Once again the Jewish World is in turmoil over the “Who is A Jew?” or perhaps more concisely “Who decides who is a Jew?” question. A terrible bill is making its way through the Knesset. This proposed law would disenfranchise non-Orthodox Jews and most modern-Orthodox Jews by not recognizing as Jews those converted by their rabbis.
The American Jewish community is up in arms. Emergency emails and petitions are flying, oy vey sermons are being preached, crisis meetings held and envoys shuttling back and forth. Withholding donations, political support and negative High Holy Day sermons are threatened.
I strongly agree with all of the critics. I am incensed that the almost 500 knowledgeable committed and now very Jewish individuals I have welcomed into our peoplehood, according to halacha, are not recognized as my Jewish brothers and sisters by this legislation. I am insulted that the country that I deeply love and as an American rabbi have very actively advocated for does not recognize me as a rabbi. Yet I do not think that the solution to this controversy lies in the American Jewish community standing up to Israel. The problem is not solely a political one. The core problem is, I believe, that most Jews, Israeli and those of the Diaspora do not recognize the vital importance of conversion.
After 26 years in the pulpit rabbinate I have now devoted much of my professional life to working with those interested in casting their lot with our people. When I tell born Jews that I am now working as a Jewish Educator primarily teaching those studying to become Jews, I often hear; “How many students can you possibly have? Surely your students are mostly young women married to Jews.” When I share the number of students that I am teaching and that they are male and female, single and married and of all ages and backgrounds, I frequently am asked; “Why? Why, are they interested in becoming Jews?”
Often my students, particularly those who are not married females and of childbearing age, are surprised to be asked similar questions by puzzled born Jews; “Why are you converting? You know you don’t have to? You are going to how many classes!?” The questioner will then frequently, without being asked, defensively explain why he or she rarely goes to synagogue and is “not very Jewish.” My students are then themselves puzzled, they ask me; “Don’t they understand the beauty and meaning of their own traditions? Why aren’t they overjoyed that I wish to join their ranks. There are so few Jews in the world – why do some Jews not welcome me with open arms?”
When I was younger I would often hear my Bubbe and Zaidi ask of anything new to them, “Is it good for the Jews?” Were they still here, I would answer concerning conversion an unequivocal – Yes! Conversion is of vital importance for the Jewish people!
The Jew-by-Choice reminds us of the splendor and significance of Jewish living. The individual choosing to join our people receives a first rate adult Jewish education, something too few born Jews have, infusing our community with knowledgeable participants. The new Jew helps us to see and understand our heritage through different lenses. The addition of Jews of all colors, ethnicity and backgrounds reminds us and others that we are a welcoming and open people – not a closed racial minority. Those who join the Jewish people bring us all a freshness of spirit, a renewal of commitment and an enthusiasm for Jewish living. It is no wonder that the Torah repeatedly commands us to welcome the ger (rabbinic term for convert to Judaism).
At a recent Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) convened to ascertain the sincerity of converts, a colleague asked one of my students; “What do you find uniquely meaningful in Judaism that is different from your birth religion?” The almost new Jew responded: “The emphasis on intellectual inquiry, on questioning, of searching and of growing. The beauty and subtle power of Jewish ritual which now influences my life. The importance of Judaism to my daily acts at home, work and play not just when I am in a house of worship. The very wide varieties of Jewish expression and practice that coexist under the same umbrella. The fact that I am joining not just a religion but also a people and that this peoplehood transcends time, place and differences. ” When a few minutes later this individual immersed herself in the living waters of the mikvah – it was great for the Jews!
Conversion when overseen by any authorized rabbi and Beit Din is a blessing for us all. I hope that this legislation now before the Knesset is defeated. I know that when the Jewish world recognizes the vitality and strength conversion brings such legislation will not even be proposed.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi David Rose