NEW YORK – Growing up in the panhandle of West Virginia, Jen Halpern, born Jennifer Davis, had never met a Jew. She had been raised in what she calls a “typical American Christian household.” Yet at 22 years old, after moving away for college, Halpern became Jewish herself.
“It’s really hard to explain, but I was always looking for something,” she told The Jerusalem Post this week. “The story of Christianity never really resonated with me and I always thought about Judaism. I thought, since that’s where Christianity started, maybe if I go back a little it will make more sense to me.”
During her years in college, Halpern started joining her Jewish friends for services at the Conservative congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia. She began reading many books about Judaism, and started experimenting with practicing the religion. It soon became clear to her that she was in the right place.
Some 20 years have passed since Halpern, now married with a teenage son, converted to Judaism. She leads a Jewish life: keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and even teaching at her synagogue’s religious school, where she is director of the preschool.
“It’s my whole adult life that I’ve lived in this way,” she said. “It grounds me, it makes me happy, it makes sense to me; I feel like I’m a part of a community.”
But Halpern’s sense of belonging has recently been shaken, not in her immediate environment, but in her connection to Israel, as the government debates a bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion in Israel.
Under the terms of the bill, all conversions performed in Israel outside the State Conversion Authority, which is under the Chief Rabbinate, would not be recognized by the state for the purposes of citizenship and registration as Jewish by the Interior Ministry. This would include Reform and Conservative conversions, as well as Orthodox conversions performed through independent, Orthodox rabbinical courts.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with the haredi parties to delay consideration of the bill for six months while a special committee recommends a solution, its mere existence is a dark cloud for many Jewish converts.
Dorian Stuber, 45, converted to Judaism under the guidance of a Reform rabbi in the summer of 2013, but had been living a Jewish life for years beforehand. Originally from Canada, Stuber moved to the US in 1999 for graduate school and met his future wife, a Jewish woman. He is now a college professor in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“We had known each other for a long time, and we had been married for a long time before I started to think about converting,” he made clear. “I was always supportive and interested, but that was definitely not my identity when we first got married.”
What drew him to Judaism, Stuber said, were not just the religious practices themselves, but also the cultural element of being Jewish, as well as the importance of tikkun olam, the ideal of repairing the world.
“That just really resonates with me,” he told the Post. “At one point, I just realized that I’m already living a Jewish life and I just wanted to make that official.”
While Stuber and his family are not strict about observing Shabbat, they do have the traditional meal together on Friday nights and occasionally attend services. Stuber has taught at his local synagogue, and his six-year-old daughter also attends religious school once a week. In his day job, he teaches a college class on Holocaust literature.
Both Halpern, a Conservative Jew, and Stuber, a Reform Jew, underwent year-long halachic conversions, which in accordance with Jewish law, ended with a hearing at a rabbinic court and an immersion in a mikve (ritual bath).
“I think of it as a serious, actual conversion; I know there are a lot of people who don’t,” Stuber said. “The convert is someone who has chosen Judaism. I think there is a kind of power to that,” he added. “There is something important about actually choosing it: you made a conscious decision that this is what you want to be.”
Although they have embraced their Jewish identity and community, Halpern and Stuber say they have experienced some form of alienation before.
“I met my husband at shul, but I was Jewish before we went on our first date,” Halpern said. “I have to say it often bugs me when people assume that I converted in order to get married. I was going to that shul before he came to that shul!”
Although she never doubted that she was meant to be Jewish, Halpern says the only reservation she ever had was whether or not she would be accepted within the Jewish community.
“I don’t like the term ‘Jew by choice,’ because if you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish,” she pointed out. “That’s the way the Halacha is: If you convert, then you are Jewish. And you’re not supposed to remind someone who has converted that they’ve converted.”
While she’s always felt comfortable in her own community in Alexandria, Halpern said she is hurt by those who still do not see her as she sees herself.
“I work Jewish, I live Jewish, I am Jewish, I raise my family Jewish – it’s just who I am,” she said. “And to hear that there are some people in the world who don’t regard me as Jewish, it’s hurtful.”
“I think there are some people for whom you are never going to be 100% Jewish,” Stuber added. “You’re always going to be a bit of a second-class citizen, maybe. And it doesn’t matter what you do.”
Israel’s latest conversion bill, he said, is only a more institutionalized manifestation of this social discomfort. According to Halpern, those who are pushing for the bill to pass are attempting to delegitimize her Judaism. Even though they were not born Jewish, Halpern and Stuber have developed a meaningful connection to Israel as the home of the Jewish people.
Both have visited Israel and said they “can’t wait to go back,” but the news of the conversion bill and the suspension of the agreement around an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall has been difficult to follow.
Halpern believes not only that the conversion bill does a disservice to Israel, but that the state has much to gain from officially recognizing Reform and Conservative Jewish converts.
“We bring allies,” she said. “My [Christian] family relates to Israel so differently now because of me; they have a different understanding of Israel and a greater respect for Israel.
“When people who were not born Jewish are participating in Israeli culture, life, society, we share all of that with our extended families and that’s good for Israel,” she continued.
For Stuber, connecting to Israel was in fact the most difficult part of his conversion experience. “The conversion bill, the Kotel, or even now the disintegration of the peace process – these are not things that are making me feel more connected to Israel, they are making me feel more distant from Israel.
“It’s hard to see what Israel is really going to gain from potentially alienating people who ought to be so supportive of it,” Stuber continued. “The state basically says that, actually, you don’t really count. How else is there to take that, except that it’s frustrating and humiliating?”