I was immediately smitten when I met Alex at a Shabbat meal in midtown Manhattan. I did not shake his hand when his sister introduced us because I could not immediately size up how frum (religious) he was. We chatted and I tried to play it cool when I sat down right next to him. When the rebbetzin asked our table of young professionals to share our names and favorite Jewish foods, I did something I had never done at an icebreaker before. I threw back some wine, stood up and said, “My favorite food is tzimmes, which is special because — gasp! — my non-Jewish mother makes it.”
There were no immediate crickets or even chirps. This was a kiruv (outreach) meal with a lot of millennials in suits and cocktail dresses and few knowledgeable in Halacha (Jewish law), but Alex knew exactly what I had just done. Judaism is passed through the mother and kohens cannot marry converts, so on this night, I laid everything out on the table so that Alex would know my background. Alex immediately figured this just meant I was super into him. What can I say? I always liked smart Jewish boys.
This particular Jewish boy was not only smart — he was respectful and is a model for the Jewish community today. Alex did not initially ask a single question about my status as a Jew. He did not ask why I converted. He did not ask for a paper to prove I was really Jewish. He asked me to dinner.
I now live a totally Modern Orthodox life and people just assume I was born Jewish. I have the kind of life where I happily host meals featuring new chicken recipes and get involved in the PTA, but I cannot ignore that the recent news out of the Israeli rabbinate upsets me deeply. Righteous converts are being rejected in Israel. And these gerim (converts) are people with beautiful Jewish souls who have undergone Orthodox conversions in the US and voluntarily taken on the mitzvot. These gerim appeared in front of a very intimidating beit din of three rabbis and had to demonstrate their commitment by a standard most Jews by birth would not pass. By questioning the legitimacy of these American conversions, the Israeli Rabbinate is effectively delaying marriages and holding lives hostage in a way that is unfair and antithetical to how Jewish law dictates we treat the ger. Even outside of Israel, converts are frequently subjected to different standards, such as when they are asked to show paperwork to prove they are Jewish as a prerequisite to shul membership, day school admittance or their child’s bris. The legitimacy of Jews who claim to be born into the tradition is not questioned — which is ironic because no Jew by birth can trace proof their maternal lineage back to Har Sinai. Not a single one.
The Talmud reminds us that we should not remind converts of their past status — the idea of “ona’at devarim” – hurting others with words. I live a life comfortably attending shul dinners, challah-baking and paint night sponsored by the sisterhood, and I am fortunate to be part of a very welcoming community and have had many, many positive experiences with the rabbis I have met along the way. Nonetheless, even in my privileged, seemingly rosy situation, it is painful to be reminded of my status as a convert. My father is Jewish, but I am still a Jew-by-choice and, while I am happy with the choice, it has had painful consequences.
During my process, I wanted to get married, but the amount of time I needed to wait to become Jewish and move on with my life was nebulous and out of my control. I postponed graduate school and had trouble sleeping. Young Jews in my circles have gone to so many weddings that they all look the same, but to my family the six-hour affair was a foreign tradition with strange rituals and language. I imagine they wondered what had happened to their little girl. And now there are so many days we do not see each other. Days that I miss my family, but spend it with my husband’s family — so many holidays and so many Shabbats. By keeping kosher, my son will never taste homemade cookies baked by my mom in my childhood home. A conversion is not as simple as buying new dishes and paying a few extra dollars for kosher food. You give up meals you grew up with and family traditions and, unfortunately, I am sure that to my parents it feels like a rejection of the upbringing I was lucky receive.
Nowadays, people try to be sensitive about so many things. We do not ask a woman if she is pregnant or how much money she makes. So let’s step it up for the convert. A convert is a Jew like any other Jew. Converts are Jewish. Period. They did not “convert for marriage” (this comment is so unfortunate). Even if we cannot do anything about the Rabbanut in Israel, I challenge you to find out if your local rabbi and local schools ask for paperwork or accept converts like they accept every other Jew walking in off the street who says they are Jewish. Ask your rabbi this question. And if you know a convert who speaks openly about their status, ask them how they are feeling in light of the recent decisions in Israel. Are they worried about what will happen to their children who want to go to Israel one day? Because I am. And treat them as you would any other Jew. Ask them about that chicken recipe.