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Jewish Journal

A welcome or a wall?

by David Harris

March 16, 2010 | 1:00 pm

Oy!

In the Knesset, there is an attempt to bar any non-Jew who ever visited Israel from claiming Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, if they convert to Judaism subsequent to their visit.

Apart from the obtuseness of jeopardizing ties with the vast majority of the Diaspora, precisely at a time when those links are more important than ever for Israel, there is the sheer insensitivity of such a move.

We should be a welcoming, not a walled, community.

Ironically, we bemoan our static numbers even as we create an obstacle course for many who find meaning in Judaism and show interest in membership.

Of course, there must be criteria for conversion, including a firm commitment to practice Judaism, genuine sincerity and knowledge of the tenets of Jewish life, belief, history, and practice.

Ideally, there should be a conversion standard acceptable to all religious movements. However, that has so far proved unattainable, leaving determination of “who is a Jew” to the Chief Rabbinate or the Knesset.

As it happens, a few days ago, I attended a speech by a German-born AJC colleague who recently converted to Judaism. She had been mentored by a Conservative rabbi in New York before appearing in front of a rabbinic court.

It was powerfully moving to see this young woman speak of her embrace of Jewish identity, her Jewish wedding, the circumcision of her son and her love of Israel, which she has visited several times.

She said that she first came to work at AJC as a non-Jew and was warmly embraced. No doubt, that sense of welcome contributed to her eventual decision to become Jewish. Imagine if she had been treated with detachment or suspicion, as might have been the case in some other settings. What kind of impression would she have been left with?

That she was from Germany only made her entire experience still more inspiring.

And yet I couldn’t help but wonder what hurdles she might encounter down the road. Some would question the “validity” of a Conservative conversion or challenge her right to live in Israel as a full Jew, should she and her family one day consider the option.

Over the years, I have met other wonderful converts who jump in with both feet and add so much to the vibrancy of Jewish life. Indeed, I’ve often found that in the case of marriages, it is the convert to Judaism who spurs the Jewish-born spouse to a higher level of engagement in the community.

Those who would make life difficult for converts, whether in Israel or elsewhere, neglect several considerations.

First, it is seldom easy to change one’s religion. It can mean leaving behind a community, deeply-rooted experiences, and even family. To pooh-pooh or downplay this is to show an extreme indifference to what the convert goes through on a personal level.

I recall a Greek Orthodox woman who converted to Judaism. One day, she confided to me how difficult it had been. On the one hand, there were still Jews who questioned her “authenticity,” though her family was active in their Reform synagogue and their children had all had a Jewish education. On the other hand, given the deep link among family, church, and identity in Greek culture, her relatives couldn’t quite accept her decision, creating permanent tension with people she loved.

Or take the case of a young woman who was the daughter of a European foreign minister. She was always interested in Judaism growing up, she said, and took the leap when she met an Israeli man. She converted through the Conservative movement in the US, but it wasn’t good enough for the Jewish community back home. The minister called and asked for our help. He was flabbergasted. He couldn’t grasp why, after all the intense study his daughter had gone through, she was still kept at arm’s length by local Jewish leaders. Eventually, things worked out, but not before some ill feelings were created.

Perhaps most painful of all was the story last year of the 13-year-old boy in Spain. He died from a brain tumor and was buried just outside the Jewish cemetery because his conversion to Judaism had been under Conservative auspices, thereby prompting the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel to rule that he could not be interred within the cemetery itself. Instead, despite his attendance at a Jewish day school and his Bar Mitzvah, he was buried in a separate section for those whose “Jewishness” is in question.

Second, joining the Jewish people in a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise, synagogues and Jewish schools are increasingly security-conscious, and Israel is demonized by its enemies, is not necessarily a decision taken lightly. There is no signing bonus for joining the Jewish people - though, come to think of it, it’s not such a bad idea! To the contrary, there are ever-present dangers for those who cast their lot with the Jewish people. Shouldn’t we extend our hand to individuals willing to assume the risk in the name of a higher calling?

Third, is this really the way we wish to behave toward those who come to admire the beauty of Jewish tradition, but may not be comfortable in a strictly observant environment, which is the case for many born Jews as well? Don’t we violate that beauty by the cloud hung over some converts, by making them the objects of legislative maneuvering in the Knesset, or by seeking to create, in effect, hierarchies of identity?

And fourth, we ignore the steadily growing contributions of converts to Jewish life. I see it at AJC. I see it in our synagogue. I see it in Jewish communal life more generally. With the awe they bring for Jewish heritage, tradition, and community, converts add an exciting new layer of vitality to our people.

This is a battle in the Knesset over converts and their right to make aliya, yes.

It’s also a battle over the right of all Jews, irrespective of denomination, to help usher new members into the Jewish fold, consistent with basic criteria of knowledge, sincerity, and commitment.

Moreover, it’s a battle over a vision of Israel. Does Israel define itself as the home of all Jews or only, if you will, designated Jews, authenticated by a controlling religious monopoly?

Ultimately, this is a battle over the soul of Judaism - whether, at the end of the day, we are to be an open, inclusive people, practicing mutual respect, or a walled-off, self-limiting people, where only some are deemed worthy of respect.

For me, the choice is obvious.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

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