Jewish conversion has been the most controversial issue in Judaism without a doubt for the last five years, helped along by the explosion of political debate about the phenomenon in Israel. It goes without saying potential converts have faced more pressure over that period of time than in recent years, but the sentiment that fueled the political firestorm has been lurking in Jewish communities for decades. There is distrust of converts in many circles, which often undermines the entire integration process converts undergo.
This list could be longer, but off the top of my head these are things that need to change almost immediately in the community.
1. Don’t keep your daughters away from converts
This isn’t my own experience, though it’s disturbing how often it happens. Many parents will refuse to let their kids – daughters and sons – accept shiddukh (matchmaking) suggestions for converts. The reasons vary: they can’t relate to the convert’s non-Jewish family; the convert isn’t experienced enough in Judaism to support a Jewish household spiritually; converts inherently will have financial issues.
It doesn’t matter what the reason is, it suffices to say these arguments are always presumptuous. Anyone who can complete a conversion process, especially these days, certainly has some talent. There’s a spark of initiative in that person and a sense of confidence after such a hefty accomplishment. And often times, family isn’t a factor. Either the family is supportive or the newly minted Hebrew actually has enough self-reliance and independence to function very well on his or her own (otherwise, they might not have finished the process).
It worries me that this comes down to some level of prejudice, that converts are insincere and just want to join the tribe to have a relationship with someone. There are conversions for marriage – that’s true. It’s a known thing in recent American Jewish history, South American Jewish history, Europe, the Middle Ages, the Medieval Babylonian community . . . basically forever.
BUT those aren’t the circumstances I’m discussing. A man or woman who independently converted to Judaism doesn’t deserve to be rejected based on his or her origin. In fact, the opposite. Plus, imagine the advantage of having a more diverse gene pool for your grandchildren.
2. Let converts become presidents of shuls
You just said, “Wha?”
You’ve read it right. Some congregations refuse to let converts be the head of synagogues, particularly the alliance of synagogues called Young Israel. Why?
There is a law in Judaism that stipulates a convert cannot be King of Israel. This isn’t abnormal. It’s similar to the American law that an immigrant cannot become President of the United States (remember, the Hebrew word for “convert” is literally translated as “migrant;” someone fleeing one country and coming to Israel and adopting the national customs and religion). There’s an idea that an immigrant might not have the country’s best interest in mind or have a divided loyalty. There are a lot of assumptions built into the idea. With Judaism, many thinkers have looked at it the same way.
The Jewish law is extended to judges. Converts cannot judge certain cases without extenuating circumstances. The list of cases they aren’t allowed to oversee is debatable, but virtually everyone of authority accepts that death penalty cases are off their docket.
But this doesn’t extend to such a trivial position as synagogue president. Shul presidents don’t have the authority of kings and judges. They certainly don’t have any power to dictate congregants’ personal lives. The idea of banning converts from these positions borders on the ludicrous, on a gross misunderstanding of the spirit of the law it was inspired by. Synagogue positions are often the most available activist positions or leadership spots in the Jewish community for lay people – people not vested with authority by Jewish law. It would be like me being banned from the position of Hillel president in college (which, I’d argue, probably has more power depending on the campus).
Converts are active in pro-Israel organizations, youth groups, synagogue event planning and all those other things for which natural-born Jews struggle to get volunteers. Converts are the best candidates for these positions. They often have more passion having gone through this gauntlet of spiritual and cultural renewal. They’re fresh. They’re excited. Judaism is a definitive part of their personal lives.
Also, Young Israel would benefit by not looking like morons anymore. Young Israel also bans women from the position, though, so they’ve got some work to do.
3. Stop giving awkward treatment to non-white converts
This one isn’t as obvious but it’s something I’ve been intimate with. In 2010, Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat, Israel welcomes seven Chinese candidates for conversion from Kaifeng. Their community was once a full-fledged Jewish commune but assimilated into the local community and lost the direct links to Jewish (matrilineal) descent that is needed to be considered a natural-born Jew.
The problem with this approach is that conversion is an individual process. Rabbis and teachers look for certain qualities in candidates before they allow them to finish the process. The point here was to get all seven to convert at the same time. That’s a tall order and didn’t pan out well for the Yeshiva. After over two years languishing, some of the students became fed up and wanted to go back to China. The failure by some candidates weighed down on the students who actually were doing well. As far as I know, none of the seven have finished the process, which would be sad.
But in other corners, again matchmaking, non-white converts get the awkward treatment. Black converts often get matched with other black converts. It’s not necessarily racist – keeping the black and white Jews away from each other. More often it’s based on presumptuous ideas that it’s a more comfortable cultural transition or that these relationships would have too many obstacles. This probably speaks more for the unprofessional nature of the matchmaking system that so many communities put stock in, but it has a negative effect on the community and the converts themselves. A lot of converts will privately confide in each other – black and white – and share the experience of being matched up only with other black matches or other converts.
Just the beginning
These are just three things I’d be looking to modify if I were in a powerful enough position, say eminent Rabbi or Prime Minister of Israel. But you don’t have to be among the elite to make a difference. Jewish practice is saturated with the theme of the little guy ‘paying it forward.’ Never let the prevailing attitude dictate your own. If you see something that doesn’t jive with your morality, peer pressure should stop you from saying something about it.