Monday, April 9, 2012

Conversion Candidates: The Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask

At the seder, the discussion always surrounds the rasha, the wicked child. We rarely discuss the other three children, and usually then, only to compare and contrast with the rasha.

This year, I put a name to a long-standing part of myself: the child who doesn't know how to ask the question. You can never explain why a realization hits you and when, but I've been spending some time comparing the conversion candidate to the child who doesn't know how to ask. Baalei teshuva can also fit the bill, but I think there are (generally) more personalized resources for the BT than the conversion candidate.

We all lack some middot, and almost all of us fall prey to pride. We often fall victim to the "Hah! What a dumb question!" or "Wow, doesn't he know anything?" or the slightly less terrible, "Oh man, I remember when I didn't know anything either."

These are the attitudes we take with the child who doesn't know how to ask when that child has the strength and courage to speak up. Yes, sometimes people make ridiculous statements based on half-knowledge or being fed misinformation. But that's often the most effective way of asking a question you didn't even know you had. The strongest (and most humbling) lessons I've learned happened when I made a giant idiot of myself. Heck, I created a blog to help you avoid those moments I had (and continue to have in all areas of my life). 

Conversion candidates are not being properly educated. Worse, they've not even being given the tools to get an education to decide whether a conversion is proper for them or not. The kiruv resources are dedicated to educating potential BTs, no matter how lukewarm they may feel, but the most dedicated conversion candidates can be alienated, shuffled around, and embarrassed by every "teacher" they encounter in our communities with little opportunity for recourse (or verification). Each one of us has the potential to teach someone (even inadvertently), and we should embrace that role. If you want to be selfish about it, I assure you that every teacher learns at least as much as his pupil, if not more.

Conversion candidates, yes, you will say dumb stuff about Jewish law or practice. So does everyone else. Those slip-ups are (generally) not your failure. They're the community's failure for not helping you find the right words to ask your question or for not even showing you there is a question. On the other hand, no one likes admitting ignorance, and people especially don't like discovering they were ignorant without knowing it. I personally hurt most from thoughts like, "WOW. I actually said that? What an idiot." As much as I'd love to stop dwelling on those moments, we need to find ways to stop dwelling on them. Admit when you're wrong, learn why, and learn from the experience.

Both sides of the conversation need to take a big bite of humble pie.

I googled around for discussions of the child who doesn't know how to ask. There aren't as many as I had hoped, but I found a very good discussion from the perspective of an educator: Helping the Child Who Cannot Ask:
"[W]e can also view the presence of that child at our seder as a gift. We know how to deal with the wise, wicked and simple child. But the presence of a child who doesn't know how to ask can transform the seder for everyone, even for the wise children. Who knows what unanticipated issues may arise. Our success in helping this child discover the buried questions can make the seder the genuine learning experience it was designed to be."

The conversion candidate (and convert) transforms the born Jews' perspective on Jewish life. Converts bring fresh blood literally (yay genetics), spiritually, and philosophically. These fresh perspectives and fresh enthusiasm make Judaism "the genuine learning experience it was designed to be." But that learning experience must be a partnership.

Only when the Jewish community properly educates prospective conversion candidates (especially about the idea that there are divergent views even within orthodox Judaism, rather than the "normal" kiruv approach that there is one hashkafah) will we have conversion candidates who know how to ask questions. Only once he or she has the right question can there be a right answer.


  1. I started reading this blog a little while after I found out my mothers lineage was inconclusive & that I would have to convert, & months before I ever got up the nerve to walk to the small orthodox shul three blocks from my house. I am lucky to come from an open-minded background relatively heavy on comparative religious education, but let's face it- pretty much nothing can take away the kind of terrifying culture shock a shy, secular-raised girl will feel when she walks into a place like that, where everyone knows each other, is comfortable in a very specific, mostly unspoken protocol, and speaks (or runs the service in) the same foreign, relatively obscure language. Baruch Hashem I was immediately received with a lot of kindness and help, and now I've been davening at this wonderful little shul for about six months, I'm slowly getting integrated as I learn, & the wonderful congregational rabbi is my sponsoring rabbi. We have finally agreed upon a bet din (i live in LA, so that's a whole other adventure, oy). The reason I'm telling you my greek epic over here is that having this resource that you have constructed for people like me, I honestly feel, has made a significant difference in how this process has gone for me. My particular story (just like everyone else's, I'm sure) has a lot of moving pieces, & I think if I hadn't had access to a lot of the information you gave us, or hadn't been privy to a lot of the warnings and encouragements about the process and the culture beforehand, I don't know if I would have done this well, or ended up going orthodox, even. I'm sure you don't need things like this to tell you that this project is incredibly important and it makes a difference, but you deserve to hear it every day. Thank you so much, and good luck with your new job, your learning, and your I'm sure very soon future happy marriage.


  2. Yes!!! This is SO important; first, the concept of divergence, and second, the idea that questions are welcome. There are no dumb questions.
    I say this as a BT who was too afraid to ask any questions, because it was more important to "pass" for an FFB (which I was assured repeatedly that I did). When my now-husband began studying for conversion, I was amazed that he wasn't afraid to ask questions. Yes, some people maybe thought he was ignorant.
    They didn't always see his questions as a gift, but we have moved to an area where we are both safe to ask from time to time, and it has made a world of difference.

  3. Often the hardest part is that you don't know what you don't know, so it's hard to know what questions to ask.

    I love this post. :)