Recently I met with a young couple whose wedding I will soon perform. They are both observant and the man was born a Jew. The woman was converted as a young child since her mother was not Jewish, though her father was. She and her siblings were converted as children by a very Chashuv Rav (learned Rabbi) about 20 years ago. When I looked at the letter from the Rav about her conversion it said in Hebrew: “So and so is from a family in which her father is Jewish and her mother is not, the family is connected to the Jewish community and though not observant at all does make Kiddush and Havdalah. And so I am relying on the pisak (legal decision) of Rav Moshe Feinstein that gerut (conversion) is a zecut (a merit) and I am converting her as a minor.
Sitting across from the couple I said to her, thank God you were converted 20 years ago, if you wanted to convert today it would take you years and the process would not be a pleasant one. Indeed today even children are not converted into homes that are not observant and in which the mother is not Jewish. There is much talk about how much conversion in general, and the conversion of children specifically, has changed in the last few years in the Orthodox community and this experience shined a spotlight on it.
As a rabbi in an Orthodox shul which has few barriers to entry I meet many people who have taken for granted for their whole lives that they are Jewish, only to discover that they are not halchically (according to Jewish law), in an Orthodox shul, considered a Jew. The pain they undergo at having the carpet of their identity pulled out from under them is severe.
When such things happen, for instance when this past Simchat Torah I had to tell a dedicated person in my shul that though they had assumed all their life they were Jewish, though they were becoming observant, though they felt part and parcel of the community, they could not have an alyah (be called to the torah) like the rest of the men in the room, it caused me great pain and them even greater pain. A violation of one of the most numerous warnings in the Torah, viahavtem et hager, you shall love the ger (the stranger, the convert) and not cause them pain. (I know I should have called them up anyway since kavod habriot, human dignity, pushes aside all rabbinic commandments, but I did not).
In my synagogue I have several families with non-halachically Jewish children who have chosen to grow in their observance and send their children to orthodox day school, but are not completely Shomer Shabbat, though all are on a journey to it. Not a fast journey, those are almost never a good idea, a slow and organic journey, which is what I encourage. We would save much pain for the child and family if we went back to the standard practice of 20 years ago and converted these children into non-observant families. When such a child reaches 12 or 13 and is still not converted (as with one family’s children I know whom though the children and father are fully observant the Beit Din (rabbinical court) will not convert them as the mother smokes on Shabbat) it is going to be incredibly painful. No bar mitzvah like their other friends in day school, no being counted in the minyan, etc. The pain we will cause them will be a violation of halacha much deeper and wider than any that could result from Rav Moshe’s type of ger katan (child conversion) into a non-observant home.
Let us hold the banner of Torah high and not let the fearful Batey Din (rabbinical courts) of today distort the Torah’s values. Let us love the ger and not cause them pain. I know what you are thinking…..that kind of love and menchlichtkeit and not causing pain only applies after one has converted….wrong, according to many opinions it applies before. From the first time they express the interest in being a Jew. Let us stop giving into the amorphous fear and start truly loving the ger now!