Integrating Jewish converts into mainstream Jewish life has been a perennial challenge. The roots of the issue appear in the Torah itself.
This past Shabbat, in synagogues throughout the world, we read how Jethro, inspired by all of G-d’s wondrous acts, travels together with his daughter and two grandchildren to meet the Jewish People in the desert at Mount Sinai.
Yet, despite Jethro’s spiritual awakening, he returns home, back to Midyan.
Moses saw his father-in-law off, and he went away to his land (Exodus 18:27).
Why did Jethro leave? Jethro was clearly taken by all of G-d’s miraculous acts for the Jews; Why didn’t Jethro join the Jewish People on their historic journey to the Promised Land?
The Biblical commentators have a range of suggestions. Some suggest that Jethro returned home in order to convert other members of his family. Others suggest that Jethro was too old and unable to take the arduous journey to Israel.
I believe that Jethro decided to return home because, from the day he arrived at Mount Sinai, he felt like an outsider. While people undoubtedly showed Jethro respect as Moses’s father-in-law, they may never have truly embraced him. This lonely feeling did not abate during the entire duration of his stay. And thus, when it came time to travel to the Promised Land, Jethro chose to forgo the opportunity.
The Sages explain that converts present a formidable challenge to the Jewish People. The Talmud even proclaims: “Converts are difficult to the Jewish People like a skin ailment.”
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that we as a nation do a very good job of cultivating feelings of family and brotherhood among our natural brothers and sisters, but we struggle to integrate those who join our People by choice at a later point in life.
The Torah addresses this difficulty. In fact, according to one school of medieval rabbis, the Torah demands of us to love the convert either 24, 36 or 46 times, depending on how one counts the various commandments.
G-d expects us to draw upon our suffering as slaves in Egypt to inform the way we treat outsiders. Unfortunately, it is not always easy. There is a great deal of inherent bias. We are loyal to our extended family and cautious towards those who enter from the outside.
Earlier this year, the Orthodox Union’s magazine, Jewish Action, featured a series of articles on converts. One of the articles highlighted the unique struggles that converts face attempting to fully integrate into the community. One convert described the distinct stigma she carried when searching for a spouse. Another woman shared her despair that matchmakers only suggest matches for her children from other families of converts.
Jethro’s decision to decline traveling with the Jewish People to the Promised Land is a painful reminder that we, as a community, can do better a better job of embracing those who are Jews by choice.
In particular, we can improve in three ways:
1 – If you, your children or grandchildren are dating, be open-minded. Assuming you are not from a priestly family, there are no restrictions on marrying converts. Just the opposite! Often times, converts are more sincere and passionate about their Judaism than Jews by birth. These qualities should be sought-after and admired.
2 – If you have the pleasure of knowing converts, remember that they likely do not have the same robust Jewish family infrastructure that you may have. Keep these inspiring Jews in mind when you make you guest lists for Shabbat and Yom Tov.
3 – The commandment to love the convert is really a mitzvah about keeping our eyes open for people in the community who do not fit into the regular mold. Every Jewish community is comprised of wonderful individuals who do not have a vibrant social structure. Not everyone is blessed with a spouse, children and grandchildren. G-d’s constant demand that we remember our experiences in Egypt is a clarion call that we care for all those who need an extra dose of love and kindness.
Converts are a special class of Jews. We, as a community, have so much to learn from their self-sacrifice and passion for Judaism. Each and every convert deserves to be cherished, loved and embraced.