I’ve always been jealous of those who were able to directly impact people’s lives for the better. Lawyers who petition the court for people’s civil rights, religious court advocates who work to free agunot, religious court judges who facilitate a divorce with a bit less pain, and rabbis who officiate marriages and conversions. So, when Rabbi Chuck Davidson asked for volunteers to be balaniot (mikveh attendants) for a conversion that he was conducting, I jumped at the chance.
Rabbi Davidson has been promoting Orthodox conversion in Israel outside of the Chief Rabbinate for nearly a decade. He converts those who are fed up with the Rabbinate’s difficult and drawn-out conversion procedure, those who don’t want to be affiliated with the Rabbinate for political reasons, or those who want a friendlier yet still halachic conversion. He also helps people from other countries convert outside of centralized frameworks under the control of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
To date, he’s helped hundreds of men and women join the Jewish people.
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To convert to Judaism, a person must understand that he or she will be joining the Jewish people for better or worse, forever. This means that they know that a Jew is beholden to the commandments and restrictions, rewards and punishments given to us via the Torah, and he or she must acknowledge and agree to be subject to these laws.
Once the convert has affirmed his or her understanding and commitment, he or she immerses in a mikveh (spiritual bath) for the purpose of being reborn a Jew (circumcision, for a male, or the removal of a drop of blood is done prior to immersion). For the immersion to be ‘kosher’, the mikvah waters must cover the person’s entire body at once. To ensure that this is the case, and that the conversion is complete, the rabbis must be confident that the convert has immersed completely.
For a man, immersing naked in front of the all-male panel of rabbinic judges is perhaps awkward, but no more than that. For a woman, the goal is to preserve her modesty without compromising her ability to immerse fully. A robe or a large sheet is often provided to cover her body while immersing, allowing the rabbis to see that she is fully immersed without seeing her actual body.
To assist with this and with other preparations for the mikveh, another woman will often accompany the convert to explain what she must do and to let the rabbis know when to look into the mikveh room. (I’ve written on this practice before.)
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This was the job I was given. Though I was technically there to assist with the immersion, I spoke with Ruthie* (name changed) and offered to sit with her when she faced the rabbis at the final interview prior to the conversion. She was grateful to have someone with her.
I sat with her as she explained her background and how she came to embrace Judaism. I heard her describe that, in her hometown abroad, it costs the equivalent over $13,000 to convert. Part of the procedure requires that she live with a religious family for six months. She was also told that she could no longer attend the synagogue she had been frequenting, because some of the women there apply makeup on Shabbat and they weren’t religious enough. Unable to bear the hefty costs or move her residence, she searched for an alternative way to convert and found Rabbi Davidson.
I listened as the rabbis listed some of the requirements of a Jewish life: Shabbat, Kashrut. They reminded her that being a Jew was not easy. Sitting there, I could not help but add, “especially as a woman.” My work with agunot obligated me to make her aware that as a Jewish woman, she was seriously limiting her personal freedoms.
She nodded to me and the rabbis that she understood. Then Rabbi Davidson looked at her quite earnestly and said, “Once you convert, the people that you leave behind will no longer be your people, and the people you want to join may not accept you. Especially because this conversion won’t be recognized by the Beit Din of [Ruthie’s hometown] nor will it be recognized here in Israel. You will be a Jew, but I cannot guarantee who will recognize your status.”
At that moment, I feared for her. I felt that she was putting her faith in people who may never let her in and I felt, maybe she shouldn’t do this. But Ruthie didn’t flinch. She affirmed that she wanted to be Jewish and that she was committed to this course, no matter what came later. She stood and recited the affirmation and then we went to the mikveh room. I don’t know about her, but I was shaking.
She prepared and donned a thick robe from neck to toe and descended into the water. I stood above her and asked if she was ready. When she nodded and immersed, I opened the door to the rabbis so they could confirm that she had completely immersed.
She made the required blessing and the rabbis closed the door.
When she ascended the steps of the mikveh smiling, I asked if I could hug her. With tears, I welcomed her into the fold. It was incredibly moving. I realized how much I gained from the experience, and laughed at the idea that Id thought I was the one doing an act of chesed.
It wasn’t until after her conversion that Ruthie asked Rabbi Davidson who would be willing to officiate her marriage or give her children a brit milah or bar mitzvah. It was a modern day Naaseh V’nishma, echoing the words that the Jewish people responded to God’s offering of the Torah at Mount Sinai: We will do and we will hear.
* * *
She was alone in Israel and had some time before her flight home. When we offered to bring her to the bus station, she asked if we would bring her to Mamilla instead. I figured she wanted to shop or eat before catching her flight. But then she asked how to get to the Old City. And how to reach the Kotel.
We told her we would gladly drive her into the Old City. It was my honor to escort her down to the Kotel for the first time as a Jew.
* * *
Converts are too often eyed with suspicion. Their motives are questioned as is their sincerity. Yet at the moment when Ruthie made her decision to join the Jewish people, despite the very real potential for pain and rejection, I quite simply could not say that I would have made the same decision had I been in her shoes.
It pains me to think that Ruthie might be turned away by the very people she has sacrificed so much to join. It terrifies me to think her choice to join the Jewish people might bring her harm. And it inspires me to see what lengths this young woman was willing to go in her quest for truth and her desire to become a Jew. Having had a part in the process, I can say honestly that if there are people out there trying to convert in order to game the system, the onus falls on them to demonstrate their fraud. The rest of us — myself included — should welcome the brave souls who convert with very open arms.