Interviewing a friend

A few months ago, one of my close friends came out and made a public statement about being abused by a trusted Rabbi.  The Rabbi was later convicted of egregious crimes.  I decided to interview my friend and ask them questions about their connections to Judaism as I tried to relate her relationship to Judaism to my own.

Setting the stage for this interview, it is necessary to paint a picture of my interviewee, Samantha (name changed per her request). Samantha was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. I first met Samantha in Washington, D.C. my freshman year of college. We immediately grew close. At the time, I was active in the traditional frum community. Months after we met, she told me about her decision to undergo an Orthodox conversion. I was supportive of her, and in hindsight I feel almost a sense of guilt for this. She chose to remain anonymous because her experience has been so horrifying that she wanted to expose herself as little as possible during the interview.

Samantha first contacted the rabbi detailed earlier in 2008, our freshman year of college. On several occasions he filmed Samantha entering and exiting the mikvah during our years in college. In 2015, he (the Rabbi) was charged with fifty-two counts of voyeurism. Eventually, he was sentenced to nearly six and a half years in prison for his crimes. Samantha was among the fifty-two women abused by the Rabbi. Samantha is still waiting for her conversion date, seven years after originally contacting the Rabbi who abused her trust (who was also overseeing her conversion).

I met this Rabbi on several occasions when I was a resident of D.C. I must confess he seemed to me and to others alike as a slightly distant person.

Samantha is a Jew, much unlike myself in several ways and similar in others. In my interview with Samantha, I compared her religious upbringing, relation to Israel, and religious observances to my own.

Firstly, beginning at home, Samantha’s upbringing was very different from my own. Samantha described her experience as follows: “We did Passover and sometimes Rosh Hashanah with my dad’s maternal family... Hannukah was an afterthought, but we usually put out a menorah and my dad would light the candles.” Samantha described the Christian holidays as always being more central at home.

Also unique to Samantha was her religious education. “I went to church and CCD. I think I stopped soon after my First Communion, because I was way over Christianity by the time I was maybe 12.” Samantha says she “skipped Confirmation because I wasn’t a believer and wanted to be Jewish.” Samantha then told me, “Communion was second grade though. So obviously I went along with that and thought it was all swell. I got a pretty dress and everyone acted like I’d done something grownup and great”

My Jewish upbringing differed significantly from Samantha's childhood. I grew up at home and went to a local Jewish school named Abrams Hebrew Academy. I continued with my Jewish education beyond Abrams at home, where I was tutored by Hebrew teachers once or twice a week. As a child, I was taught not to mix meat with dairy and I learned about Jewish tradition. I grew up aware of every holiday, and I celebrated Jewish holidays by going to synagogue and praying at home. I went to Gratz Hebrew High School in my later years. These years were essential in my Jewish development. The picture of my graduating class still hangs on one of the walls at Gratz College.

Secondly, Samantha’s connection to Israel is slightly different from my own. In some ways we find commonality, and in others we drift apart in our approach to Israel. Samantha described her connection with Israel with the following words: “I think Jews need a safe place to live, but I don’t like how things are going in the Middle East. Israel is widely criticized, and I’m sure antisemitism is both a cause (and effect), but so are actions and systemic oppression over recent years. That doesn’t make us look good.” She went on to state some things done by Israel, historically “could have been done differently, and really border on human rights abuses.”

Contrasting and oftentimes coinciding with Samantha’s connection with Israel is my own. I see myself as more direct in my connection to Israel. For myself, I would emphasize that I am part of Israel in my response: We (Israelis) need a safe place to live (after all, I have family who still live there). For me, Israel is not only an idea, but it is a second place that I call home. I lived in Israel for several years. I immigrated there. I have more invested in its survival than most American Jews. Despite the support of Jews like Samantha, I feel more connected to the land than they. Coinciding with Samantha’s response is my own in terms of criticizing Israel when it is appropriate. Samantha and I would agree that Israel is unfortunately responsible for some historical wrongs.

Lastly, I noticed a lot different between Samantha and I theologically. Samantha stated that, per her own theology, she identifies as “culturally Jewish with Orthodox aspirations.” I pressed Samantha with the following question: “Why Orthodox, after all you have been through?” She responded with, the rabbi who abused her "doesn’t represent Orthodoxy, and the whole system is political.” I pressed again, “Why not Reform or Conservative? Is it theological, your reasoning?” Her response was “Social... I like it...” What it essentially boiled down to when I continued to ask more questions was the following issue. Samantha stated, “It’s [Orthodox conversion] also going to mean more people accept my conversion. And I can always be Reform or Conservative later in life. If I convert Orthodox, I’ve set the bar, accomplished something huge, learned a lot, and restored my family’s lineage. It’s just where I feel comfortable, and if that changes later it’s easy to join a less observant community.” And finally, “I think that there’s a sizable population of Jews who would not consider my conversion kosher unless it’s Orthodox.”

I was, in a sense, very disappointed by her response. I was expecting a theological response. When I pressed theology with Samantha, it became apparent she was not theologically aligned with what I would identify as Modern Orthodoxy. She does not keep shomer shabbos, kashrut, or purity laws. She even admitted that her conversion was being stifled by her own practices: “If I were more dedicated, didn’t go out Friday nights, studied regularly, kept kosher, went to shul EVERY week, I’d be well on my way.”

She really stated above that her reason to conversion was practical and not theological; she wants her children to be considered Jewish by everyone. However, I do not object to her response as a fair response, because, let’s face it, her concerns are real, but it is not the way I would respond.

Theologically, I respond differently. I keep kosher because I believe in the words of the Torah. I observe some traditions of menucha and rest on Shabbat because of the words of the Torah. I chose to selectively date and marry someone Jewish for reasons similar to why Samantha wants to convert to the Orthodox Jewish movement. I do not identify as Modern Orthodox, far from it (I identify with Liberal or Reform Judaism). I do actually consider Samantha Jewish, and she should be welcomed into our peoplehood.