Stop Stripping Female Jewish Converts Like Ivanka Of Their Agency
In a New York Times article this weekend, Amy Chozick and Hannah Seligson wondered, “Are Jared and Ivanka Good for the Jews?”
There’s plenty there to dissect, but what caught my eye was how they described Ivanka Trump, “who converted to Judaism to marry Mr. Kushner.”
This is typical of how the media describes women who convert to Judaism — and it’s stripping them of their agency in a terribly misogynistic way.
Last month, supermodel Karlie Kloss married Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh Kushner. The press was abuzz with captions like: “Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh, and supermodel Karlie Kloss, who converted to Judaism for him, tied the knot.” And back in July, New York Post’s PageSix ran the headline: “Karlie Kloss converted to Judaism to marry Josh Kushner.” Very presumptive, indeed.
Yes, the Kushners’ wives did convert to Judaism, and yes, they did marry Jewish men.
But does this necessarily mean each of the women converted “for him?”
In my experience, overseeing conversion studies at my synagogue for the last seven years, the answer is a resounding “no.”
To say that “she converted for him,” without knowing if that is the case, is at best presumptive and at worst dismissive. I have no special insight into why Ivanka Trump or Karlie Kloss converted, but I can say two things: First, they are both living Jewish lives — observing Jewish customs and traditions as any other Jewish woman would.
And second, choosing to be a Jew is a personal, complicated and life-lasting decision. To declare, without knowledge, that someone made this choice simply because of his or her partner is disrespectful to the Jew by choice and the conversion process itself — which isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
How the media describes Jews by choice is not a small issue. The Pew Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study reported that 17% of American Jews said they were raised in another religion. 6% said they were raised unaffiliated, 4% as mainline Protestant, 3% as Catholic, and 2% each as Evangelical or in some other religion.
In other words, 17% of Jews chose Judaism. It’s a large number and a growing population. We should treat this group with more respect and less casual disregard.
I’ve worked with people seeking conversion from all over the world and from all walks of life.
I’ve converted people from Belgium, Brazil, Ecuador, Finland, Germany and, of course, the Tri-State area. I’ve guided seasoned professionals and recent college grads on their paths to Judaism. I’ve converted a 26-year-old and I’ve converted a 66-year-old. I’ve converted single people, married people and engaged people.
In none of these cases did one partner convert “for” the other.
In my experience, the reasons for choosing Judaism are as diverse as the converts themselves.
Some people experience a spiritual longing that Judaism fulfills. Others grew up surrounded by a strong Jewish community and always felt most at home among Jews. Some people discover that their ancestral history was actually Jewish and want to reconnect a chain that was broken because of historical circumstances. Some people just respect and desire Judaism. They appreciate our ancient wisdom tradition, our customs and our worldview.
I have no doubt that the religion of a future spouse plays a significant part in the decision to become Jewish or not. But, according to the Pew Center’s landmark 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, more than 70% of non-Orthodox Jews have married non-Jewish partners since 2000, and many progressive rabbis are increasingly welcoming of interfaith couples. It’s becoming more and more common not to convert in the name of matrimony.
And should one choose to become Jewish, we should respect that choice as serious and nuanced. Becoming a Jew often takes years of study and practice. It is not designed to be a short or easy process precisely because it is such a critical decision.
Especially now, with anti-Semitism on the rise, those who choose Judaism should not be cast as people who convert for the sake of their partner, only. They are becoming a full and equal part of the Jewish people and will receive all of the joy and all of the turmoil that comes along with that choice.
Before we start forcing our assumptions on the motives behind the decision to convert, let’s approach Jews by choice with some humility. Let’s suppose they are capable individuals who have encountered a rigorous and lengthy conversion process. Let’s honor, rather than diminish, the women and men who choose to become Jewish.