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When Converts Are Commodities

If my Facebook feed is any guide, converts to Judaism are commodities, not human beings. In countless posts, and in real life too, born Jews of all stripes opine about — depending on their ideological outlook — whether particular converts have met proper conversion standards, or whether there should be any standards at all. Not surprisingly, their views tend to be a Rorschach test of sorts. They are each comfortable with a set of requirements that produce converts who practice Judaism just like they do.

Orthodox Jews argue with each other about which aspects of halacha a conversion candidate must agree to and abide by if their conversion is to be accepted. Not coincidentally, Modern Orthodox and Charedi Jews each advocate for conversion standards that look suspiciously like a mirror image of how their respective communities practice Judaism, more so than what Jewish sources actually say about conversion. On the liberal end of the spectrum, many Jews push a model of conversion that makes hardly any demands on the convert, short of not believing in Jesus. Every few years, one Jewish communal leader or another trots out the by now well-worn proposal that we should make a push for conversion, or accept all the non-Jewish spouses in our congregations as Jews, few or no questions asked. While always offered under the guise of acceptance and radical inclusiveness, the real goal of these lower-the-bar proposals is not to love those individuals who have chosen to embrace our tradition, but to use other people as a convenient solution for their declining numbers.

What all of these conversations have in common is a focus on who is in, who is out, and where the line should be drawn to separate the two. What they lack is any serious show of concern for what happens to the convert after they’ve crossed over that line. It makes little sense to talk about what a person must do to get to the mikveh if we don’t also address how they make their way through our community the day after the mikveh.

Converts are neither American Jewish communal policy decisions nor Israeli political footballs. They are human beings. As a former Jewish communal professional who has interacted with hundreds of converts over the years in diverse settings, I wish I had not observed many of the interactions that I have. Too many times, I’ve heard converts feel the need to explain to a skeptical listener that, yes, they really did fall in love with Judaism after meeting their Jewish spouse, and didn’t simply convert for marriage. More than once, I’ve heard the words, “She’s not Jewish. She converted.” I’ve watched as born Jews patiently explain to a convert that she could never truly understand a point on which they disagree because she was not born Jewish. I’ve come across born Jews who will not date or marry converts, and rabbis who explain this reality to converts as simply the way it is, not as an outrage to rail against, or at least to provide better education to their congregants.

Back on Facebook, I’ve heard liberal Jews express outrage that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not accept every single person who declares themselves Jewish no matter what the circumstances, while certain Charedi Jews defend the Chief Rabbinate’s every rejection of a sincere Orthodox convert, no matter how egregious. In neither case are the sensitivities of the convert even mentioned in passing, because it’s rarely about the convert.

And then there’s America’s most famous convert — Ivanka Trump. Everyone simply must have an opinion about Ivanka Trump. Was her conversion kosher enough? Is she upholding Jewish values through her role in the Trump administration? What is she wearing? What is she eating? If there ever was a convert treated as a commodity, it is Ivanka Trump. None of the barrage of questions, or condemnations, is motivated by any real concern for her spiritual or psychological well-being. She has become merely another symbol that is either loved or hated. Ivanka, the human being, is invisible. And sadly, so it is with many lesser-known converts.

In the face of this Jewish communal charade that cuts against the grain of Judaism’s true approach toward converts, Rabbi Michael Broyde’s beautiful new book, “A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts,” casts a ray of hope. It is one of the few attempts to address the person who stepped out of the mikvah, to show true concern for what happens the day after. Rabbi Broyde addresses converts specifically from a halachic perspective (full disclosure: my wife is an Orthodox convert, we live an Orthodox life, and I do believe that conversion requires acceptance of the Torah’s obligations). But all Jews would be well-served by digesting its contents to better understand why we must ensure that converts have the support and compassion they need to continue their Jewish journeys with both joy and dignity.

I write, despite the history of my own family, without much skin in this game. My wife studied with a demanding but very compassionate rabbi, and converted with a very rigorous but equally humane beit din (religious court). My family is now blessed to live in the Israeli community of Efrat, where converts are simply part of the community, embraced for who they are, and never made to feel like outsiders. The Jewish journey of my family has been all about joy and dignity. But I know that when it comes to converts, Efrat is a bubble. The story is very different in far too many places.

But it need not be, and should not be. As Rabbi Broyde writes in his introduction, Jewish law requires that accepting converts imposes a special obligation on born Jews because causing anguish to a convert fundamentally violates the precepts of Judaism. More than that, Judaism imposes a special obligation to love the convert, a requirement mentioned in the Torah over 30 times, and echoed repeatedly through the millennia by our sages.

Rabbi Broyde is an Orthodox rabbi who has worked for many years in the area of conversion. Unquestionably, he upholds certain requirements for becoming Jewish — in his case, though, unlike the majority who hold strong opinions, his views are grounded in a profound understanding of Jewish law. What is so refreshing about his book is his underlying deep concern for converts’ unique circumstances once they have crossed that line, if they have the tools they need to live fulfilling Jewish lives after they’ve stepped out of the mikveh, and if the community’s born Jews are fulfilling their obligations to them.

Rabbi Broyde’s emphasis on the day after should be a wake-up call for all of us to start looking at converts through a different sort of Rorschach test — the one that instead shows the kind of people we aspire to be. Ask the converts in your community if they need anything, invite them for a meal, get to know them, and above all, fully appreciate the lengths they’ve traveled and the walls they’ve climbed to be part of the Jewish people. You’ll get more out of that than ranting about conversion standards on Facebook.

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