Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pick Up the Orthodox Union's Magazine this Chag for Stories on Conversion!

Going mainstream, y'all. Before digging into the details, I just want to say it's nice to see conversion as the cover story in something as mainstream as the free magazine you pick up in shul to read when you need a break from davening on the chagim (I've heard people read them at home too, but I've seen a lot of magazine reading in shul on Yom Kippur...)

Settle in for a short novel. Let's discuss this.

If the synagogue you're attending is a member of the Orthodox Union, you should find these magazines out on tables in the foyer or otherwise stashed somewhere nearby. 

It's funny how much of the "debate" I've seen has been about the choice to use the phrase "Jews by Choice" on the cover. It's such a polarizing term, usually one associated with non-orthodox spaces. The converts I've met seem to either love or hate the phrase, with few in the middle. Personally, I hate the phrase, but I also think there are worse things to call us. A friend summed it up well by sharing that she heard a story that Rebbi Nachman described converts as being "vomited out." That's an accurate statement, at least in my case. Choice? I mean, sorta. But it sure didn't feel like a choice because I felt so compelled. 

As you might expect from a mainstream source intended to be light-but-uplighting reading during the holidays, this isn't hard-hitting journalism and exposés. I get that. 

This is the human interest portion of our tour: profiles of different converts and their experiences.

There is one amazing quote I really enjoyed: "Secondly, Stein would also like others to understand that she didn't simply crawl out from under a rock when she became Jewish; she had been a worthwhile person in her non-Jewish life, with valuable experiences and knowledge. And now that's she's frum, she's well-educated in Judaism and doesn't need to be shown the basics. 'I've been frum for thirty years,' Stein says. 'I know how to check lettuce [for bugs]! Yet some folks still think I need to be instructed.' " 

The same person also has a very problematic quote. I totally get what she was trying to say, but I think the nuance will be lost on most of the people who read this: "Stein's oldest children are already of marriageable age, and she finds that the shidduchim suggested to them are often other geirim. 'Why should my children marry a ger?' she says indignantly. 'My children are frum from birth! Why should they have to be subjected to the same outsider status that I experienced!' " I get her point. I really do. (Assuming she actually does mean it in the "judging favorably" way I'm thinking.) Shadchanim have a tendency to not understand or like anything outside the box, and to throw anyone outside the box at other outside-the-box people without actually caring what those differences are. You're different, they're different, I'm sure you'll be very happy together even if those differences are completely unrelated. Some even think they're being kind: "I like feeling understood, so I should set you up with someone I think will understand you." When the only factor being considered is that one, somewhat random quality like conversion or BT status, race, ethnicity, national origin. In short, many shadchanim are simply not good at their jobs, even when they're not being motivated by overt prejudice (as some certainly are, especially when conversion, BTs, or race are involved). We want to be seen as complete individuals and matched that way. Too many matches are just plain lazy and thoughtless, if not cruel. 

Super important issues glanced over but at least they were mentioned? Racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, lack of family support that most members of the community can count on, being cast out of your family of birth. I can't say I know a lot, but I know more of some of these stories in the article, and this was soooooooooooooo watered down. Whether that was a choice of the interviewee (which is absolutely understandable and legitimate), the interviewer, or an editor, I don't know. And of course, happy endings for everyone!!1! 

The thing that really got to me about this article is the lingering feeling that it was written solely to "real Jews" who are interested in converts and find them fascinating and exotic. I felt like the article was written about me to introduce me to people, not with the understanding that I too am part of the audience. The lumping together of BTs and converts (which is appropriate in many instances in conversation) made me feel like this article was written solely for FFB people. It's a little thing, and something I'm sure the author didn't intend, but the tone of the article made me feel like an outsider, not an insider. 

Article 2: Loving the Convert by Rabbi Yona Reiss, A Big Deal in the conversion world

This article will probably be shocking reading to many of you, and particularly to many who are not connected to conversion. The whole first half is a laundry list of the limitations on converts, which are a bit hard to swallow in our American meritocracy, and they were presented like everyone already knows about them. For example, he mentions a ruling that says "a convert can even be appointed rabbi of a synagogue if the community members all agree upon accepting him to serve in that position." Even? I feel like a lot of people will read that sentence and be very confused: halachic sources say a convert CAN'T be a rabbi of a shul?? After speaking with a lot of FFBs over the years, people have no idea that this is out there, that converts can't be placed in positions of "authority." And they get pretty angry when they find out! (I'm always so relieved and thankful when they get angry.) That when Yeshiva University's rabbinical school opened, there had to be a ruling to allow converts (men only, of course) to enroll. Because if they aren't allowed to be a rabbi, how could we let them study rabbinics? It was eventually decided they could enroll because converts as rabbis can be teachers. (Of course I can't find a source for that at the moment, but if you know one, please drop it in the comments below!) 

It also details how most believe converts can be Presidents of a shul, so long as he cannot make unilateral decisions without the Board's approval. Most people don't realize this ruling/debate is the one that leads to why women "can" or "can't" be shul Presidents, which is most famous as a ban on female Presidents in the Young Israel organization of synagogues. Because if a male convert can't, then surely a woman can't! Of course, there's a lot more that can be said on these issues, but that's above my paygrade unless it's a Shabbos afternoon and there's wine and snacks involved.

Just reading the first two pages of this article set my heart racing with anxiety, thinking of all the self-appointed conversion experts we're all going to have to face in our communities now, empowered with this knowledge that converts aren't allowed to do a bunch of things, even though they can't remember exactly what but it's definitely something they need to make sure they tell you about. I'm not kidding; I'm taking deep breaths over here to calm myself. Knowledge is sometimes not power; half-knowledge is often used to oppress and intimidate.

