The Human Spirit: Conversion without tears

Often converts are sent back to their countries of origin; occasionally they are jailed for illegally pursuing conversion.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In Hanna Rubin Ausubel’s cozy Jerusalem living room, family photographs fill the walls and punctuate shelves of holy books. Hers is a grand family. It includes her beautiful children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and life-cycle celebrations for hundreds of women she’s mentored through their conversions into Judaism. Anticipating my visit, she has loaded her dining room table with cartons of additional photos, letters and documents from women whom she’s accompanied to the ritual bath for conversion and walked to the wedding canopy. At least one child of the women she’s mentored through the complex process is named Hanna in her honor.
Each of the converts has undergone a serious and successful year course of study and coaching in Jewish practice. But as Rabbinit Ausubel says with a sigh of regret, “All this took place in the past, the golden age of conversion.”
IN THE 1990s, after making aliya from New York, Ausubel headed the English-speaking division of Machon Ora in Jerusalem. Thousands of women arrived from around the world to enroll in its classes, which included Torah study and practical Jewish living. In this school where Ausubel taught, the optimistic Jewish worldview espoused by Israel’s first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, and other leaders dominated.
I’ve come to visit Ausubel as an antidote to the heartrending stories I’ve been hearing from men and women, potential converts, who are frustrated, humiliated and rejected in their efforts to join the Jewish people in the State of Israel. Nearly all the complaints lead back to the Interior Ministry, where a committee has the power to judge converts’ sincerity, deciding if they are worthy of enrolling in a conversion program. Often they are sent packing back to their countries of origin; occasionally they are jailed for illegally pursuing conversion. Conversion is an option for immigrants, but non-Jews aren’t accepted as immigrants. Catch-22.
Men and women who want to join and contribute to the Jewish people face such hurdles that conversion appears unattainable. Their stories must remain in the shadows, because they are afraid of going public and facing possible retribution of the tribunal. One of the potential converts I’ve interviewed compares herself to the Jews who refused to convert under the Spanish Inquisition. Another is studying Judaism sub rosa, pretending to be Jewish, so that she won’t get ousted for learning Hebrew, acquiring the pragmatics and theory of Halacha and spending many hours a day deciphering the comments of Rashi and Maimonides on the weekly Torah portion.
Still a third, from Sweden, who joined us recently for Shabbat dinner, enthralled a table full of born-Jews by describing how his personal search for truth “quickly led to Judaism.”
He loves Israel, but wouldn’t think of coming here until he’s passed muster in a beit din outside the country. He’s worried about the new rulings here that will make uncertain the acceptance of his Orthodox conversion abroad.
Why do others insist on studying for conversion here? Jerusalem 5771 offers incomparable Judaism teachers. Still others want to convert because they’ve fallen in love with the country or, yes, they’ve fallen in love with an Israeli.
Most potential converts are women.
ISRAEL’S EXPERT in the suffering of potential converts is Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization ITIM, a Hebrew acronym for Jewish Life Information Center, helps navigate the labyrinth of personal status issues at the rabbinical councils, especially conversion. He confirms that the process has become much harder since Ausubel’s days. “Each month, more than 250 people turn to the ITIM hot line seeking information about conversion in Israel,” says Farber. “Conversion is one of the tools the Jewish people can use to fight intermarriage and assimilation. Unfortunately, the Israeli rabbinate is under too much pressure to seriously engage this issue for the long term.”
Successes are celebrated. For example, a recent story in the organization newsletter reports the “happy ending” for a South African Israeli who managed to convert after seven years, including being sent back twice to South Africa in the process. Not that the story doesn’t have still another ironic side. After living here without status for seven years, being unable to work, the immigrant has been denied new immigrant rights. He’s been here too long. ITIM is appealing.
Among the students with whom Ausubel worked were those whose starting point in seeking out Judaism was their love of a Jew who wanted them to convert. But looking back from the perspective of decades, like a longitudinal survey, it appears that the motive for converting made little difference down the line.
“Ninety eight percent of our students remained in Israel and keep a traditional Jewish lifestyle,” says Ausubel. She supplies a long list of names and phone numbers of those willing to be interviewed. I’ve changed their names. If we are prohibited from reminding the convert, why remind their neighbors? Besides, years after successful conversion our rabbinical authorities can declare conversions void, with one stroke of the pen destroying the lives of the convert and her children. The women I’ve spoken to confirm that the conversion course was the seminal experience of their lives, a rich well of Jewish knowledge and love that has served them and their family. Conversion without tears.
Take Olga, who chose to use her Jewish father’s name in Russia because she identified with the Jewish people. For that, she faced a lifetime of anti-Semitism. She knew she wasn’t officially Jewish. She separated from her husband for the time it took for her to complete conversion.
Evita arrived from Mexico when her future husband’s family made it clear they would reject her even if she converted. Her future husband threatened to commit suicide if they couldn’t wed. Ausubel arranged for the wedding in a synagogue basement. At the brit mila of their first child, the extended family was reconciled.
On the day Diane went to the ritual bath to convert, Ausubel received word that Diane’s father had died. She waited until she immersed to tell her. Said a tearful Diane, “On this day, one Jewish soul left the world and another came into the world.”
“Conversion needs to make Jewish home life so appealing that everyone wants to give their children the gift of a strong Jewish identity,” says Ausubel. “The process has to work, and then the final pledge has to come as a powerful conclusion of a process so that even those who might have had doubts before experience a life change. It’s a process filled with love; 36 times in our Torah we are urged to love the stranger.”
We have a peculiar way of showing it.
The writer lives in Jerusalem and focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.