Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.
Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.
Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:
- Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
- I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
- My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
- If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
- If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
- Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
- If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
- If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
- If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
- Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.
The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.
Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.
19 thoughts on “Conversion Manifesto”
Very interesting….but this troubled me:
“The likes of a janitor”? I understand the point being made, but feel it could have been worded better.
That passage is not well-made, but I am inclined to cut the writer some slack, given that she is in the group against which a horrible crime was just discovered.
The part I quoted from, above, seems not to have come through…it was this:
…..A corporate lawyer does not deserve to be constantly matched with the likes of a janitor just because he happens to be another black convert (yes, this happened to a friend on a serial basis)……
This makes me sad, rather than affirmed. She can’t have Passover dinner with her family because her family is Reform? What kind of nonsense is that?
This is one reason why I find Orthodoxy such a turnoff. At least half of what she’s saying about converts and conversions and how we gerim are treated among the larger Jewish community is Orthodox-specific, and a product of the Orthodox exclusion mindset. I have had exactly one negative experience with public knowledge of my convert status, and it was an accident, not deliberate. Yet she seems to feel that her community does these things deliberately. That’s sad.
You’re right, Adam, it’s very sad. Keep in mind that she just found out that her rabbi – the rabbi with whom she converted – has been accused of spying on women in the mikveh. Ms. Mandel is in a LOT of pain. There also seems to have been a number of things “off” with that entire conversion program.
Not all Orthodox communities are like that.
I had had no idea that that was happening. Obviously I am not up on the news. That’s horrible. I am so sorry that she’s in such pain.
As a recent convert, I feel so sad and empathetic for Ms Mandel’s experience of converting under an abusive, creepy rabbi. I converted within the Reform structure, and so am not sure how many of her points reference a particular, abusive situation, and how many reference a broader Orthodox experience. Either way, what an awful experience, and how corrosive for what should have been a joyful and enriching journey. Ugh.
What I do know from my own experience is that converting within the Boston-area Reform structure has been an amazing gift. Based on all I read in advance, I expected to be rebuffed or treated with disdain (which would have been devastating in such a vulnerable state) – but instead I was welcomed by members of the synagogues, by the many rabbis I’ve sat down with, and by URJ. Most of all, I was blown away by how much time and focus my sponsor rabbi gave me, and was so thankful for having lucked out with such a great rabbi.
I appreciate R Adar putting this out there for any born-Jews who would like to know how to respect boundaries of converts. I know some of where she’s coming from, but I’ve been lucky so far. I think I have been lucky enough mostly to get people who are trying to make a connection and so are asking overly-personal questions, or are trying to get me to admit that I’m converting because I’m dating a Jew (sorry guys, I thought this one up aaaaaaall by myself). Initially, I felt kind of stymied when dealing with total strangers who asked me such personal questions – well, sure, even though I don’t know your name or anything about you, let me disgorge my life history and the inner workings of my soul to you! 🙂 Then I realized that I could just give a vague answer – like in any social setting in which one is asked overly personal questions by strangers – and try to deflect back to a question about them. When I know someone better, it’s a lot easier to reveal more, but I don’t owe anyone that knowledge.
My pet peeve? The word ger. I hate that word, with a total passion. I loathe the word ger. We get told on the one hand that there is no difference between a born-Jew and a Jew-by-choice, and my name is now “bat Avraham v’Sarah” – and then on the other hand, we call them a “stranger” or “foreigner” or (the politically correct version) a “naturalized citizen”! When have you ever heard of someone calling a citizen who was born outside of our country a “stranger” or “naturalized citizen”? Right – you just call them American. I’m not a ger, dammit – I’m a Jew. Period, full stop. I’m a Jew.
I hear you, about “ger.” Part of the difficulty is that it does have multiple meanings, depending on the context and on the era of Judaism.
The term I like best is “Ger Tzedek,” which is how the weekday amidah prayer refers to people who choose to become Jewish. “Ger Tzedek” means “Righteous Resident” and I think recognizes that there is effort and persistence required to adopt Judaism.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful words!
Oh – one more thought. I think that many born-Jews ask so many questions because they’re flabbergasted that someone would go to so much trouble and effort to convert to Judaism. They may struggle to get their own kids or grand-kids to go to temple or have any Jewish self-identification. They may stick with Judaism because it’s “their” religion but they can’t see from the inside what would be so compelling from the outside. They may read the Pew report too much and have a pessimistic view of the future of Judaism. They may be struggling with their own doubts and questions. I think that some people find it very validating to know that people outside of Judaism would work so hard to become Jewish.
I think you are right on target with those observations, Super bien. A lot of the questions and comments are well-meaning in intent, but they still have the effect of distancing converts: “You’re not like us.” While in practice I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, I think that people are capable of learning better ways of talking, too.
It’s absolutely true, those probing questions can be very distancing. It’s spot on to call out a better way to respect people and boundaries.
I felt like my post was getting too long so I put it on my own Conversion website, becomingjewish.net. I invite folks to read it here. http://www.becomingjewish.net/blog-into-the-jewish-pool/do-we-need-a-converts-manifesto
Dawn, I love your post – I recommend that readers follow your link to it!
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Bethany Mandel wrote a follow up piece to her original article, with stone of the backstory, which I flubs interesting, as well as what has been happening in the “Orthodox conversion process following the Barry Freundel scandal”.
/some of the backstory
Wow! Thanks for pointing me to that article! The more I read by and about Ms. Mandel, the more impressed I am with her bravery.