Welcoming non-Jews into Judaism and the Jewish people

Many Jews believe that Jews should discourage non-Jews from becoming Jews by “turning them away three times.” This idea originates from a collection of midrashim (rabbinic sermons or interpretations) called Ruth Rabbah.

In this 6th century document, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani notes that Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, urged Ruth three times to return to her non-Jewish family after the death of her husband. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani states: “She says, ‘turn back’ three times, which corresponds to the three times one pushes off a convert” (Ruth Rabbah 2:16).

But Rabbi Shmuel’s position that one ought to dissuade a potential convert three times was not codified into Jewish law. In fact, the Jewish legal texts go in the opposite direction, demanding that anyone who expresses a sincere interest in Judaism be immediately welcomed.

The code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, states: “When a person comes to convert, we tell them: ‘Do you know that Israel faces oppression and other challenges.?’ If they reply: ‘I know, and yet I would be honored [ani yodea v’ayni k’dai]’ then we befriend them, immediately accept them, and begin to teach them” (SA 268:2).

One of the sins frequently found in synagogue life is a failure to encourage interested non-Jews to become Jewish and to warmly 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. During the 39 years that I was the Rabbi of Temple Akiva (Rabbi Akiva’s father was a convert to Judaism) 250+ Gerim joined the Jewish people through this public ritual at a Shabbat service at the Temple.

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 did speak to the congregation about their conversion.

The reaction of my congregation has 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 also 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.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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