Conversion, Politics, and Responses

Bethany S. Mandel has written an interesting piece in the Times of Israel regarding conversion and the status of converts within the larger Jewish community. I’m not sure I agree with everything in it, but it certainly does raise topics for discussion. I’m also not sure that some of the politics in this apply to me, as some of the problems Mandel raises seem to be specifically US problems, and I’m in Canada, although my rabbi did say I would be doing my conversion through the Beit Din in Detroit (I’m not sure why and it didn’t cross my mind to ask at the time), so it may or may not.

I have not had (so far), baruch haShem, some of the problems Mandel discusses. The community at Beit Meshugge has been pretty well uniformly welcoming, and I’ve had no problems with the rav so far.

Mandel’s wish list is as follows, and I’ll add my commentary to each:

    Converts are in a state of persistent limbo.

This has kind of been my experience, as I expected to begin my classes over a year ago, and it really hasn’t happened yet. This is partially due to my inability to schedule study time with the rav, and his busy schedule, though. I don’t know what will happen if I wind up having to move away. I hope I can get to shul this Shabbat so I can talk to him about it. When we discussed a timeline, though, he seemed to feel that I could probably complete the course in about a year, so I can’t complain there. I do agree that setting some kind of critical path plan with objectives and milestones is probably a good idea, if only because it gives the candidate things to work for. (Actually, this is one of the things I really like about R. Aryeh Moshen’s Gerus Guide and its associated programme; it has a structure of gradually increasing observance leading to a fully Jewish life.)

    We have no safe governing body or individual to turn to [in case of issues with the rabbis]

I agree that this might be a problem; I recall Kochava from You’re Not Crazy had issues with her conversion too. I am hoping (B”H) this does not apply to me, because there is no one to go to. I guess that’s one of the peculiarities of a decentralised religion. (An old friend has been needling me a little bit in a friendly way for stating I wanted to convert, and once said, “Well, you know how I feel about organised religion,” and I said, “I’m not joining an organised religion; I’m converting to Judaism.”) I don’t see a way out of this.

    The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset.

This is absolutely true. I haven’t heard of any costs, and the rav specifically told me he is forbidden to take money for teaching Torah, so there would be no cost for his classes. I hope there aren’t any large surprise bills in my future.

    Communities have welcoming committees for Jews who move to the area but nothing in place for converts in the process.

I’m not sure if I think this is reasonable or not, as a lot of Orthodox communities don’t see that many conversion candidates. In my town, the Reform synagogue seems to attract a fair few conversion candidates, but since I’m pursuing an Orthodox conversion, I’m not really sure if they could help with some of the things I’d need. My advice is to find an unofficial mentor. Talk to people in shul. Go to events, and network.

    Converts are constantly asked to discuss extremely personal questions by strangers

Yeah, welcome to Judaism.

I really hope Mandel never goes to Israel, because she’s going to be bombarded by personal questions, unsolicited advice, and other overtures of aggressive togetherness (achdut, maybe). I had some experience with this at one point. My strategy for coping with this is to have a sort of “elevator pitch” prepared. I’m not really bothered by people’s curiosity; I figure this is a good way to make friends, network, and find allies and possible mentors.

    Help us with matters of Jewish ritual.

This hasn’t come up for me yet, so I really can’t comment on it, but using the tactics I described in the previous point might help with this.

    If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same.

I suppose this is fair, although most born Jews have people in the community who can essentially vouch for them, or at least pazam. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about this, as it hasn’t really come up.

    The conversion process for those of Jewish heritage should be accelerated and unique.

I agree with this, where the person has been raised Jewish, at least. Since I’m adopted, hypothetically there could be a chance I actually have Jewish ancestors, although I suspect not. I wish I had some kind of magical Jewish origin story, but I’m afraid I don’t. In any case, my learning process would be about the same as any other prospective convert’s, because I wasn’t at all raised Jewish, and I’m flying blind.

    Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish.

I’m not sure I agree with this either, but a kehila should be doing its best to welcome converts in any case.

    We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity.

Yes, I agree with this. I’ve seen entirely too many stories where people’s conversions weren’t respected for one reason or another, and the actions of Mandel’s rav shouldn’t affect the halachic status of her conversion, although for political reasons it might. I do worry about this a little bit, but I guess I’ll have to burn that bridge when I cross it, and not before.

I do think there are an awful lot of converts who seem to have been left in precarious situations, and I think in general Jewish organisations need to be more proactive in helping converts, although I can understand why they aren’t necessarily. Between the massive weight of cultural resistance to the idea of converts, a thousand years and more of well-deserved distrust of outsiders, and a lack of “market,” as it were, the issue of lack of outreach is basically inevitable (at least within Orthodoxy), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this situation persists. Thanks to Mandel for at least starting a conversation, though.

Further: If you’re interested in seeing an incredible discussion of the politics surrounding this issue, as well as what the tensions between the Orthodox world and other movements of Judaism, I encourage you to read the comments on this article. (I normally encourage people not to read newspaper article comments, as they’re usually about a half-step up from YouTube wharrgarrbl, but the Times of Israel has really good, respectful commenters for the most part. Even the abrasive Orthodox supremacists in the bunch seem to know their stuff, and are worth reading even if you disagree with them, just to get the flavour of the thing.)

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