The Conversion Conundrum

On a sunny friday last may-Holocaust Memorial Day, as it turned out-thousands of Orthodox men and women woke up to learn they were no longer Jewish. All of them had converted with the help of a prominent Israeli rabbi named Chaim Druckman. All of them were living Jewish lives in Israel. But a ruling from the High Rabbinical Court-in which a Druckman convert was deemed insufficiently observant to stay Jewish-wiped out all of his conversions with the stroke of a pen.

Insiders familiar with Israel’s hardball religious politics recognized the decision as an ultraright power play. But the damage was done. Converts, many of them new immigrants, panicked about their legal status in Israel, where Jewishness determines everything from birth to burial. Confused calls flooded hotlines and aid groups. Here in North America, the ruling had a very different effect. For one thing, the action enraged many converts, who typically take a polite stance around rabbinical politics. “It hurts,” says Sarah Schiffer, a 57-year-old Florida engineering associate who converted in 1971. “After years of struggle, to think your identity and that of your children could be overturned because of some rabbinical disagreement! This is not how Judaism is supposed to treat the stranger.”

The decision also angered some rabbis, who saw it as out of step with the letter and spirit of Jewish law. “Terrible behavior,” says Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who teaches Conservative rabbis-in-training about conversion at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York City. “[The Rabbinical Court] wants to engage in infighting and cut each other off. The Talmud would call this sinat hinam?baseless hatred. They need to remember the Temple was destroyed because of how Jews were treating each other, not how others were treating us.”

Perhaps most notably, the ruling has emboldened conversion activists, a loose league of lay leaders, rabbis, and academics lobbying to change what they consider an outdated, insular, and counterproductive process. “Proper conversion is about empowering people, not hocus-pocus,” says Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn, a Miami-based proponent of accessible conversions who helped pioneer an online conversion process. “If you convert, will you encounter people who behave moronically toward converts? Certainly. But you’re not there to change them. It’s to change yourself.”

If it sounds as though a ruling nearly half a world away hit uncomfortably close to home, it may be that American Jews are still trying to sort out some very complicated baggage surrounding converts.
Orthodox adherents refuse to recognize conversions by other denominations. The Conservative movement is just coming to grips with intermarriage and recognizing non-Jewish spouses. Reform Judaism welcomes the curious through outreach programs, but its work has raised questions about conversion standards.
“My very traditional friends keep asking me when I’m really going to convert,” says Chicago public relations executive Leah Jones, 31, whose blog, “Accidentally Jewish,” chronicles her days and nights as a single Reform Jew. “They think an Orthodox conversion would make me legitimate. I used to get angry about it. But you pick your battles.”

Reeling from a perfect storm of assimilation, intermarriage, and apathy, even the most protectionist Jewish leaders are recognizing the need to welcome committed prospects who happen to have been born into different faiths. But a legacy of persecution has endowed us with a lasting, if subconscious, fear of outsiders. Caught in this web of ambivalence are converts themselves. Many are already coping with unsupportive families, skeptical friends, and painful self-doubt; while they often receive a warm embrace from the synagogues or temples where they study, many Jews by birth don’t exactly roll out a welcome mat.
“Some American Jews like to think the Ashkenazi culture they inherited is the most authentic form of Judaism,” says Laura Wiessen, a New York-based filmmaker whose current documentary project, More Beloved by G-d, profiles converts. ?Even if Jews aren’t interested in religion, they cling to the fact that they’re culturally Jewish to look down on converts.”

Diane Tobin, who converted through a Conservative beit din (rabbinical court) in 1982, agrees. “We as a people have an internalized oppression we need to overcome,” says Tobin, the founder of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for racial and ethnic inclusiveness in Jewish life. “We fear the stranger. We’re suspicious. Others have rejected us, so we want to reject. We turn away the convert three times before conversion. It’s unnecessary.”

