When most people think of Ruth the convert, they see a biblical, historical story. But when Marina reads about Ruth it does not bring her back to her high school history class, but rather to the past year.
Marina, a 21-year-old convert who made aliya from Ukraine to Herzliya at age four, says, "I always knew that I wanted to convert. My father is Jewish and my mother has talked about how she wants the rest of the family to convert since I was little," she says.
Marina, who, along with her older sister, Ira, completed her conversion only two weeks ago, is just one of many people who convert each year in the State of Israel. According to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, in 2006 approximately 2,000 individuals completed their conversion. Even B., 24, a convert of 18 months, did not realize how many people convert, "until I went to the mikve to finish the conversion process and I had to wait an hour until I got a room because of the long line. One came out and the next one went in. There were women, men and even young children," she recalls.
In 2006, there were approximately 300,000 non-Jews living in Israel, most of whom made aliya under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or who has a close relative (parent or grandparent) or a spouse who is Jewish. Each year, this population produces an average of 3,000 offspring, according to the ministry.
Growing up as a non-Jew in a Jewish state is not necessarily simple. Ira, 23, says that she did not reveal to anyone that she was not Jewish.
"I didn't want them to attach any connotations to me being a non-Jew. My father's mother (who is Jewish), while she was alive, never liked my mother (who is not Jewish) and they always fought. She always called my mother 'that non-Jew' or something of the sort. I never wanted that for myself so I never told anyone when I was growing up," she says.
Marina did not tell anyone she was not Jewish either. "I was embarrassed," she recalls. "I thought that they wouldn't accept me like all of the other kids, and that they would look at me in a negative way. My father is Jewish and I have a very Jewish-sounding last name as well as many Jewish-looking features, so no one even suspected that I wasn't Jewish."
The two sisters decided to begin the process of conversion together over a year ago. "It gave me much more strength and motivation to be going through the process together with my sister," Marina says. "It made it a lot easier."
Converts often encounter problems along the way, whether it be not finding an appropriate "adoptive family" (see box), not passing the Rabbinical Court's test or simply getting caught in the bureaucracy involved.
But even once a convert has overcome all the obstacles and completed the process, he or she is not always automatically accepted into mainstream society.
A common issue that is rarely spoken about, yet is prevalent, is the way in which converts are accepted socially by others.
Even after converting, L. does not tell people that she is a convert, which is why she refused to have her name published.
"I don't tell people that I converted. The few Israeli girls who do know are very excited about it and are happy for me. But I feel that many Israeli boys have problems dating converts. I personally did not experience this, but I have several friends, who are also converts, who had boys break up with them as soon as they revealed that they had converted," she says. "I don't want people to think that I'm different and I don't want to feel different. I feel like people will think I have a sort of defect. Because I know that there are people who have a problem with converts I don't like to tell people. You never know who will react positively and who will not, and I don't want to fall into the situation where I tell someone and then it somehow has negative repercussions on me."
L. recently got engaged to an Israeli Jewish-born man. While her fianc never made an issue of the fact that she is a convert, the couple has still not told his parents. "I'm scared to tell them. My fianc says they'll react fine, and I hope they do. I know I have to tell them soon, though, because we are getting married," she says.
RONI, WHO converted four years ago after arriving in Israel with Na'aleh, an organization that brings children with Jewish relatives to Israel alone, with their parents usually arriving in Israel shortly afterwards, does not share L.'s feelings on the subject. "It really doesn't bother me for people to know that I converted, and I'm not embarrassed about it. I have never felt different from everyone else. Even when I've dated boys it's been fine," she insists. However, she is aware that some people look at converts differently. "When I go out on dates I make sure that the boys know that I'm a convert beforehand because I know that some people don't want to date a convert," she says.
Eitan, now 22 and a convert of five years, says that he, too, has never felt any discrimination as a convert, though he as a Russian he has experienced some discrimination. "I was always accepted by my friends. I never felt different, I felt normal. Some people do not like Russians, in general, and I felt that, but it had nothing to do with me being a convert," he says.
As a teacher in a conversion ulpan in the center of the country, Y. offers a general view from his experience with hundreds of students. "Even after converting, certain converts are still barely accepted in society, especially those who look different, such as foreign workers. Whether a convert feels total acceptance often comes not only as a factor of conversion, rather also as a factor of whether he or she is an immigrant," he says. "Yet, someone who was born and raised in Israel often has social acceptance before converting. Most of these converts are already identified with Jewish society," he says.
