It happened when we were newcomers.
When my husband and I moved to a new area, we were eager to become involved in the Jewish community. After a few months of testing out a new synagogue, we decided to join. For us, the act of joining the synagogue was us formally declaring that we are a part of the local Jewish community and our way to affirm that we are invested in its continuity and future.
We filled out the application, which asks for basic demographic information from potential congregants; names, birthdays, parents’ names, etc. There was also a question about whether the applicants have converted or had a divorce. I answered the questions honestly; I had indeed undergone an Orthodox conversion prior to our marriage and indicated as such on the form. Several weeks went by before we were asked to come into the synagogue office on a Sunday afternoon for a meeting with the rabbi. He asked to meet during our daughter’s nap time, and still retaining a fear of rabbis leftover from my conversion days, we dragged her out of the house exhausted for this meeting. I had been trained during my conversion to never say no to a rabbi, to never push back. He offered us an inconvenient time, and I wasn’t confident enough yet in my interactions with rabbis to ask for another.
While we sat for over an hour with the synagogue rabbi, my husband was schmoozed. He was asked about his family, his schooling in the Orthodox day school system. When that was over, the rabbi turned to me and began an interrogation about my conversion: Why did I do it? What was the process I went through? What was my relationship like with my family? We sat there squirming with an overtired baby until he completed the interrogation with a request for the documentation I received from my conversion rabbi.
When we walked out my husband, whom I started dating during my conversion process, looked at me and declared, “That was a worse grilling than your Beit Din. We don’t want to go back… right?” He was right. We were both so uncomfortable, that we not only didn’t join, we never went back.
I emailed the rabbi afterward to express my displeasure and he justified the practice, explaining that he had a duty to ensure every member was Jewish according to his standards. I argued then, and still maintain, that the practice is discriminatory; my husband was never asked to prove his Jewishness. The rabbi told me, “I am quite aware how different and singled out asking for the paperwork makes converts feel and believe me I wish it could be avoided because it causes so much discomfort and pain. It is indeed discriminatory. So let me explain why I still think it has to be done. I just can’t think of an alternative. I need to be completely straightforward here. One day. G-d willing, your daughter and all the other children of converts, are going to grow up and meet someone and decide to get married. At that point, any responsible rabbi who marries her will ask for your conversion documents. This will not happen with the third generation but it will with the second generation, that’s just the reality. As a rabbi, I have received phone calls from other rabbis performing weddings asking me to attest to the Jewishness of the bride or groom.”
I thought of this email when a good friend told me what happened when she went to enroll her third child in an Orthodox day school. In the short time between when her first two children and her third were enrolled, the school added a new question on their application form: They don’t just ask if the child’s parents had converted, but now, if any grandparents had as well, and if so, she would have to provide documentation.
My friend objected; in response, she was told by school administrators (in her words): “The school has a responsibility to know the halachic status of its’ students. They do a public service by checking documents, as they have found mistakes before and parents were grateful to have discovered them sooner rather than later.” The school representative, she said, defended the need for documentation of grandparents’ conversions based on the idea that “what might have been acceptable decades ago, may no longer be.”
Just a few years ago, I was told that the questions would end after a second generation, but the hoops converts have to jump through just keep getting higher.
This same month this exchange took place brought the news that a decades-old conversion had been invalidated in Israel. JPost reported, “The drastic and controversial step prompted harsh criticism from Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who said it created a situation in which no convert could ever feel certain that their Jewish status was assured.” For anyone following the status of conversions in Israel and abroad, this is hardly groundbreaking news; it occurs with terrifying frequency.
Because of the political nature of conversion in the Jewish state, conversion is a frequent topic of news in Israel, and this week Sephardic chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef made headlines with his statement to “rabbis who were preparing to travel abroad as emissaries.” Yosef reportedly advised them not to get involved with conversions “due to sensitivities stemming from religious law.” He also “attacked religious judges, some by name, some of whom he said he considered to be too lenient on matters of conversion.” Yosef then alleged that conversions under the auspices of the state’s rabbinical courts, which come under his own supervision, should not be automatically accepted.”
This is indeed the message converts receive, that a convert can never rest assured that their conversion will always remain intact, and it’s feeling increasingly like it is by design. The goalposts keep shifting; the standards for conversion are growing more strict, converts and their children and now sometimes even their grandchildren are subject to excessive scrutiny, and in return, converts can expect less in return from the Jewish community.
We were once never supposed to be treated differently. They said we would be accepted without preconditions post-conversion. On this, the Torah is clear; Leviticus 19 states: “If a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Now, rabbis of large communities frankly admit discriminatory treatment of converts — and they do so while arguing that it is for our own good.
After my row with the rabbi, I emailed a former community rabbi to ask why he never asked for my documentation after we joined his synagogue when we first married.
“When asked to be mesader kiddushin (officiating a wedding) I look at documents,” he told me. “However, when the issue at hand is shul membership, I don’t think an investigation is really needed. If someone says they were converted by an Orthodox rabbi, I have no reason to question that statement and will treat them as Jewish. Sometimes I ask who was the officiant and assume that rabbi did a proper investigation.”
This is how it should be; if born-Jews are taken at their word, so too should Jews by choice. It’s understandable and necessary to check on someone’s Jewish status at the time of their wedding. When someone decides to make aliyah [immigrate to Israel], the Jewish Agency asks every member of the family to prove their Jewishness, with conversion papers, pictures of gravestones and/or parents’ ketubahs (marriage licenses). Community rabbis here in the diaspora could and should do the same; if one kind of Jew is asked to prove their Jewishness, all Jews should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny. If we must be sure that everyone in a community is Jewish, then if converts are asked to provide documentation, so should born-Jews.
We’re told they’re doing us a favor by checking that we are indeed Jewish to secure our place in the Jewish community, but this treatment makes it clear: In the eyes of too many rabbis, no matter what we did and no matter what we do in the future, we never will be.
Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.