Years ago, shortly after I had completed my conversion to Judaism, Mrs. Goldstein, stopped me as I left my Brooklyn synagogue: “I see you daven week after week, and I know that you are a Jew from the way you hold your siddur. But when I look at you, you look like a shiksa!” Before I could come up with a clever reply, she continued: “… you look like me!!” And then she told me story after story about how she asserted her Jewish identity as a young blonde, blue-eyed woman in 1950s Brooklyn.
As a German convert and a rabbi with a PhD in Jewish history, I thought about this encounter as I followed the bitter debate surrounding the place of converts in German Jewish communities triggered by Avitall Gerstetter, until recently the cantor of a liberal synagogue in Berlin (see her article in the German daily newspaper Die Welt, published on August 9, and for an English article by Toby Axelrod see here).
Trained by the Jewish Renewal Movement, a socially progressive movement that is welcoming of interfaith families, Gerstetter rejects most converts. We are too strange, too loud, too uppity, and, unless we have a Jewish partner or father, convert for the wrong reasons. She laments that, lacking a personal connection, newcomers alter the character of the established community and usurp its leadership. But most of all, there are too many of us, and in her own disjointed version of replacement theory, she worries that 80 people per year will replace thousands. She thinks there should be a quota for converts.
Joining Judaism is different from converting to a faith-based community such as Christianity or, to a lesser extent, Islam; it means joining a religion and a people with a particular history. Gerstetter asserts that the latter is impossible, at least for Germans. Jewish history shows the opposite: without a steady flow of newcomers, the community may not have persisted. Questions of identity and boundaries, of belonging or not belonging, often arise when converts are involved. In a famous twelfth-century legal responsum, Moses Maimonides responded to such questions with great sensitivity. Yes, he reassures a convert named Ovadiah, you can join the prayers calling on “our God” because converts are, like all Jews, linked to Abraham, the first Jew who converted himself, his household and all future generations of Jews.
Gerstetter suspects that many Germans choose Judaism for pathological reasons, and to shed their families’ alleged perpetrator past. I question that this is the case, especially for today’s young Germans, two generations removed from the horrors of the Shoah. The German Jews by choice I have met overwhelmingly became Jewish not because of but in spite of their German history, after careful deliberations. For me, Holocaust Memorial Day intensifies the complexities of my Jewish ex-Protestant German American and perhaps Kashubian identities. Maimonides has a response here as well. He asserts that Ovadiah can distinguish between his past and Israel’s past where claims of a shared history (“who led us out of Egypt”) make him uncomfortable. I at times choose similarly.
Jewish law and religious leaders may insist that converts are full Jews from the moment they emerge from the mikveh, but the Gerstetter debate is a reminder of the gap between leadership aspirations and communal reality. We are not all equal, and it is not for nothing that the Hebrew term for converts, ger, invokes resident aliens, people who do not quite belong (yet?). While different, the US Jewish landscape also has sizeable subsets of converts. And whether the people in our communities were born Jewish, converted, look different or inhabit non-normative bodies, how we relate to each other matters.
In order to become a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, as synagogues aspire to be, it may be helpful to examine subtle claims of spiritual or biographical superiority. I have heard many stories of exclusion where people were viewed with apprehension and suspected of being converts (as if that was something to be ashamed of!) and having an “interesting story” or being less authentically Jewish. This can come in the form of seemingly innocuous inquiries such as “Oh, where did your family come from?” Or: “Well, that’s not a very Jewish name, is it?” But whether we are born Jewish or not, our stories are ours to tell. What may be a game of Jewish geography to some, can sound quite different to people who may feel ostracized.
Individuals as well as clergy, including cantors such as Avitall Gerstetter, are called to embrace this renewal of the Jewish community. As Mrs. Goldstein’s stories from the 1950s remind me, this is no easy endeavor. But who knows, it may pave the way for some great work of spiritual creativity if we just let it happen.
And to converts who feel shaken by this debate, I repeat the words of Maimonides: “Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Avraham, Isaac and Jacob [and I would add our spiritual ancestors Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah], you derive from God through whose word the world was created.” You matter and you are loved.