Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · news · rabbi

The Continuing Plight of Converts

I love Israel and yet, I have absolutely no desire to make aliyah, to immigrate there. Maybe that’s because I know that as a convert, my conversion would become suspect immediately if I showed any desire to move to Israel.

Because when born Jews decide to move to Israel, they’re reconnecting with the faith by being Jews in the most Jewish place on Earth. When converts decide to move to Israel, we are obviously trying to play the Law of Return, pretending to be Jewish to escape third world countries (like America) for a better place (that is constantly at war and under consistent threat of terrorism).

When people tell me that Israeli authorities have to be suspicious of the type of converts who plan to wheedle their way into Israel through the Law of Return, they never seem to be able to distinguish that the laws and regulations enacted to prevent a couple of disingenuous characters actually hurts true blue converts, like me. In fact, these people also excuse the countless news about the mistreatment of converts in Israel and elsewhere. They stress that Israel, that Judaism, must be kept safe from these “horrible people” who want to be Jewish, even when those “horrible people” really love Judaism, by plaguing them and ensuring that these “horrible people” find Judaism as unwelcoming as possible.

I haven’t had children but I’m already worrying about whether or not they’ll be able to attend yeshivas in Israel, much less whether or not they’ll be allowed to settle there. So, tell me again about how I’m not a second-class (Jewish) citizen?
There was already an article about an Orthodox rabbinical student having difficulties getting into Israel, can you already see the headlines when my kids try to get in? “Diaspora children of Orthodox rabbis barred from Israel for fear they will take jobs from local Israelis.” Isn’t it amusing that people are afraid, in both America and Israel, that people like me are coming to steal their jobs? So amusing, except that it’s not.

“Mass converts pose dilemma for Latin American Jews” is not the first time I’ve heard of the plight of converts in Latin America or specifically, in Columbia. I’ve heard from reliable sources that sometimes to convert in Columbia, you need to slip the rabbi a sweaty wad of cash and that this still won’t guarantee you’ll be accepted in the Jewish community.

This new JTA article hints not so subtly that the explosion in conversion in Columbia might have more to do with obtaining Israeli citizenship than genuine love of Judaism. And yet, the same article interviews Luis Alberto Prieto Vargas, who only “appears to be Jew” (because what conversion ceremony is good enough for anyone in Columbia?) whose son is studying at yeshiva in Israel (but apparently, that’s not Jewish enough, either? how many non-Jews do you know studying in yeshiva in Israel?).

Vargas is part of the Main Haim, a group of Columbian converts that turned to Israel for their conversion training only to have the Columbia Jewish community warn Israel against accepting them. The group eventually found a rabbi and converted 104 of their members. “

They decided to convert themselves as a group and establish their own community,” Marcos Peckel, president of the Columbia Jewish Community Confederation, the umbrella organization for Clumbia Jewry, says. Is it any wonder that they did this, considering that the way they are received by the broader Columbia Jewish community, that these converts have started their own community within the community?

Columbia’s chief rabbi, Aflredo Goldschmidt seems to grudgingly admit that the Internet has fueled this flood of interest in Judaism and that perhaps, many of these converts are indeed genuine. But Marcos Peckel seems more concerned about how these converts will “significantly alter the community’s life.”

The obvious xenophobia is not just oppressive, it’s depressing. The article tries to end on a positive note with a quote from Rabbi Guillermo Gronstein of Peru, one of Lima’s three rabbis, ““We have to be humble. Instead of judging the people wanting to be Jewish, we should put ourselves in their shoes.”

The article only serves as a reminder to me and other converts, that converts are indeed nothing but second-class citizens, not even citizens, in the eyes of too many in the Jewish community.

In other conversion news, at a recent conversion conference, the chief rabbi of Ashdod, Rabbi Yosef Sheinin was quoted in Haaretz (“Rabbinical judge: Most immigrants seeking conversion are misguided”) making a blanket statement about immigrants from the former Soviet Union: “When they want to marry, they will do everything possibly to deceive. They are to be assumed to be cheaters.”
There is no sympathy in his words for the plight of this group of people who cannot marry in Israel because they are not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews, despite being shuttled in under the Law of Return because of their Jewish ancestry.
But these cruel politics of conversion in Israel extend farther than this Russian immigrant population, because as Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a judge of the High Rabbinical Court who wrote a ruling in April 2008 invalidating thousands of conversions approved by the state’s special conversion courts, says in the same article, “Every convert needs to be examined.”
Every convert is suspect. As Ynet reports: “the question was ‘Who is a Jew?’, later the question became ‘Who is a convert?’, and now the question is ‘Who is an Orthodox convert?’.” Meanwhile, The New York Times reminds us that the Syrian-Jewish community continues to consider conversion “fictitious and valueless” banning intermarriage to non-Jews and converts. And a Forward article wonders background checks are in order and if “someone can be too evil to convert.” Excuse me while I bow my head.

