Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Friendships When a Liberal Convert Goes Orthodox

I came across this question on social media again recently, and it has been a frequent concern over the years:

"I converted in one Jewish movement and now want to convert orthodox. What will happen to my friendships and my relationship with my former rabbi(s)? Will they hate me? Am I betraying them?"


First, I'll counter with another question: What if everyone abandoned you and thought you were an awful person - would you still want to convert orthodox? 

Because that's basically the worst case scenario. Guilt, shame, gossip, and being rejected by the people you care about. No laughing matter. 


But on the flip side, if you are living your best life and your friends take it so personally that they would reject you and gossip about you, do you really want them as your friends? 


I'm no armchair quarterback here. I've faced this. Twice, arguably three times, in fact. And that's just the friends. We're not even talking about my romantic relationships, which was its own special mess.

My secular Jewish friends were fine with me being Jewish-adjacent and just interested in Judaism. Then when I began seriously working toward my conservative conversion, I lost almost all of them. I became "too Jewish." Remember, I wasn't orthodox (yet). This problem doesn't just exist for orthodox converts, but it's usually only expected when people go orthodox. I've never seen anyone ask the question without framing it as an orthodox question, but this is not an orthodox-only problem. I would have expected this if I'd gone orthodox, but it shocked me when I was "just" going conservative. 

Then the "maybe it counts, maybe it doesn't" is when I became serious about my conservative Judaism. In my experience, even many conservative Jews don't know that the conservative movement holds by halacha. Many people only see superficial differences between the reform and conservative movements, when in fact they're based on very different philsophical/religious foundations vis a vis halacha and obligation. Again, I was "too Jewish" and ostracized. People stopped talking to me except to make jokes about me taking things too seriously. 

Stopping there for a minute, you have to consider whether this behavior is chicken-or-the-egg. Did I begin acting self-righteously? Did I lecture other people that they should be doing these things too? Did I do these things in a showy, arrogant way? Did I preemptively cut them out because I feared they would reject me, so I rejected them first? 

I don't think so. But I've found that religious matters are touchy, and even if I didn't intend to do any of those things, it's possible I still did or that others perceived me as doing so. The outcome is the same.

The second/third time came close on its heels: becoming orthodox. I lost almost all my new non-orthodox Jewish friends. A few stuck with me, and are still here now! This one hurt the most, perhaps because it was a more active rejection and struck into my professional life as a law student. I was an officer in the Jewish student group. They moved all the events to Shabbat so I wouldn't be able to attend. Then they voted in someone to replace me without telling me. It cut me to the core because these had been people I considered close friends, and that was one of the few places where all my worlds came together. I didn't have to explain the law stuff or the Jewish stuff or the student stuff; it was a place where I felt fully understood, at least on some level. 


So here's the bottom line: you can't control other people. They'll stick with you or they won't. You can't control who has serious religious baggage and will view any religious action on your part as a judgment of them. Some people will take your life choices personally when you leave their community (or move to the right or left in that community). That's just people and there's nothing you can do about it. They may even try to punish you or make your life miserable. Bullies are out there.

You have to do what's right for you, treat others the way you'd like to be treated, and let the chips fall where they may. No one becomes orthodox (or Jewish generally) because they hope to be popular. You will inevitably lose someone, perhaps someone very close or someone you highly respect. You'll often be surprised by who it is.

You're not betraying anyone by doing what's best for you, no matter how much they've helped you. No one has the right to ask you to stifle yourself for their own comfort. Everyone grows, all the time. No one should hold it against you that you grew in a particular direction they didn't. They may hold it against you anyway, but they have no right to. It's not your fault.


On the other hand, being perfectly honest, you may face different issues by staying in touch with your old non-orthodox community. I know of two instances when a beit din rejected conversion candidates for staying friendly with the people in their former non-orthodox community. It's possible both cases happened in the same beit din, but I don't know. The rabbis claimed it showed they "weren't serious." I'm intimately familiar with one of those cases, and it involved multiple levels of rabbinic bullying and emotional abuse, and I believe the beit din involved had (has?) a pattern of abusive behavior that I doubt has been resolved given the power structures in place. I believe this was emotional abuse, to dictate who you can be friends with. Especially when there was no warning given. However, I know people in the same beit din who maintained non-orthodox friendships, even with some of the same people, and did not suffer any consequences. The beit din didn't look for this issue, but they swooped down with hellfire once a bully brought it to their attention. It's possible the friendships were just an excuse and certainly weren't the whole objection, and that nothing at all would have happened without the determined effort of a bully who wanted them kicked out of the program. It's possible the bully made allegations beyond this, but this was the only piece passed back to the candidates involved.

You can't control the beit din any more than you can control anyone else, and I don't want you to reject your friends based on fearing this. Those actions by the beit din were wrong and abusive (not to mention the bully who instigated the whole balagan). But I also think you should be aware that things like this have happened, and if they happen to you, don't think this is normal or ok. These are red flags of abuse. Fight back. You have resources available to you, here online and even the RCA ombudsman (though I question whether an RCA ombudsman can ever truly be independent given the hierarchies of orthodox society and the powerlessness of conversion candidates). Being Jewish is also fighting for what's right and loving our fellow Jews. Holding batei din accountable for abuses of power is one of those responsibilities, as much as I know you want to fight a beit din as a conversion candidate. It's easier to take the conservative route, but know this: if someone wants to abuse you, they will find a way. It's a power trip, not a reasoned reaction to something you did. Limiting your life because you fear the beit din is no different than me being told as a woman that I shouldn't wear certain clothes or go to certain places or drink alcohol because someone somewhere could rape me. Rape is the fault of a rapist, just as abusive practices by batei din are the fault of the beit din, not the conversion candidate. (I use an extreme example for clarity's sake, but let's not forget that a beit din asked me incredibly detailed inappropriate sexual questions. Ironically the "white knight" in that story was Barry Freundel...the irony would be hilarious if it weren't disgusting.) Love your fellow Jews and maintain your friendships with the Jews you love. 


Well, that was a cheerful discussion and trip down memory lane. Good riddance to bad "friends," amirite?


via GIPHY
"I'm in a glass case of emotion!"

1 comment:

  1. When we left reform two years after our conversion to start the orthodox conversion procedure (not having been able to do orthodox at the time, and doing a "in the meantime" reform conversion), we lost our closest reform friends. It was extremely sad. But in a small community where Jews of all "flavours" mix together at community functions, including the Rabbis, it shouldn't have been surprising that our biggest support from the reform community actually came from the reform Rabbi. He said he wasn't surprised and that he was proud that he had played a role in our Jewish journey. He was such a mensch that he even came to our chuppah and one of the highlights was to see both the Rabbi's embracing in a warm greeting. So whilst the loss of friends was sad, the support of the Rabbi's on both sides was really special.

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