The new standards will streamline conversions. Because, you know, it’s rather simple to streamline people. If you think about the kind of people that convert, you will see a broad spectrum of individuality and strength. I’m afraid that new stringencies will not only turn away people who would otherwise be good G-d-fearing Jews, I think that we’re going to see a change in the kinds of people that are converted. Bring on the boring Jews! Interesting converts need not apply.
Rabbi Avi Weiss spoke from the bimah at shul last Shabbat about how in the rush to centralize power, the Israeli rabbinate has taken power away from congregational rabbis. It’s these congregational rabbis that are in the trenches, they, like Rabbi Elie Weinstock at KJ on the Upper East Side, are the ones answering kashrut questions at midnight on a school night. But no worries, the congregational rabbi can still act as teacher, as sponsor, but he’s just not good enough to actually create his own beit din.
Future converts won’t be able to experience the awe I experienced when surrounded by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Elie Weinstock, and Rabbi Sam Shor, I dipped at the Upper West Side mikvah and entered the Jewish people. I was awed, not only by the life-changing experience I was undergoing, but by knew the men that were standing with me. I felt honored to stand with them, blessed to have them become an integral part of my personal history.
The new converts will share their special day at the mikvah with a beit din of strangers. Strangers who have not been answering their questions at midnight. Strangers who cannot care for them deeply in that way that a teacher’s begins to do so when he learns and struggles along with his student. It is a beit din of strangers that will make the objective decisive decision whether or not someone is ready to convert. Objective makes me think we’re starting to look at people as objects. Or are they pawns in a larger political intrigue?
I said it at shul and I’ll say it again. I think that the this whole conflict is disgusting. When I uttered these words in front of a packed congregation at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, shaking and in tears, I was just as angry as I was sad. I thought of all the friends I have seen suffer through their conversions because of human callousness. I thought of how careless people made ME suffer for my conversion. The new standards are hurtful and go against halakha. They add stringencies where stringency is not necessary. And for what? For politics between America and Israel, the lives of converts everywhere are being challenged?
People aren’t reading their Torah properly if they think that this is how we love a stranger. Like Rabbi Lookstein, I agree that these new constraints will do more harm, to future and current converts, than good. Right now there are converts everywhere who are starting to question their Jewishness and wondering whether their children will be allowed to marry in Israel generations down the line. Like Rabbi Avi Weiss, I think the appropriate avenue would have been to offer more rabbinic education to rabbis who needed to brush up on conversion.
I summered in Israel before my conversion. I told the people at my shul that I was ready to convert once I had learned how much Jews hate Jews in Israel. I had never seen anything like it. I no longer had the Jewish people on a pedestal but still, I wanted to be a part of them. In Israel, the head of a haredi school for converts told me that I would ruin the Jewish people. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know what was in my heart. All she saw was that I was flagrantly disobeying her school’s obsession with modesty by allowing my collarbone to see the light of day. When I told her that an illness causes the nerves on my collarbone to be incredibly sensitive, she told me it was better that I stay indoors and out of sight than to help men stray towards sin because of my immodesty. I learned more about the thickness of stockings that summer than I did about halakha.
I spent those months in Israel crying. Every night, I was on the phone with friends in America asking them to remind me that the people at this haredi school for converts were not representative of all Jews. I needed a reminder that it was more important, or just as important, for me to learn modern Hebrew, Jewish history, Jewish philosophy and how to follow services as I went to class after class about modesty that were not so subtly aimed to reform me. My fellow students did not bother to hide their distaste for Modern Orthodoxy or Avi Weiss’s Open Orthodox yeshiva. The last day of my schooling there, the head of school likened the rabbis that I cherished and respected to “dogs.”
I wonder if any of the RCA rabbis have had a chance to really look at what conversion is like in Israel. I wonder if they have met the women that I met that summer, women who have been studying for years, sometimes in limbo for as long as three to five years. I met women who have had their devotion challenged though they left everything in their countries to come to Israel to convert. I met women who had to go to the mikvah several times in different haredi communities and still were not accepted.
Why don’t we insist the Israeli Rabbinate adopt our standards for conversion, and not the other way around? What do converts actually have to say? Has anyone actually TALKED to converts in Israel or America about what they think of the conversion process? Why is policy being created without actually speaking to the people who the policy is going to affect? Let’s demand change in an Israel that makes even marriage difficult for born Jews.
Oh, people worry that conversion isn’t difficult enough. During my conversion, I worked full-time as a high school teacher, attending Master’s classes at night and learned as much as I could about Judaism from books, classes and the Jews around me. No one told me that part of the curriculum was going to be learning to deal with the anti-Semitism from former friends who created a “pork eater’s table” at work and didn’t invite me. No one said my relatives might not come to my wedding. No one said outright that people would cut me out of their lives.
Jews worry about what this or that convert will do to the Jewish people, sometimes without thinking of the sacrifices the convert has made to take that final step. Sometimes, balancing so many new cultural cues feels like a constant reminder that you’re walking the tightrope between two cultures and never quite sure that you’re really accepted in either.
If anyone wants to take my conversion away, they’ll have to rip it from my hands while I kick and scream, I told the congregants at HIR. As I said this, I thought of the converts all around America who are worried about how the decisions the RCA makes today will affect their grandchildren. I know I want my decision to convert to affect my grandchildren, I don’t want the Israeli rabbinate to affect them more. And s I think about the people know that they’re as Jewish as Jewish as Jewish gets but who, like me, have flirted with the idea that they may always be permanent outsiders in a people they call home. I wonder if the minute some old bearded guys made me doubt my Jewishness that was the second that they lost some of their humanity.
A Conversion Critique From Within