I worry that when I write pieces like these, prospective converts who truly love Judaism will run for the hills. Pieces like this only confirm their suspicions about the Jewish community. But I believe that knowledge is power. I believe that prospective converts need to be prepared. Perhaps on top of asking them if they realize they are joining a people that has been persecuted for nearly 6,000 years, they need to be asked if they are ready to accept that they might be persecuted by these same people for the next 6,000, that these same people might purposefully reject not just you but your children who they won’t marry because your conversion will always be questionably kosher.
When I complained about the treatment of converts on someone else’s blog, they retaliated with something like, “Well, why did you convert? We didn’t make you.” Somehow, an intellectual conversion instantly turned into a kindergarten playground squabble.
So in case you missed it in this piece, I converted to Judaism because I love G-d and I love Judaism. But I don’t have to love how some born Jews think it is their G-d given right to mistreat converts. I didn’t convert to Judaism so I could have a front and center seat to watch as converts are persecuted and I’m not going to sit back silently while it happens. It is heartwarming to note that many born Jews aren’t willing to sit idly by either (“Lawmakers demand apologies from ‘racist’ rabbis who derided converts, ” “Immigration minister urges chief rabbi to declare all conversions valid”).

Anyway, tell me again while you sit back and make another Jew’s life miserable, how this is all in the name of “authentic Judaism”? Because while you sputter your vitriolic hate, I will ponder how I do not not pity your fate in this world or the next.

17 thoughts on “The Continuing Plight of Converts

  1. It's all very frustrating. As someone who believes Jews should all make aliyah – the fact that a small cadre of very much non-Zionist Jews (members of a diaspora-esque institution) have so much control over this. All in direct conflict with the Torah commandment to treat converts equally.

    I don't think most Jews share those negative views of converts – many are interested, especially since converts are all that common, but at the end of the day – you're Jewish.


  2. I am a convert. That is the first time I have admitted it out loud. I have been Jewish inside since as long as I can remember (even tried to convert at the age of 12! but was turned away and told I could just consider myself Jewish). I wasn't born to a Jewish woman but I always knew I had a Jewish neshoma. I am in the process of completing my conversion with a conservadox Rabbi and I will be married in the fall to my wonderful hubby to be. The marriage and the conversion are separate and apart from one another as I have always known I would convert.

    I was at a brunch the other day, and of the 5 people there, one was catholic, one converted to judaism for his wife, one had his wife convert to judaism before they married and another was married to a Jewish man raising their family interfaith. When I was asked directly about my religion I said I was Jewish and made no mention of the conversion despite sitting at a table filled with people who understood what convert means….why? Why didn't I come out of the closet? Because being a convert means being “the other”. I don't know that I will ever truly feel accepted as a convert. I cry thinking that one day my children may not be admitted to certain schools and feel that would be my ultimate failure….not being born a Jew when it was always something I felt in my soul, feels like I was born with some kind of defect.

    I love your blog and your openness. Please continue to be you…we need more converts like you.

    PS I think the majority of Jews look down on/are suspicious of converts….my future sister in law sent me a christmas sweater for my birthday last year….this was a major blow to me and very hurtful especially since I keep shabbos and run a kosher home and she does neither!!!! WTF!!!!! If you can't even be accepted by your own family, how will the Jewish world ever accept you? Luckily my in-laws are wonderful and consider me 100% Jewish…anyway….that's enough of a rant for a Monday morning


  3. Aliza,

    My father states that conversion is the naturalization process of the Jewish people, and that converts are the immigrants. It usually takes at least 2 generations for immigrants to be accepted as part of the society. I don't like this, but I accept it.

    Honestly, being a returnee is slightly different. If you're a child of a Jewish father or descended from Jews who left the faith, you get treated completely differently from people who convert for the love of the faith. It's really wrong, but I see the manifestation of this everyday.


  4. I have an enormous amount of empathy for for you. As the husband of a convert (my wife was studying Judaism long before I met her), much of what articulated so well here echoes my/our situation. However – do not give up hope, and don't despair too much about your future children. While many people in our community know that my wife is a convert, most probably do not. We have raised 5 children, all of whom have gone through or are in the (Orthodox) Jewish day school system, with nobody questioning anything (and yes my wife's status was clearly indicated on all the applications). Two of our children have attended Yeshivot in Israel for a year, without any problem. Two of these are now contemplatling Aliyah, one sooner than the other, and the one who just got back from Israel was “assured” by his rabbeim there that while it will require some legwork, his status as a Jew should not be a problem. Hopefully this will be the case, and b'ezrat Hashem I will report back the status of this endeavor as it plays out over the next months/years (he is not sure if he will go back in 1 year or after 4yrs of college).


