A CANDIDATE for conversion, having successfully passed, tearfully recites the ‘Shema’ prayer..
(photo credit: ARIEL KONSTANTYN)
I have the privilege of being a rabbinic instructor in the Nativ conversion program. Nativ, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, has branches all over Israel, dealing with potential converts both in and out of the IDF. Participants – all of whom must be Israeli citizens – come from many different countries and have a variety of backgrounds.
Many have Israeli fathers and non-Jewish mothers; some have two Jewish parents but are unable to produce documents affirming their Jewishness, and others have no previous Jewish connection at all, but are looking to come closer to God through the Jewish faith.
The branch where I teach, in Tel Aviv, offers the only English- speaking course in the country. It is directed by former American rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, and it has an amazing track record. Over the last nine years, close to 300 students have passed through the program, and more than 90% who came before the Beit Din at the end of the 10-month course successfully passed and joined the ranks of the Jewish people. This is more than double the national average, and testament to the vital work being done to help meet the pressing need to bring non-Jewish Israelis “under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
Last week was a high in the history of the program. Six current students appeared in one day before a distinguished three-rabbi tribunal. The candidates were nervous, to say the least; this was a climactic moment they had waited years to finally reach. The rabbis drilled them, one by one, on various issues of Halacha – “What do you do if you accidentally use a dairy fork for hot meatballs?” “On which side of the door do you place the mezuza?” – details about the Torah and its many personalities, and major events in Jewish history. Most importantly, they probed the students as to why they were so attracted to Judaism in the first place, and why it was important for them to eternally cast their lot, and that of their descendants, with the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
All six candidates answered their questions confidently and impeccably. They had been practicing Judaism for more than six months, regularly attending synagogue and keeping Shabbat and kashrut while intensively studying. They were, in truth, already more “Jewish” than many of their co-religionists.
When the time came that they were officially welcomed into the fold, as they stood and recited the Shema and declared their intent to live lives of Jewish commitment, all six broke down in tears and cried for a long time. And, I must admit, Rabbi Ariel and I cried, too, as did at least one of the judges.
There was such an intense love of Judaism in the room, such sincere devotion to the faith that we so often take for granted, that all our emotions burst forth, in a kind of wonderful waterfall of celebration.
Scientists, to this day, debate the nature of crying, unsure just what triggers it or why it occurs. Some hold that it serves to release stress, others believe it is a form of non-verbal communication, expressing feelings that cannot be described in mere words. Modern psychologists suggest that it stems from a sense of helplessness, that is, it is our instinctive response to events and situations that are too overwhelming for us to handle in a controlled fashion. In any event, crying is real and genuine; it comes from the heart and soul and – at least outside of Hollywood – cannot easily be faked. In a world filled with illusions, tears are pure truth.
I thought to myself, we cry so often in our lives – at the movies, at birthdays, at funerals. As Jews, we cry quite easily and quite regularly for Israel. We cry at Remembrance Day ceremonies, out of sadness for the fallen soldiers; we cry at the singing of “Hatikva,” out of pride for this amazing country we live in. But when – other than possibly at a family brit – do we cry for Judaism? When do we cry while performing mitzvot, like putting on tefillin, or reciting kiddush on Friday night? Do we shed tears when lighting Hanukkah lights, or when eating matza at the Seder? Do we cry as we recite our daily prayers? Has our practice of Judaism become so rote and so routine that it is devoid of passion, virtually emotionless? Perhaps it is only when we struggle, when we fight hard for a Judaism that is just out of our reach, when our souls are filled with anxiety and the awesome anticipation of that which is not automatically ours, that we can be moved to tears. Tears of love, joy, exhilaration. Perhaps, I suggest, there is a “crying need” for each and every one of us – born Jewish and raised Jewish – to “convert” on a semi-regular basis, in order to appreciate this precious gift we’ve been given but somehow fail to fully appreciate. Only through tears is our vision magnified, enabling us to clearly see just how fortunate we are to be members in good standing of the unique religion and lifestyle that is ours.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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