Overall, this article didn't feel very loving. It felt like "love gerim, you're commanded to. But these are all the ways you're required to make them feel less-than. But they're very special people." That's not the author's fault, but I feel like the halachic system should have handled this better over time because many feel like the result of prejudice rather than something Hashem commanded. I get kind of hung up on "There shall be one Torah and one law for you" (Numbers 15:16). 


One very astute statement that was too underplayed by the author: "Ultimately, the trajectory of  a convert [toward more or less observance], like that of each member of the Jewish nation, can go in either direction, but much depends on the love and support he or she receives from the community.  On some level, 'it takes a village' to raise up a convert."

What it should have said: Bad treatment by the community is the number one NUMBER ONE NUMBER ONE reason converts go off the derech. I have met so many people who felt forced out of the community because of cruel and/or indifferent treatment, especially in the areas of racism and shidduchim. Sometimes loving Gd isn't enough. You cannot be orthodox without a community, and too many people have moved too many times and still came up short. Anyone who says "it should be enough to love Gd! Suck it up! Get your priorities in order!" is almost certainly part of the problem.

Article 3: Up Close with Abby Lerner, National Director of Conversion Services for the RCA's conversion system, by Yehudit Garmaise

Lerner is the newly-hired ombudsman-like person for RCA conversion in America. If you have any questions about a questionable situation or behavior you encounter, please contact her at the contact info on this page. I don't know how effective this position can be given that it also has a power-dynamic issue, but it's certainly better than the nothing we had before, and I believe they mean well and are trying their best.

Honestly, I really like this article overall. It was the most practical, down-to-earth, and honest piece of the three. I recognized myself several times in the article, and I think many of you will too. Is it perfect? No, but it's a very good introduction to several pain points that the average community member should consider, and it gave some actual tips like stop talking if you find yourself wanting to say, "What interested you in Judaism?"

Thing briefly mentioned that I think should have been made more explicit for the readers: the fact that many "geirim" should also qualify as "baalei teshuva" and have never affiliated as anything but Jewish. If a THIRD of those approaching the batei din have Jewish roots (a statistic she mentions), then we need to recognize that maybe there are subgroups of converts that have different needs. I suspect most of that third are patrilineal Jews. She goes into more depth about Hispanic converts who may be descended from Marranos, and while that's a "sexy" topic people like hearing about, we really need to recognize the BT-converts differently. (I am not one of those, so that's not me being biased in favor of the "specialness" of my own experience.)

A Bigger Problem Oversimplified

A larger issue that popped up repeatedly and is not as simple as presented: Stop pestering converts. Love them (what does that even mean? There's a question they should have considered in depth). Here are two quotes to show what I mean:

"A convert is Jewish now and part of the community. Treat them as Jews and love them as anyone else" - Rabbi Appel in Article #1.

Describing how a convert described the inappropriate questions people asked, Rabbi Reiss says, "This is not acceptable, either on an individual level or a communal level." He also says, "It is important to underscore that one who has undergone a valid conversion procedure is every bit as Jewish as one who was born Jewish. One of the key discomfitures that converts face is being questioned about the validity of their conversion." Then it goes into detail about that questioning, meaning when they're maternal descendants try to get married, etc. [Most of us are more immediately annoyed by the questioning now, over Shabbat tables and shul membership applications.]

But these quotes are completely missing the point. Every person at a Shabbos table who questioned my conversion has always defended themselves with the assertion that they "need" to know whether my conversion was kosher or not. They certainly won't bother me about it again once they know I'm "legit." It's just a one-time ask! Multiplied by a few hundred nosy nellies. In theory, the question would be fine if it came from people who actually need to know my status: the mesader kedushin, a mohel, for example. Others can be discussed on a case by case basis, but really very, very few people have any need to know my halachic status, much less who the rabbis were or especially to demand to see the paperwork.

A current example many converts are struggling with in online groups: when shuls ask for proof of conversion to verify it before allowing a convert to become a member and have the privilege of forking over $1-2k. Schools too. Every American shul and Jewish school I know takes a born Jew at their word that they're halachically Jewish when they check the right box on the form. If I check the "convert" or "child of a female convert" box, I have to prove it, and they'll probably call the rabbis to verify I didn't fake the document or something. Because someone's cousin's brother's wife knew a guy who did. Until and unless my born Jewish husband is asked for his proof of Jewishness, I'm not providing mine. If born Jews are taken at their word, converts should be too. Until the random guy who just showed up one morning isn't given an aliyah without his Jewishness being confirmed (which is actually a halachic issue if he's not halachically Jewish), then there's no need for mine to be verified. Every shul I've ever attended has (rightfully) offered any visiting man an aliyah, without even knowing his name or why he's in shul that day. If they can make that guy feel welcome and like a valued part of the community, they can do the same for me.

This is all a much larger issue that we can discuss at another time since this post is already a novel, but the point needed to be raised. They should have said, "you don't have the right to ask someone their status. Full stop. Those who have the right to ask that are few and far between, and it's almost certainly not you." Instead, this feels like permission to say, "Well, this only applies to 'valid' converts, so I need to verify they're legitimate." Too many people feel it is not only their right, but their obligation, to verify our status. And that is wrong. So wrong. And it drives people off the derech. Given the stories I've heard, I don't blame them one bit.