By Andrea Karshan
The Torah and other Jewish writings instruct born Jews to be kind to converts and not to oppress them. But sadly that is not always the case. Often converts come under scrutiny from born Jews.
I wanted to share the message that the converts I interviewed had with those who scrutinize them. And the advice that Jewish converts had for their fellow converts who have faced such a dilemma.
If you could say something to those people who treated you differently because you were a convert or other people who scrutinize converts what would be your message to them?
Rachel-Orthodox Conversion in 1998-“I do believe that you need to intend to make life changes to observe a Jewish life but find it hard to believe that a convert has to constantly be held to a higher standard than any born Jew.”
I would like to remind them that all of the Jews were converts to Judaism at Mount Sinai when we said נעשה ונשמע and accepted the Torah. I would like to see some respect for Jews by choice and a little more compassion because converts don’t always have very supportive non-Jewish friends and families for their different choice of religion.They could really use the support of their Jewish communities and they don’t want to be treated as less Jewish or more Jewish. We want to be treated and accepted just the same as your own.
Converts often meet many obstacles and hardships on their journey to Judaism and they do not need to be troubled any further, it’s really insulting. A convert left their own family, culture, religion and customs to join the Jewish people. How can you then make them doubt even for a moment whether they truly belong to the Jewish community after their conversion and sometimes even many years after they have been observing a Jewish life?
Kimberly-Orthodox Conversion in 2007-“After (my conversion), I didn’t tell new people (I am a convert).”
To the scrutinizing people: how would you feel if you had to prove yourself to everyone everyday?
Ronald-Orthodox Conversion in 2012-“I do not feel accepted in Chabad after my conversion just like before, and it is the only Orthodox shul here. The Reform and Conservative synagogues in my area have been accepting.”
If I could speak to these individuals I think I would be at a loss of speech, the feelings are similar to that of being divorced by the one you are deeply in love with, married for years to. I only wish that they could consider the words of their mouth before they let them out.
Pamela-Conservative Conversion in 1987-A reaction Pamela sometimes gets from born Jews when they find out she is a convert-“You can’t expect to really be accepted you know. Someday you’ll revert.”
There are more of us than you think, and we want to be treated like anybody else. Also, please consider that at least some converts have lost their relationships with family or friends, or both, who don’t understand their decision and disapprove. Try to make them feel that they still have a family, just a different one.
(This is me. I was raised in a very strict fundamentalist denomination. My parents did come to my wedding – and told me I would burn in hell forever the day before the ceremony. After that, they basically ignored the subject altogether. If I mentioned something ‘Jewish’ it was met by silence, and a change of subject. My sister doesn’t talk to me very often any more, and didn’t let me know when her children graduated from high school or college – or got married. Not one of them even acknowledged the milestones of our girls – nothing for any Jewish holidays, nothing for their bat mitzvah celebrations – thank goodness for my husband’s family, who embraced us wholeheartedly).
Alan-Conservative Conversion in 2008-“Let them be mad. What can they do… send me to Afghanistan?”
Keep in mind Proverbs 21, especially verse 2: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts.” (King James Version) and Leviticus 33,34: “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Well, that’s what I’d like to think I would say, but it would probably be closer to pointing out their hypocrisy and telling them, in so many words, to GTFO with it.
Katja – Conservative Conversion in 2001, then Orthodox in 2006-“The wife of the orthodox rabbi who taught me for conversion wanted to set me up with a friend’s son. He refused, and when she asked why, he said that converts were crazy and too religious, and never really Jewish. She was mortified apologized profusely for his attitude (“and he learns in yeshiva!”). “
I tend to smile and remind them that I, too, am Jewish. If they are religious, that usually embarrasses them. I do not have a good response for people whose Jewish identity is ethnic. It’s hard to convert to bagel and lox.
