June 1, 2011
Seeking a conversion in time for Shavuot
Ruth’s day is coming. Not the Ruth with all the home runs. The other Ruth, the biblical one who hit an eternal shot for Jews by Choice.
We read her book and story on Shavuot. Her words of commitment spoken to her mother-in-law, Naomi, travel over time to us on the holiday: “Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
As more organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute, Interfaithfamily.com and Jewsbychoice.org, as well as Jews by Choice themselves, take note of the connection between Shavuot and Ruth, it’s a good time for a Ruth Check—a Shavuot look into how we are getting along with the converts in our lives.
Are we welcoming or standoffish? Perhaps even a bit uneasy with the notion of having a Jew by Choice standing by our side at Sinai? Do some of us fear losing our spots in religious and communal organizations, even in our own families, to men and women new to the faith?
I know it’s popular to say that all Jews now are Jews by choice. But don’t some of us feel a bit more chosen than others?
I know I sometimes do.
A few weeks before Passover I was sitting in Shabbat morning services keenly aware that the woman chanting the haftarah was a Jew by Choice. The morning’s reading was long and difficult. Why was I listening more closely than usual? Why was I making extra sure that every word was perfect, every trope observed? What was going on here?
Recently I had a conversation about the acceptance of converts with a born Jewish friend who firmly stated his objections.
“They just don’t feel it in their bones,” he said.
What about my bones? What was I feeling? Maybe I needed a different kind of conversion.
“They said that about Abraham,” responded Rabbi Dov Gartenberg when I asked him about the “bones” comment.
“It’s so easy for born Jews to feel superior,” said the rabbi, who works extensively with JBCs and is the spiritual leader at Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, Calif.
Speaking about converts, he said, “Sometimes they don’t get the cultural clues.”
It takes time, Gartenberg suggested, for those cultural clues to become second nature. That’s where born Jews can offer a helping hand.
“It’s our responsibility to actively mentor those who have not been born Jewish,” he said.
Gartenberg has not always found that kind of support forthcoming, even in the most expected places.
More than once he has observed that the born Jewish partner of a couple in which the other partner has converted is ambivalent about Jewish life, or at best unenthusiastic.
“It’s as if they say, ‘I didn’t bargain for this,’ ” said Gartenberg, adding that often it is the convert who wants to “share the joy.”
At a pulpit he had in Seattle, the rabbi said he observed that “a high percentage of Jews by Choice became involved and engaged in community life.” But that fact doesn’t always translate into people’s perceptions, especially if they don’t know the convert’s personal story.
At Gartenberg’s suggestion I called Mary Lane Potter, a convert in Seattle who has a doctorate in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Today she teaches a Living Judaism class.
After her conversion 20 years ago, “Some people were suspicious and assumed I didn’t know anything, or were very sensitive about my ideas,” she told me.
Potter today sees more of an embrace of converts.
“In our community, sometimes people don’t even know people are converts,” she said.
Through her work at the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, Potter has seen that “conversion is helpful” and can “bring a new passion to a community.”
In her class, which has Jewish students and those wanting to learn about Judaism, she welcomes a surprisingly more diverse group than what I might have imagined: gays, singles, people who think their ancestors might have been Jewish and lots of couples.
“One comes to support the other,” Potter said.
Several couples in which neither partner was Jewish recently attended her class.
“There are a lot of people who are seeking,” she said.
Potter says the biblical Naomi is her role model, that “She was welcoming, faithful.”
That’s why Potter thinks the Book of Ruth is read at Shavuot—it’s the holiday commemorating “the moment of revelation,” a moment when all need to be included and welcomed.
Maybe I needed a little more Naomi in my life, too—at least the welcoming part.
On the eighth day of Passover, in synagogue again, that same reader was chanting haftarah, on this morning from the prophet Isaiah. It’s a portion filled with a series of transformational visions.
This time I sat back, relaxed and listened to her joy.