The mitzvah to welcome the stranger appears more than 30 times in the Torah. “You shall love the convert” (Deuteronomy 10:19); “You must understand the feelings of the convert” (Exodus 23:9). “Our religion is about Abraham, a guy who sat in a tent open on four sides, welcomed everyone, and washed their feet,” says Rabbi Cukierkorn. “The only thing he wanted was for people to thank God for the meal they were receiving.” The discussions and rules around conversion began to emerge many centuries ago.
These discussions culminated in Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth- century codification of Jewish law, which describes three requirements for valid conversions: Converts must accept the Torah and observe all of its 613 mitzvot; perform a mandatory dip in a mikvah, the ritual bath; and male converts must get circumcised or have a ritual drawing of blood called hatafat dam. Once converts meet those three requirements, they appear before a beit din, a religious court traditionally composed of three men.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with rabbinical discourse that sages today are no closer to consensus on conversion standards than they were on the day the rules were written. Does “accepting the Torah” mean memorizing all 613 mitzvot? What if the beit din includes a woman? How do you judge a convert’s intentions to lead a committed Jewish life?

“The Talmud says ‘a handful’ or ‘a number’ of mitzvot is okay,” says Rabbi Hauptman of the JTS. “At the threshold, you don’t demand full observance of converts. You don’t require them to observe the rules for kashruth fully. Some interpretations place much greater demands on converts. Orthodox rabbis might disagree, but I think that’s a misconception.”

Jewish leaders are also starting to question a centuries-old taboo against proselytizing, long considered a foundation of our faith. “It’s part of the folk culture of Judaism that emerged from a fear of being in a vulnerable position in a foreign culture,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City, which offers courses, mentor programs, and workshops for Jews by choice and unaffiliated Jews. Indeed, historians note a long Jewish tradition of proselytizing, which only ended in the fifth century under threat from Christian and Muslim rulers.

The prohibition on outreach is outmoded, Rabbi Hauptman agrees. “The challenge facing us now isn’t proselytizing,” she says. “It’s getting non-Jewish spouses sufficiently interested in Judaism, or getting women who aren’t converting to at least raise Jewish kids.”

Among denominations, the Reform movement has been most aggressive about embracing converts. As early as 1978, the renowned Rabbi Alexander Schindler proposed an outreach initiative for interested non-Jews and spouses in intermarried couples. In an historic 1993 speech, he launched a $5 million initiative to engage with “those of our neighbors who belong to no church” and “welcome the stranger who choose to live in our midst.”

“Conversion isn?t some odd decision made by very few,” says Kathy Kahn, Director of Outreach and Membership for the Union for Reform Judaism. “It’s a profound life-cycle event that should be celebrated and normalized.”

Conservatives, too, are now taking a “much more welcoming attitude toward people interested in conversion,” says Rabbi Hauptman. “Some shuls wouldn’t put an item in the bulletin if a member’s new grandson was born to a non-Jewish parent. All of that is changing.”

Attempting to standardize conversion requirements, Reform and Conservative leaders in Los Angeles teamed up to form an alternative “community” beit din that crosses party lines. “The compromise for Reform members was conversions done more traditionally. And for Conservatives, the compromise means being more accepting of how people choose to live a Jewish life,” says Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

The Rabbinical Council of America, a leading organization for Orthodox rabbis, launched its own effort to standardize conversions in 2006. But its program was positioned as a response to an out-of-control system in which rabbis were making up rules and ineligible converts were slipping in.

Some of the most surprising allies in the push to narrow access to conversions are converts themselves. “I think it’s pretty obvious that the Reform movement is recruiting, along with some Conservatives. It doesn’t fit with one of my favorite aspects of Judaism,” says Avi Montigny, 36, the Catholic born convert behind JewsByChoice.org, a Web site that aims to connect converts across denominations. “I don’t think Judaism’s for everyone, and I love the fact that it’s not evangelical,” he says. “Judaism does not need more uncommitted Jews. We need quality, not volume.”

For Malynnda Littky, a 34-year-old African American who was raised by a Jehovah’s Witness but now lives as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, the High Court’s ruling makes sense. “From what I’ve read about these specific conversions, the standards were pretty minimal,” she says. “The rabbi was using some minority opinions accepting mitzvot. I do feel sorry for the converts and children, though, especially if they didn’t realize the conversions weren’t fully accepted.”

Ultimately, as it turns out, the ruling may lack teeth: At press time, multiple legal challenges had sent it to Israel’s Supreme Court. And while the decision wreaked havoc among the people it affected in Israel, it may eventually lead to more inclusive conversions-and broader definitions of who can become a Jew-perhaps even back across the Atlantic.

“We should be welcoming to people who want to become Jewish,” says Rabbi Weinberg. “We’ve never heard about converts trying to undermine the Jewish people. They enhance us.”

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