You be you, I’ll be me

A fellow blogger in this space, Bethany Mandel, wrote heart-wrenchingly about betrayal by Rabbi Barry Freundel, who presided over her conversion to Judaism. Freundel has been arrested and charged with voyeurism, for allegedly peeking at women in the mikveh. While the governing body of the Orthodox movement says his conversions will stand, she is understandably outraged.

It feels like the ultimate lie: the very clergy responsible for advancing the tenets of a religion, and for presiding over a conversion to that faith, is a sham as a rabbi. As she says herself, this rabbinic betrayal fetches up a simmering anger about the way converts to Judaism are treated post-conversion. She feared a backlash if she had spoken up sooner.
As Bethany was converted in the Orthodox stream of Judaism, you might be tempted to say that perhaps she would have had an easier time of things had she converted in, say, the Reform movement. Not necessarily. Conversion to Judaism can be intimidating in any streams of the faith. I know, because I did it.

People born to Judaism often ask, “Why’d you do it?” The answer is complicated. Some assume I converted because my husband is Jewish; he is not. He is an avowed atheist who didn’t much care for the idea that his wife of 25 years suddenly went stark raving mad for a religion. A process that began with a chance meeting with a rabbi and asking him to recommend a couple of books about Judaism so I’d know what my Jewish friends were talking about turned into a new life in a world of ideas so vast and beautiful I could never have imagined it. When people ask “why,” they should pull up a chair.

The prying questions and near-divorce aside, the most intimidating thing about converting is Judaism itself. The convert runs up against 5,000 years of history and myth, the Hebrew language, a crushing amount of sacred literature, the Holocaust, present-day anti-Semitism, family disapproval, relationship shifts, in-fighting between the streams of Judaism, and what position to take, as a Jew in the Diaspora, about Israel. There are temple dues, Federation appeals, the JCC to join, and , if you have kids, Jewish camps, youth group activities, religious school, b’nei mitzvah expenses, and potentially Jewish day school. You have to want it pretty badly to accept all that.

Traditional Jewish law says the convert is to be welcomed. Given what it takes to join this tribe, the convert should not be further intimidated by rabbis, fellow temple members, or adherents to other streams of Judaism.

For me personally, I was willing to accept it all. It was and is hard, all of it, and completely worth it. By far, the most disturbing thing about my 13 years as a Jew has been this: how Jews treat each other.

The community where I live, in the Southern United States, is a fairly easy place to be a Jew, believe it or not. Here in Nashville, we have five synagogues representing the Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chabad streams. The affiliation rate is high, the rabbis are mostly congenial with each other, and people visit around amongst the synagogues all the time. Jews get along pretty well here.

Nashville is the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, with a church on nearly every corner, and the attitude toward Jews seems to run the gamut from obliviousness to curiosity to bemusement. Here, people tend not to care so much where you worship so long as you do so. We do have the oddball “Torah Christians” who appropriate Jewish rituals, Jews for Jesus, and fringe groups who use a supposed love for the Jews to foment hate against Muslims. When people ask in sweet but misinformed earnestness, “So you go to the Jewish church?,” I just say yes.

Why don’t Jews treat each other that well? I expect that this post will bring a torrent of judgments about my brand of Judaism, how I practice, whether I’m really Jewish, or Jewish enough. Nothing seems to bring out the snark, hateful speech, and downright craziness like Judaism does, and more often than not, it’s from other Jews. On the internet, you expect the trolls. It’s a wide-open forum, not a place for the faint of heart.
Imagine my surprise in getting those reactions in person.

The first time I visited Israel, I went to study for a month in Jerusalem. I went from the oh-so-polite Tennessee to the powder keg of the Middle East, ground zero for every tiny permutation of the world’s three Abrahamic religions. Friends and family begged me not to go, as there was a dust-up with Lebanon going on, but I wouldn’t be intimidated by Israel’s outside enemies. I went, I saw, and I was disappointed. Angry even. God may have told Abraham he’d make us as numerous as the stars in the heavens, but we’re not there yet. We really can’t afford not to stick together.

A Jew can walk out his or her Judaism in an infinite combination of ways. Some of the best Jews I know don’t set foot in a synagogue; others who follow the Shulchan Aruch to the letter and spend their days studying Talmud may be the biggest jerks you ever met. Let’s ease up on each other, shall we? As one of my friends puts it, “You be you and I’ll be me.”

My conversion experience was lovely, so it hurts my heart to see someone having a hard time with conversion or being ill-treated afterward. Bethany, any Jew who makes being a Jew harder for you should have their own Judaism questioned, not yours. You be you.

About the Author
Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist and professional marketer living in Nashville, Tennessee.
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