Reading Bethany Mandel’s article in The Times of Israel, I felt so badly for her. Her betrayal by Rabbi Barry Freundal, who presided over her conversion to Judaism, feels like the ultimate lie: the very clergy responsible for advancing the tenets of a religion, and for presiding over a conversion to that faith, is a sham. She is, understandably, outraged, as we all should be.
As she says herself, this rabbinic betrayal fetches up a simmering anger about the way converts to Judaism are treated post-conversion. What’s the connection? Trust, and who’s in charge.
As Bethany was converted in the Orthodox stream of Judaism, you might be tempted to say that perhaps she would have had an easier time of things had she converted in, say, the Reform movement. Not necessarily.
I’d like to offer my own “bill of rights” for converts below, with the following caveats:
- Nothing I am about to say is intended, in any way, to diminish Bethany’s experience. In fact, I hope she finds some of it comforting.
- If any rabbi, or any Jew, sees themselves in any of the points made below, they can become part of the solution.
- If you have an opinion about the conversion process – or anything that happens post-conversion – that is helpful and uplifting, feel free to comment. If you have anything hateful to say about your fellow Jews or Jews in general, it won’t show up here.
A CONVERT’S BILL OF RIGHTS
- Converts have a choice. The streams of Judaism are very different: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. There is also “post-denominational” Judaism, the chavurah movement, and secular Judaism. All hold validity in some aspect or another.
- There is no governing body on earth for a soul. No human on earth can fully understand or determine another person’s relationship (or lack thereof) with the Divine. Where and how Jews, converted or otherwise, practice their faith is entirely a personal matter. Governing bodies are human constructs.
- There should be no cost for a spiritual conversion. I worked with my rabbi for a solid year, meeting weekly. Not a penny changed hands.
- The convert should be welcomed. All the streams of normative Judaism accept converts. There is plenty of support for that in Jewish law (remember when and by whom most of it was written). Some congregations don’t make a big deal out of conversion for the protection of the convert; it used to be a very private event for that reason.
- Why converts choose Judaism is none of your business. But we get the question frequently, so we’ll come up with a nice answer.
- Jewish ritual is mostly a matter of custom. If I, as a Jew (converted or otherwise), feel bound by the instructions in the Torah or subsequent rabbinic interpretations of it, that’s a good reason for me to obsess about the details. If I am a different sort of Jew, ritual may hold a different place in my life. (See #1 above.)
- Proving Jewishness may be required. Some institutions need to be sure of your yiddishkeit and may ask for documents. Others will take your word for it. Deal with it, or don’t. Institutions create their own rules, and you can belong or not.
- Conversion for born-Jews is complicated. Each stream of Judaism defines “Jew by birth” differently, so if you jump from one stream to another, you usually have to play by their rules.
- Acceptance by other Jews isn’t required. Some born-Jews will welcome converts with open arms and never give it another thought, especially if they pay their temple dues and serve on committees. Other Jews-by-birth will never fully accept the convert. This will be true no matter what hoops the convert jumps through, which stream of Judaism is entered, how “religious” the convert is, how well the convert performs ritual acts, whether the convert has a Jewish parent or ancestor, or anything else.
- The convert’s status is really determined by the convert. Once a stream of Judaism is chosen in which to convert, the newbie can follow the prescription set forth by that stream and the presiding rabbi. If so, the convert has done all he or she can do and, in fact, may walk out the requirements of his or her new faith better than lots of people born to it.
The relationship with a rabbi is a sacred one; it is, for many Jews, the most important connection one has with Judaism. Bethany’s relationship with her rabbi was violated in the most alarming way; she is reeling from that. Such a betrayal calls into question the very fabric of organized Judaism; the organization failed her. But Judaism itself won’t.
Recently, a rabbi that I know made a flip comment about the status of converts, implying that some converts don’t really know what they are getting into and that they are simply converting to a synagogue, not to the thing itself. The great thing about Judaism, what has saved it against all odds, is its portability. It does not depend on a place, or a person. The wisdom of the Torah and its teachers transcends organizations, even rabbis. It is a sacred relationship with the Divine and with the world.
A Jew can walk out his or her Judaism in an infinite combination of ways. Some of the best Jews I know don’t set foot in a synagogue; others who follow the Shulchan Aruch to the letter and spend their days studying Talmud may be the biggest jerks you ever met.
My own rabbi likes to talk about the Three Bs: birth, belief, and behavior. The first one I can’t do anything about; the last two are up to me. Whether I choose to allow other people, ordained or otherwise, to help me walk out my Judaism or to prevent me from it, that is also up to me.
It hurts my heart to see someone having a hard time with conversion or being ill-treated afterward. My own conversion process was lovely; I hesitated initially because I thought it should have been harder. I had the idea that I should suffer in becoming a Jew, because so many Jews across history had suffered for their Judaism. In reality, nobody needs to suffer. Judaism should be about light and enlightenment, about joy and awe, and about making the world a better place. Bethany, any Jew who makes that harder for you should have their own Judaism questioned, not yours. Am Yisrael Chai.
Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist, marketer, and certified pararabbinic in Nashville. She is also mom to Jacob, the Most Awesome Cat.