow view--your own point of view--but I find that you don't sympathize with the point of view of other converts. Not everyone else wants to be "outed" or "out there." Some of us were raised believing we were Jewish. Some of us ARE Jewish, like me, but due to lack of documentation, are not considered Jewish. Some of us have been tormented, teased, and degraded for not having the right paper work.

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  14. Just out of curiousity, where does a teudat zehut indicate geirus?

    I'm looking at mine right now, and it doesn't say I'm Jewish (kal v'chomer how), nor can I see where such information would be added (the closest is the "ethnicity" (הלאום) field, which has been ****** for everyone for a while now, following challenges from the Reform movement, but otherwise would have said יהודי with no explanation).

    My father's name is listed as סטיבן; my mother as שילה. Maybe if it said Christian and Christina that'd be a giveaway, but I assume that's not what you're referring to.

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  15. You can ask any Israeli ger (who doesn't mind and is happy to share), it is in the central left side. Not having a teudat zeut yet, I can't tell you exactly..

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  16. But, I have seen it on other people's teudat ze'ut's.

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  17. I assume you're talking about הלאום although in mine, at least, there isn't really anything in the central left.

    There's a picture at https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/File:TZExample.jpg which is quite accurate, except that יהודי is no longer listed.

    For better or for worse, I don't know any Israeli geirim (to be precise, I don't know that I know any), just Americans.

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