July 6, 2006
Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth
"My father didn't survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa."
Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend's mother.
He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:
"Converts are not welcome in my family." "No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you." "You are inadequate to raise Jewish children."
"I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart," she told me. "When you're so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted.... I'll always feel inadequate."
As I had recently discovered, Alison's case was not an isolated incident in Penn's Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.
Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, "Are you Laura? I'm Julie. I've heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there."
We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn's pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn't Jewish yet.
Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: "The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that's what I was."
Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.
"I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade" Julie recalled. "It was always, 'Well, you're not Jewish, so you shouldn't come to davening.' Students wouldn't hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone's time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were."
Julie's list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.
"I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion" she relayed to me matter-of-factly.
"Wasn't there anyone you could confide in?" I asked.
"I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not."
"So ... how did you cope?"
"I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish."
Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.
I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn't born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.
"When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there," she revealed. "People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday ... to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn't I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There's no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa.... That was very hurtful."
In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.
"I feel like I have to prove myself" Alison told me. "Because I wasn't born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it."
She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel "threatened" by a convert who is more religiously inclined.
My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.
"I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore," she replied. "I don't want to be a burden on him.... I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting."
Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.