Orthodox Jews have failed in our duty to welcome converts

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 10/30/14

When I was a teenager, I had a family-friend who was going through an Orthodox conversation. Born into a Liberal Jewish family, he wished to be Orthodox and upon finding out that his mother had converted under non-Orthodox auspices he went to the Beth Din (rabbinical court) and applied for an Orthodox conversation.

About seven years later, after much humiliation and delay, my friend completed the process.

Hearing stories of his experiences during the conversion process scarred me. Born to a religious family, I was brought up being told you should not oppress the stranger (Exodus 23:9) and that you were actually commanded to love the stranger. (Deut 10:19). The rabbis’ interpreted the word stranger, “ger,” to mean convert. While I understand the rabbinical courts need to be sure that conversation are real, my friends’ experiences seemed to go well above and beyond that threshold.

One example is a painful story my friend once recounted to me: He was made to wait for months on end for a particular examination, only to be invited in before one of the key Jewish holidays. The Beth Din asked him hundreds of questions about the customs and traditions of the upcoming holiday, all of which he answered correctly. Toward the end, they asked him about a story that is told about one of the traditions.

The story is normally told to children in Hebrew school before their bar and bat mitzvahs. My friend, having never attended Hebrew school, did not know the story. The Beth Din humiliated him, saying any child would know this story, and dismissed him without telling him when he would next be called back in. Though he answered all the substantive questions correctly, he was left in this liminal state unsure and unaware of where he was up to in this seven-year process.

One thing that I never knew growing up was that converts were not being welcomed into the Jewish community. When joining any school, shul or camp, their papers are demanded, they are treated with suspicion and very much are not being loved, as the Torah commands.

I thought of my friend when I heard the news of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. Freundel had been one of the main rabbis in America to conduct Orthodox conversations. The secret filming of people in the mikveh, which Freundel has been accused of doing, makes every convert a victim of abuse.

When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it might retroactively annul the conversions carried out by Freundel, I was appalled. Doing so would have constituted a failure of spectacular proportions for the global Jewish community. What if these converts were victims of the rabbi’s alleged voyeurism? Would we be willing to let them get punished for their abuser’s abuse?

Fortunately, after furious lobbying by many groups, including Itim, the Rabbinate came to its senses and stated that the converts had nothing to fear, and that it would not reevaluate their conversions.

While many in the Orthodox community can justify why a long and arduous conversion process is necessary, the fact that many converts can be held hostage to the good graces of the rabbis who oversee their conversion is a scandal. There is nothing further from the Torah’s commandments to love the convert than to hold their Jewish identity hostage to the good behavior of those they have no control over.

I can’t imagine how distressing it must have been for Freundel’s converts, who have been failed on so many levels by a community they are desperate to belong to. One such convert is Bethany Mandel, who says was converted by Freundel. She has taken this opportunity to advocate a converts’ bill of rights.

Among the rights she includes in her proposal are providing converts with a timetable that indicates on what date they should expect to complete their conversion, an ombudsman, a welcoming committee, and a guarantee that once converted, converts’ Jewishness can’t come into question.

Neglecting to give these rights to converts already shows we have failed in our duty. Jewish tradition doest not make clear what is needed for conversion. The seminal story is that of Ruth, who merely made some declarations and followed her Jewish mother-in-law into poverty. Without strict legislation to guide us, we have inflicted angst and pain on those seeking to be part of us.

We need to implement the acts listed in Mandel’s bill of rights in order to get reach a place where we can love all those who join us. We must demand change and ensure that the converts among us are treated, at the very least, equally to any of us who were lucky enough to be born Jewish.

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