  5. “I worry that when I write pieces like these, prospective converts who truly love Judaism will run for the hills.” I was literally going to run for the hills like you said before reading this sentence. I am also in the process and dont have anything positive to say about most Jewish people. I guess it's hard for them to believe that someone can actually believe in G-d and do all that we have to do to get closer to him. These rabbis need a lot of psychotherapy. Only a crazy person would treat others this way. I have met only a few rabbis (e.g. rabbi Avi Weiss and rabbi Marc Angel) who truly believe in G-d and the Torah. They say that convets are the holy of the holies. I really dont know what to say. I guess we should all get together and fight for our rights. It sucks being a minority in everything, I am a black person, and a prospective convert, but I think we should never give up on our beliefs. Prospective gerim have the right to convert and those who have dipped themselves into the mikvah should not be treated as second class citizens or immigrants. Those syrian Jews will have a lot of explaining to do when they face Hashem. THe nerve to call converts immigrants and conversion valueless and fictitious. Dont worry if now they are enjoying the privileges of being jewish on this earth, they may not enjoy them in the world to come. Because they're publicly embarrasing converts by calling them valueless and denying them rights that come from the TORAHHH. They should be trembling before G-d.




  7. Thank you!

    I am a convert and I practice in the conservative tradition. I define myself…I make choices for me…I converted, did the hard work before and ongoing hard work now because of my beleifs…bluntly many would not consider me Jewish….I don't care what they think!..that is between me and the divine…but it is a problem when it comes to Aliyah…the Jewish world must find a way to overcome these narrow minded persons…

    I implore those of you in the Orthodox world to consider how dialog and someday change can be made amoung ourselves…only then can we challenge those hardline extremists ……


  8. Hello…Aliza

    This is Mariantha Harris(Bechirah Nazia Leor) I have written on your other site “orthodoxconversionnyc”. Once again you have hit the proverbial nail on the head!!! It is just so completely sorriful that it is all so true!!! I feel so disheartened by my whole conversion!! Not the reason, for I do love Judaism and Hashems'/our Torah but how is it possible to live as a Jew??? We are continually turned away and made to feel “small” or non existant!!! How does one keep their sanity?? And still we Gerium come!!! Are we crazy or is it that our Neshamas' are TOO pure and forever looking toward the Devine??! I don't know… a world that so obviously hates and dislikes Jews, you would think that anyone who would want to join the fold whould be welcomed with open arms…..but!!!
    Again, just wanted to speak out and also say “thank you, Aliza” for being who you are and standing tall for all of us Converts. It seems that only Messiach will correct all of these horrible wrongs that are being done in the name of “Jewish purity”
    As one very wise and wonderful Rabbi told me(his name will not be mentioned due to many that are familiar with him.) “All Jews are converts, we were all converted and bore witness to the great message of Torah at Mt. Sinai” Amen, amen!!!


  9. It seems like a lot of people have bad experiences with acceptance as Jews. Do you think this is actually representative? I wouldn't know, since I don't have the personal experience, but whenever I the topic comes up, with friends, etc – there is always an understanding that converts are 100% Jews. I am a bit baffle, to be honest, by the widely negative experiences so many have had – I've never seen it, nor have I heard many who express such views.


  10. After my conversion the rabbi handed me a certificate of conversion and said,”I'm going to give you this and after I do you're just as Jewish as any Jew. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”

    And that's the way it's been. No one, fortunately, has messed with me and I've never had any issue with my shul or the local Jewish community. They all want to set me up with nieces,granddaughters and so on to “marry me off.” But I like staying single.

    Israel is another thing. There are people I know who have been Jewish all along and got flack and others who haven't. It's a very fickle thing.


  11. PS I consider myself a-okay with golus. I think there's a place for some of many of us in the diaspora. I believe I have important work to do here 🙂


  12. Are there insincere converts? Yes, I'm sure. Can rabbis tell when they aren't sincere? I don't think so.

    Take me, my mother died the day before my 18th birthday. I tried to go to college without a support system but, I was unable to finish. Does this mean that I'm somehow an insincere Jew (shhhhh… convert)? No, it doesn't.

    In my community, they freely welcome all the other converts/candidates very freely. However, one is an unemployed lawyer, another works in IT, and finally, one works in a doctor's office. Although, I don't know why it's ok to be a secretary in a doctor's office but not in a fancy corporate car service. Although, I don't do that anymore, but, when I did that occupation was not ok. I get all kinds of snotty comments from people in the neighborhood referring to my occupation and you're a smart girl, why don't you have a better job?

    I don't think people would make these issues if I were a born Jew. Honestly, I think it's all about I must be an imposter. If I make a six figure salary but quietly don't keep Shabbos, would this be ok? Unfortunately, I think it would be. I've discovered that most of these critical people aren't even observant. They're just quiet about it. Some have told me. Others, I have seen things on Shabbos to idicate this.

    Many of them put on acts of frumness when they are around a convert, by the way.

    Incidentally, anonymous who was deleted, now you're going to trash all gerim based on Avi Weiss' name? Playing right into the point of the article.


  13. I almost hate to say something positive here as everyone else has such said stories and my heart goes out to them. BUT many people in the shul I go to have said “mazel tov” and hugged me when I “came out” and admitted that I was a convert. Even the rabbi's mother who was visiting one day. (OK – one did say “you converted to this crap? you gotta explain THAT.”)
    I feel very fortunately to live in a time and country where I can make this choice.


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