A salute to the convert

Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
There is a special commandment in the Torah to love the convert, also referred to as the stranger among us. We are to be sensitive to the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt. There is another verse in the Torah that says that we are not to mistreat our fellow Jew. The commentators explain this to mean that we are not to taunt someone by reminding him that he is only a convert and that he comes from such humble beginnings. Instead we are to treat every Jew equally and fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The question to be asked is why is there a separate commandment to love the convert if we are not allowed to mention that he was once not a Jew. Shouldn’t the love of converts be included together with loving every Jew, since he is now a Jew in every way? The answer to this question is that we are obligated to take special care in our treatment of the convert. He does not fit into any game of Jewish geography. He is neither an Ashkenazi nor Sephardi Jew. He cannot trace his family background to any particular country with its distinct customs. Every convert is a world unto himself. Virtually every convert has his own unique story as to how he fell in love with the Jewish religion and yearned to be counted among the fold.
I have been privileged to have been working with converts for nearly two decades. Each story is more remarkable than the next. The only recurring story is that of a young man coming to Israel on a Birthright trip only to find out that he’s not Jewish according to strict Jewish law, because his mother is not Jewish. Similarly, we have had a number of cases where some families were so assimilated they neglected to tell their child he was Jewish. After recovering from the shocking news, these young men enter the conversion process or begin practicing Judaism as Jews.
Over the years, we have welcomed to our program individuals from all over the world. Last year a couple from China remarried as Jews after both completing the conversion process. I have known two clergymen formerly of the Christian faith, one from Ireland and the other from Texas, who both gave up comfortable positions in their respective churches, because they were convinced that Judaism was the only true religion.
A West Point graduate serving in the US military is grounded in a sandstorm in Afghanistan for several days one September. Out of sheer boredom, he learns that it is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. His curiosity leads him to the Jewish chaplain who invites him to participate in the prayer service of that holy day. His army service lasts 10 years, with the last two having him donning a kippa, on his way to becoming a Jew.
A martial arts expert from Kenya is invited to Israel to learn Krav Maga, the Israeli method of self-defense, and is so intrigued by Israel that he is granted a scholarship at IDC Herzliya, and completes a master’s degree in counter- terrorism. The young man lived in a hut until the age of 14, then going to high school in Nairobi, where he witnessed what electricity and running water were for the first time. Today he is a fine gentleman in the final stages of his conversion.
In our current program, we have conversion candidates from England, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Holland and the United States.
The American is an African American from Detroit.
They study for a year intensively until they are taught all aspects of what is expected of a Jew. When the end of their journey is complete, they stand before a Jewish court of three judges, and declare their loyalty and willingness to be part of the Jewish nation. The emotions are so high that a box of tissues awaits them alongside the table where this declaration is made.
What is common to these brave young men is that their decision usually comes with a great deal of resistance.
Sometimes their biological family disowns them as they are convinced that they are going to burn in hell. They usually give up a great deal of comfort and job security by making this courageous decision. They often go through periods of great loneliness at having to say good by to their old lifestyles. The bureaucracy involved in the process doesn’t make things easier. In short, their lives are on hold as they can’t work until they get their identity card. They do not have relatives to lean on and yet, they persevere. They are so enthusiastic about their decision that the adult circumcision that is required in many cases does not seem to faze them.
Perhaps it is necessary to explain to the public that there are numerous heroes of a different kind living among us.
This information should certainly make an impression on those born to the Jewish faith. If these people make such sacrifices and go through such hardships because of their burning desire to be Jewish, shouldn’t it move us not to take for granted how fortunate we are to be part of the Jewish people? Shouldn’t it make us want to reach out and be better role models to these new additions to our people? And isn’t it now so obvious why God, in His abundant wisdom, commanded us to love the convert? From this point on, we must salute the convert and do all in our power to lighten his load.
The author is the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. Currently he is a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem.