Luddite that I am, I thought GoFundMe was just another request from my children for cash. It’s actually a website so that other peoples’ kids can ask for money, like funding for unusual projects, tuition, travel or rehab. People need funding to recover from serious house fires or for escalating medical costs. Crowd-sourcers bring attention to their causes and find someone else to pay for them. It’s brilliant. My own list is growing.
There is something both compelling and uncomfortable about such requests. Attractive because it gives people with charitable impulses an easy way? to fund someone directly, to feel good about a gift that can really make a difference, to be buoyed by the kindness of strangers, especially those who leave notes of encouragement with their donation. It’s meaningful and inspiring.
The less attractive side is the unseemly assumption that people making such requests are counting on strangers to fund them. Why should I pay for your life when my own life costs so much? Pay your own way.
This tension surfaced when I asked a group of community leaders what they thought of converts who use GoFundMe to cover the cost of conversion and study in Israel or elsewhere to help deepen and stabilize their new commitment. I have made such contributions but not without hesitation. It’s special when someone you’ve supported posts this: “…every day brings more knowledge and growth. I feel so blessed. … And it is all thanks to Hashem and the help and support of all of you.” I played a little part in an amazing transformative moment.
Wait a minute, you ask. Does it cost money to convert? Some people were bewildered that there was anything other than minor administrative costs associated with conversion. A Canadian rabbi said that even those minor costs are waved if a convert cannot pay them. The reliance on home hospitality and free study opportunities should keep converts in the black while they’re trying to become blue and white. “They keep their day job,” the rabbi said, “and the deeply personal, internal process takes place at their pace during their internal spiritual journey.”
One academic felt that sponsoring converts at this stage would not be preparing them for a future of expenses associated with living Jewishly. “Judaism is actually an expensive religion — it entails (significant) costs. If the cost of conversion classes is a barrier, the cost of being Jewish — kosher food, High Holiday seats, Jewish day schools, etc. — will undoubtedly become a barrier as well.” In other words, the Jewish GoFundMe problem never ends.
This practical concern was eclipsed by a deeper one: Asking others to cover the cost of conversion and study may imply that converts have not put enough personal investment into the process. In the words of one senior rabbi: “Why should I pay for you to convert? Why don’t you pay for me to learn how to swim? Conversion is a serious business, and the prospective convert needs to be prepared to sacrifice many things, money being the least of them.” Another rabbi was concerned about the transactional nature of such an approach: “…conveying crowd-enthusiasm for purposefully choosing Judaism feels important,” but it “might be worthwhile to couple crowd-funding with commitment-fortifying affirmations of behavior and belonging.”
A recommendation: Converts who request funding should probably be explicit about the costs and their own contribution to the process. It would help compassion live more comfortably beside personal agency.
A Hillel leader felt that conversion costs should be covered but not future study in Israel. If a yeshiva would like to absorb costs, that is their choice. One New York rabbi felt that funding for the actual conversion was potentially problematic in the early stages of this decision: “If a potential convert knew there were financial perks to conversion it would certainly affect their objectivity in the process.” Having said that, he was very supportive of helping converts who have completed the process afford a Jewish home and lifestyle. In his words, “nothing could be more beautiful.”
A Jewish fundraiser put it bluntly: “Members of the Jewish community should support whatever it is that they deem worthy of charity.” A federation head said that he “would treat the charitable needs of people undergoing conversion exactly the same as those who are already Jews. While they are not quite yet ‘Jews by faith,’ they have already joined themselves to the fate of the Jewish people and are thus ‘Jews by fate!’”
“Converts have so many barriers to overcome,” writes one academic, including “the intangible barrier as a feeling of not quite being at home, not quite being accepted. This would telegraph a message: We welcome you and are glad you want to join us.”
Should embracing converts now require footing the bill? What do you think?
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.