Here’s what people don’t get about conversions

When the rabbinate rejects a conversion it rejects a profound journey of personal courage and soul-searching

Hearing about Nicole’s conversion troubles made my blood boil. I could relate to her story so well. It damages your very soul when you feel so strongly connected to your Jewish identity, yet a bunch of people tell you that you are not Jewish.

I know it because I, too, grew up with a Jewish father, non-Jewish mother, and a rock-solid Jewish identity. And I, too, have had people tell me that I wasn’t a Jew.

My Jewish identity formed in Russia during Soviet times. Religion was prohibited, and Judaism was prohibited even more. Eli Wiesel, z’’l, dubbed us, the Soviet Jews, the Jews of Silence.

Anyone who looked into my face in Russia knew immediately that I was Jewish simply from the form of my nose, the shape of my eyes. Back there, it was a racial identity more than anything else.

And yet, however diminished our Jewish identity was, we carried it with pride.

It was only when I came to the United States in 1989 and started trying to connect with the Jewish community here that I learned that I was not Jewish because my Mom wasn’t.

At first I felt confused. Then I felt angry. These people would tell me in their perfectly reasonable voices: “What’s the big deal? Just convert.” And I would get really emotional, my voice rising in response: “Convert from what to what? I am already Jewish!”

How could I explain to them that my Jewish identity had been welded into me by the history of the Jewish side of my family, which included the double scourge of Stalin’s repressions and the Holocaust? That it had become an inalienable part of me, in part, through ongoing experiences of discrimination?

How could I tell them about the fear I felt, as an 18-year old, walking into an entrance examination at the college of my choice, knowing that one of the examiners was a recognized anti-Semite who was going to judge me based on the fact that I was a Jew and not the quality of my answers?

How could I tell them about the time when my father and I got stuck at a railroad crossing, our tiny Zhiguli car blocking the way for a gigantic Kamaz truck? The driver poured anti-Semitic curses down at us, all the while pumping the gas pedal and making it look like he was going to run us over. I had never seen my Dad so scared, as he desperately worked the steering wheel trying to get us out of harm’s way.

Kids at school pelted my brother with stones because he, too, had that Jewish look. My non-Jewish Mom wouldn’t get promoted at work because she had married a Jew. My Dad’s dissertation council rejected his dissertation because he was a Jew and because his Jewish advisor had just fled the country because of persecution.

I am not Jewish, you tell me?

At some point, I simply gave up. I no longer wanted to deal with people who diminished and devalued my quintessentially Jewish experiences. I knew that I was a Jew, and I was proud of my identity exactly as it was.

But my longing for connecting to Judaism never went away.

Fast forward some 15 years, and I found myself at a congregation that embraced me for exactly who I was. To them, I was a Jewish woman who was learning, coming to services every Shabbat, increasingly observing Shabbat and the holidays with them – and doing it l’shem shamayim just because it felt, quite simply, incredibly meaningful.

And then a point arrived when I was ready to go through with the conversion. No one suggested it. I suddenly simply wanted to do it for myself, for my own sense of wholeness. I wanted to do it as a statement of commitment to what I now clearly saw was an incredibly rich and meaningful Jewish path.

The process of preparation for the ceremony was profoundly intense. I prayed, I studied, I did a lot of soul-searching.

And then the day came.

I still remember the feeling of walking into the mikveh that first time. On my first immersion, I felt myself suspended in water as if being held in God’s hand. It was a profound moment of surrender and acceptance. It was one of the most beautiful and sacred moments in my life.

I will never forget the incredible feeling of standing in front of my congregation the following Shabbat, after taking an Aliyah, and hearing the room break into Siman tov u’mazal tov.

And I will never forget becoming an adult bat-mitzvah soon after that.

At that ceremony I spoke about my great-grandmother Sarah, the last member of our family before me who had had real connection to Jewish tradition and observance.

I spoke about the break in the chain of Jewish teaching among us, Russian Jews. I talked about the silence of those generations. I talked about the miracle of survival of this precious Jewish identity throughout the 70 years of Soviet oppression.

And I talked about the fact that as I stood there in front of my congregation as an adult bat-mitzvah, I was doing it for all the silent Jews of my family who had never been able to express their Jewish identity as openly and clearly as I now could.

My conversion process was incredibly meaningful and sacred to me – just as I know Nicole’s was for her.

Which is why when Nicole says, “I am Jewish, it’s not fair that I would be considered otherwise. It’s very frustrating, I want to cry,” I really know what she means.

When I read those words, I want to personally hug her because I had said those very words so many times myself. Because I, too, cried so many times when people told me that they did not consider me a Jew.

It takes personal courage to embark on a process of conversion and persevere in it. It entails deep soul-searching and emotional and spiritual growth.

Perhaps there are people who take it lightly or do it for some weird wrong reasons, as some suggest. (I wonder what those reasons are?) But I can’t imagine there is a whole lot of those people. Nicole, clearly, wasn’t one of them.

For the rabbinate to reject her conversion is to reject the deeply personal journey that she had consciously chosen. It’s to reject her Jewish neshama that is longing to be with her people.

And to ask her — and anyone else — to re-convert is to diminish the profound spiritual meaning of the process.

Because really: How many times does a Jew need to “convert” into Judaism in order to finally be considered a Jew? What does it mean to ask people to repeat sacred rituals that are meant to be performed only once in a lifetime?

Imagine if we made people become re-bar-mitzvahs. What would that even mean?

A conversion is a rite of passage, a sacred journey that changes you profoundly. What the rabbinate does damages converts on a deeply spiritual level – and with them, it damages all of us as a whole, the entire klal Yisrael.

For representatives of a nation that traces itself back to Ruth to keep asking its converts to repeat their sincere intentions ad nauseum after they’ve already done so is to stray far, far away from its true spiritual roots. And for that reason, I believe that the day will come when the rabbinate’s monopoly over this theater of the absurd will collapse.

May that day come speedily in our time.

About the Author
Izabella Tabarovsky is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. She grew up in Russia, has lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, and travels frequently to Israel. She works at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory of the Holocaust and Stalin's repressions in the former Soviet Union. Her writings have appeared in Newsweek, The Tablet Magazine, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post Ivrit, The Wilson Quarterly, Kennan Cable, Russia File, and Science and Diplomacy, among others. The views expressed here are her own.
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