Another common problem that arises for some converts has to do with the people who are closest to them: their families. While some parents accept their son or daughter's conversion with happiness, other families take it hard.
"At the beginning my parents made a lot of problems and I would not even go home for Shabbat," Roni recalls. "The school I was learning at was great and they went and talked to my parents. They're not happy that I converted, but they're okay with it now. They deal with it. I have separate kosher dishes at home and I found a way to manage. It's not easy, though."
Ira, however, says that her family is extremely supportive. "We eat all of our Shabbat meals together and say the Kiddush and sing Shabbat zemirot [songs]. My parents helped my sister and me clean for this past Pessah. They are truly supportive, which made the whole process much easier for us," she says.
L. has a more complicated situation. "My mother [who is not Jewish] has gone along with me the whole time. My father [who is Jewish], on the other hand, is not interested in Judaism. When I come home, my mother and I eat kosher food while my father eats non-kosher. But he is still supportive of me converting, though," she says.
While cases in which both the convert's family and surrounding peers view him or her as "different" can leave the convert feeling as if he or she does not belong anywhere, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
"I feel at home here," says Sole, a 25-year-old from Ecuador who has not yet completed her conversion. "People are so nice to me and I really feel like this is my community. I don't feel like an 'outsider' or 'different,'" she says.
Marina agrees. "Although growing up I was scared to reveal that I was not Jewish and I do not advertise the fact that I converted now, either, I never felt unwanted by the people who do know that I'm a convert. I was always accepted with open arms. I was scared that some of my friends would look at me as 'different' but they didn't in the end. They were all great," she says.
Welcome to the fold
About two years ago my husband and I were asked to be an "adoptive family" for Sophie (not her real name), 24, who was in the process of converting.
An only child, Sophie made aliya from the former Soviet Union with her Jewish father and non-Jewish mother when she was 10, and spent the next 14 years of her life in Herzliya. At a certain point her parents decided to divorce, something which made Sophie think more carefully about the kind of life she hoped to live, and that is when she decided that she wanted to convert.
As part of the conversion process, all potential converts are required to find an "adoptive family" whom they regularly visit for Shabbat and holiday meals, and with whom they attend synagogue services, with the goal of seeing firsthand how an observant Jewish family lives. The adoptive family must also write a letter to the beit din (rabbinical court) describing its impression of and experiences with the potential convert, as well as accompany the convert to his or her test at the court to answer specific questions about the potential convert.
So, we were asked to be Sophie's adoptive family. At the beginning she came for Shabbat meals every few weeks, and we were there for her to ask questions about the material she learned in her conversion classes. As we got to know her better and she opened up to us more, we saw her more frequently and she would come over to our house almost every week. I also helped her study for her conversion test. I remember being shocked at the amount of material she was taught, and how she was even able to teach me a few things that I did not know (and I have been Orthodox all my life).
At the end of the conversion classes my husband and I had to write a letter of recommendation for Sophie to give to the rabbinical court. This was particularly hard, as I felt a heavy responsibility about being the one to decide whether Sophie was really sincere about her motives for conversion. I went with Sophie to her test, which was a very special experience.
While waiting in the hallway with Sophie, who was almost shaking from nervousness, we saw a wedding take place between a recently converted Arab man and his Jewish-born bride. The officiating rabbi gathered 10 men from the building of the rabbinate, and right there, in the hallway this couple was married in the most simple wedding service I had ever witnessed. A box of cakes and apple juice served in flimsy plastic cups as the wedding "feast."
I was not in the room for Sophie's actual test, but I was told that she did a good job and the rabbis approved her conversion. She stood before the rabbis, committed to observing the mitzvot and recited "Shema Yisrael." As soon as we walked out of the room, Sophie began to cry uncontrollably in happiness.
Two weeks later I accompanied Sophie to her mikve immersion, a particularly moving experience. In honor of her converting I bought her a small Book of Psalms.
Unfortunately I have not kept in touch with Sophie, but she opened up a whole new world for me.
Since then, my husband and I have been an adoptive family for two sisters who completed their conversion only two weeks ago, as well as a young couple who is waiting to be tested at the rabbinical court. While when we agreed to be an adoptive family in the first place we did not know what we were getting ourselves into, it has proven to be an incredible experience, one which I believe that not only the converts benefit from, but that I have benefited from, as well.