One of the sins frequently found in synagogues is a failure to encourage interested non-Jews to become Jewish and to welcome non-Jews who have become Jewish into the Jewish people. Jewish teaching is very clear on the subject of Gerim (converts). They are to be considered Jews in every respect.
It is also clear that some Jews, especially those of an Orthodox or Israeli background, feel that a convert is not a “real” Jew. They will admit that a Ger usually knows more about Judaism than many born Jews. They also often confess that Gerim practice more Judaism in their homes and in the synagogue then they themselves do. Yet they insist that Gerim are not “really” Jewish.
Sometimes they express this opinion because they regard the feeling of alienation and Jewish ambivalence that comes from being an oft persecuted minority as an essential part of Jewishness, although they themselves hope to shield their children and grandchildren from this experience. Usually they have this feeling because they are ignorant of what Judaism teaches about the Mitsvah of welcoming Gerim into the Jewish community.
Frequently they themselves have not met many people who they knew to be Gerim. Since the process of becoming Jewish is not encouraged when Gerim have contact with people who hold these negative views we need to do as much as possible to make the Jewish community as pro Gerim as possible.
One very effective way to do this is to conduct all conversion ceremonies as a public ritual at a regular Shabbat service. Over more than 35 years 250+ Gerim have joined the Jewish people through this public ritual at a Shabbat service at Temple Akiba. I also encourage all Gerim to invite friends and family to come to the service when they will enter the Jewish People, and also to support the Oneg Shabbat.
Although many Gerim are nervous about speaking in public, with my encouragement and the knowledge that bnai mitsvah do it at age 13, close to 50% of the Gerim do it.
The reaction of my congregation has always been very favorable. Many people have related to me that they were very moved during the service. On one occasion after a family service a non-member told me that the Kabbalat Ger ceremony had inspired her to encourage her nephew’s wife to become Jewish. Another time several members of the confirmation class who were at the service were greatly impressed according to their amazed parents.
I always encourage Gerim to speak about their feelings on becoming Jewish at the end of the ceremony. This too helps impress people favorably. On occasion someone has worried about what non-Jews who were present might think. I always point out that many non-Jews think Jews are clannish because we do not proselytize and this helps to dispel that negative image.
Within a few years of starting this practice at Temple Akiba I could feel a much more positive attitude toward Gerim within the congregation.
The Kabbalat Ger ceremony is held after the opening song and before the candle blessing or the Kiddush depending on the gender of the person who is becoming Jewish. I announce that we have a special simcha to celebrate. The Ger (accompanied by a present or future spouse if desired) comes up on the bima and stands before the open ark.
He or she then publicly declares his or her decision to become part of the Jewish people by reciting the Sh’ma and the words of Ruth, “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” When the conversion ceremony is complete a female convert blesses the Shabbat candles and a male convert recites the blessing over the Shabbat cup of wine. This signifies that the congregation accepts the new Jew as one of them.
Shavuot should always remind us that the Torah tells us to remember that when Israel escaped from Egyptian oppression a ‘mixed multitude’ of other oppressed foreigners joined them (Exodus 12:38) and joined the Jewish People in accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai; so we must do everything we can do so that: “Strangers (non-Jews) shall join them and shall cleave to the House of Jacob” (Isaiah 14:1) and “Gentiles shall come to your light” (Isaiah 60:3)