Micheal-Orthodox Conversion in 2007-“If you come across people like this in life and they just need to tune them out. “
Well, I’d like to say something to those people who use in-process would-be converts as their Shabbos goyim. First off, the laws of amira l’akum do not permit one to ask a gentile to do melakhah so easily. There are a lot of restrictions. But I’ve got something more important to say. I think a lot of people do not realize how embarrassing it is to the would-be convert. This person is sincerely trying their best to become Jewish, to become a part of the Jewish people. When you ask them to do a melakhah for you, it’s as if you’re shoving their non-Jewishness in their face and mocking them. “You’re not Jewish yet, and don’t you forget it!” The Gemara says that one should jump into a fire before embarrassing someone. Now, maybe this applies only to embarrassing Jews. But does a person really want to exploit the letter of the law? That’s the definition of a naval birshut ha-torah (a scoundrel with the license of the Torah) – someone who exploits a loophole in the Torah to be an asshole. Similarly, even though the halakhah only prohibits one to remind a convert that they used to be a gentile, it is still rude and embarrassing to remind a gentile that they aren’t Jewish yet. I know many converts, and almost all of them tell me that this was the most embarrassing and hurtful thing which anybody did to them, to ask them them to do a melakhah on Shabbat as if they were a stam gentile.
My rabbi in yeshiva told us a story about Rabbanit Henkin, the head of the Nishmat seminary. She had several students over for Shabbat, one of them who was still doing a conversion. A bottle of wine was passed around, and suddenly, Rabbanit Henkin yelled, “Stop! There’s a fly in the wine! Everyone, pour out your wine into the sink!” Rabbanit Henkin got a new bottle of wine and poured it for everyone. Later, the student doing the conversion went up to Rabbanit Henkin and said, “There wasn’t really a fly in the wine, was there? It’s because the wine isn’t mevushal and I made the wine unkosher, isn’t it?” Rabbanit Henkin replied, “You’re right, but I didn’t want to embarrass you in public, so I lied and told everyone that there was a fly in the wine.”
That is how a person ought to treat people who are in the process of undergoing conversion. Embarrassing them in public should be treated as the greatest sin, just like embarrassing any Jew. So never ask them to do a melakhah on Shabbat as if they are a gentile. Never.
What would be your advice to other converts on how to deal with born Jews who treat them differently than born Jews because they are converts?
My advice to converts is to never give up, the love of the many out ways the rejection of the few, You are not converting to please men but for Abba the creator because you are in love with him. No matter which group of people a person joins whether a fraternity to a religious persuasion there will always be those who think you do not belong. Even in conversion no matter how you go about it some will not except it. Remember always the reason you first desired and love those who love you not giving time for the thoughts of those who do not. As with all, not all people are on the same spiritual level .Remember when you daven may he make peace upon us and all Israel.
Yoel-Orthodox Conversion in 2004-“Once a Chassidic matchmaker told me he had a great match for me. He claimed I had a lot in common with him, except that we didn’t speak a common language. I asked if we did not speak the same language then what was it we had in common? He answered: “Her mother is a convert.” Showing me that not just me, but even my children would have a hard time dating.” Yoel is now happily married.
1.) Don’t adopt a victim mindset. (2.) Find a community that does not have a social hiarchy and (3.) After conversion don’t continue fearing communal and Rabbinic scrutiny.
Daniel-Orthodox Conversion in 2007-“To the brothers who accepted me, I thank them for following the Torah commandment to love a convert.”
Judge your fellow Jew favorably as we are taught in Perkei Avot! You cannot see into their hearts and minds, and even if they never accept you, it is their sin, and not your own. Do what you should do to be a mensch and let Hashem sort out the rest.
Rachel-Orthodox Conversion in 2016-“In my home country, I was treated differently. Two and a half years in the community and not a single Shabbat meal invite or any other social event.”
“Move! Find a better community. The Best option is to come to Israel.
There are aspects to being a Jew which are hard, and the history is obvious – so don’t be hurt/astonished when born Jews are surprised that you converted/want to convert. It is one thing to be part of your family and therefore subject to prejudice, it is hard therefore to understand why anybody would VOLUNTEER for that. Sometimes they are too close to Judaism to see it the way we see it. They ‘live’ in it already, and don’t even recognize what they’ve got.
Grow a thick skin. If you can, find allies. Surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are. Also, accept that your identity will change in the years pro and post conversion, and each time, your environment will react. In my experience, once I was comfortable with who I was as a Jew, remarks disappeared. Be open, invite people to your home for meals, don’t be the eternal guest because you are single/new to this/prefer the Yiddishkeit you are getting in someone else’s home. Make your home YOUR Jewish home.
Embarrassment can be a useful tool. They may not even realize they’re doing it. So… maybe slightly less confrontational, but still assertive way would be better. Still call them on their bullshit.