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DO WE GIVE THEM SHELTER?

Jews by ChoiceThe Shavuot holiday (June 10) honors the convert Ruth. Here we explore today's converts

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 5, 1997 | 8:00 pm

I often thought that I must have been put into the wrong slot when I was born," writes Nan Fink in her new book, "Stranger in the Midst: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery" (Basic Books, $23), a chronicle of her conversion to Judaism.

Fink's devout Christian fundamentalist grandmother rode the pioneer wagons over the prairies and thunderously sang hymns at the piano. Nan Fink grew up in her church youth group and, for a time, was married to a Protestant minister. Yet, by 1985, the Bay Area writer and psychotherapist had undergone a deep spiritual awakening and wanted to convert to Judaism.

She expected that rabbis would thrice discourage her, as required by Jewish tradition. But she did not expect the hostility and harassment that she would encounter from a people mandated to welcome the stranger.

"I wrote my book because I want Jews to know what it is like to become a convert so that things can begin to change," says Fink, 57, who, as a girl, inexplicably felt connected to victims of the Holocaust and who later forged "deep, formative relationships" with Jewish protesters of the Vietnam War.

Accordingly, her book recounts many a horror story, as well as the high points along her path to Judaism. Vicious letters and middle-of-the-night telephone calls threatened the Conservative rabbi with whom Fink initially studied for conversion. At her local Orthodox shul, no one would speak to her. When she was referred to an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, he informed her that her conversion would cost "only $8,000, a real bargain."

And when she finally found herself in the chilly waters of the Orthodox mikvah, the witnesses stubbornly, repeatedly called out that she had not immersed herself properly.

During subsequent years, Fink often hid her Christian background. In Jerusalem, "[I observed] those around me, [mimicking] their patterns of speech and [borrowing] their mannerisms...[trying] to become a different person."

Acquaintances dismissively assumed that Fink had converted for her then-husband, Michael Lerner, with whom she founded the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, in 1985. "We buy the line that converts are Jews, but we secretly think you aren't," one friend said to her.

Sometimes, Fink even caught herself "buying into the implicit racism," musing that a particular non-Jewish friend was "goyishly" bland or restrained.

The author's stories are so ghastly that a reporter had to ask why she persevered; to this she answers, simply, that "Judaism is my life's path."

She describes her first, Conservative conversion, when a member of the rabbinical court queried, "Tell us what this conversion means to you?"

"Everything," she replied, as tears slid down her cheeks.

Actually, Fink slowly came to terms with the Jewish chauvinism by studying and understanding the reasons: the Jews' long history of oppression, for example, and the individuals whose own thin hold on Jewish identity has them equating bloodline with real "Jewishness."

She found a spiritual home in the Jewish Renewal movement and in Jewish mysticism and meditation; she now co-directs Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish renewal center of learning in the Bay Area.

Fink then wrote her book as a kind of coming-out manifesto, urging converts to come out of the closet, to stand up and be counted.

"Rabbis need to educate people that converts are 100 percent Jewish," she says. "But we converts also have responsibility for healing the situation. We've gone along with this for too long; it's like we're grateful even to be let in, so we haven't spoken out. We can help by claiming our pasts and saying, proudly, 'This is who we are.'"



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