Jewish conversion debate ignores actual converts - opinion

With all the disputes about the conversion process, we have not paid enough attention to the people.

 The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021. (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)
The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021.
(photo credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)

Haredi leaders accuse Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana of acting like “Antiochus,” the Assyrian-Greek general who persecuted Jews in the Hasmonean era. This, because Kahana seeks to revise (and improve!) the way in which conversion to Judaism is handled by (Orthodox) rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Kahana is also supposedly Antiochus (some say “Amalek,” which is an even ghastlier epithet) because of the minister’s reform of the market regarding kosher food production and supervision.

Indeed, debates in the Knesset, media and Israel-Diaspora forums about conversion procedures and standards are vociferous and ever-intensifying. Alas, lost in these storms are the actual converts themselves, few and battered as they are.

Nobody talks about the converts themselves and very few people lift a finger to assist converts beyond their day in beit din (i.e., the day after they are formally converted through a rabbinical court). In short, conversion is a hot topic that often leaves the individual convert out in the cold.

It ought to be recognized that converting to Judaism requires not only a change of lifestyle and belief system, but it often entails replacing country, language, livelihood, community and even family ties. Many individuals who have dedicated themselves to joining the Jewish People find themselves alone, and they need and deserve support to meet untold challenges which devolve from such a monumental undertaking.

Chief rabbis gathered to discuss reforms to the conversion and kashrut system  (credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)Chief rabbis gathered to discuss reforms to the conversion and kashrut system (credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)

But most organizations that deal with conversion are focused on the conversion process itself – on teaching Jewish knowledge and testing the converts’ commitment. Some groups advocate for halachic or systemic change to the often impersonal and rigid conversion mechanism. And yes, some individuals, communities and rabbis assist specific converts that join their community or happen their way.

Nevertheless, care for the individual convert’s personal and communal needs, before and especially after conversion, is often sorely lacking. Due to the centralized conversion system in Israel many converts are not naturally streamed into specific communities, and even when they are, prejudice and suspicion abound, adding to common difficulties of  being outsiders. These difficulties include language and cultural barriers that make it hard to join social circles, to tap into communal resources and to create connections – to benefit from protektzia (favoritism), which is so important for getting ahead in Israel).

Every year, approximately 5,000 amazing gerei tzedek (righteous converts) from all over the world join the Jewish People in Israel through the Rabbinate’s conversion courts. This amounts to more than 100,000 converts over the last 20 years. Just under half of these converts are Ethiopian immigrants, a third are from the former Soviet Union, and the rest are from various countries.

In short, we are privileged to live in an era with an unprecedented number of converts! It should be our honor and it is our duty to welcome them with love.

Providentially, this month a new NGO was founded to care for converts, to promote their success and smooth their integration in Israel. It is called Ohev Ger (Love thy Convert). The agency was imagined and established by an experienced educator who has taught and guided converts from around the world (even from Africa and China) – giving him a unique perspective on the needs of gerim (converts). Full disclosure: He happens to be my esteemed brother, Rabbi Menachem Weinberg.

Rabbi Menachem teaches converts at a Religious Zionist ba’al teshuva yeshiva in Jerusalem called Machon Meir, where he also teaches the advanced Talmud shiur in English. Ordained by the Chief Rabbinate and certified in mediation and psychotherapy, he also holds academic degrees in computer sciences and Judaic studies. He served for a decade as the community rabbi of Alon, a joint secular and religious town east of Jerusalem, and he officiates at weddings for religious and non-religious couples, and of course, for converts.

Joining Rav Menachem in this new effort is Chaim Kanterovitz, who previously was the distinguished senior rabbi of the largest Orthodox community and school in the UK.

Ohev Ger already is running several projects meant to say “welcome” to converts joining the Jewish People. These include Bruchim Atem, the distribution of gift packages tailored to everyone who converts in Israel; Bisharekha, a network of volunteers who help integrate converts into communities and families; and Chai Imach, individual support for the social welfare needs of converts, including financial aid, rental subsidies, scholarships, subsidized professional counseling, employment and housing assistance, in addition to advocacy and legal services.

El Betecha is an incentive program for matchmakers (shadchanim) to prioritize marriage matchmaking for converts; and Ken Ya’ase offers rabbinic guidance regarding religious services ranging from marriage to burial.

Ohev Ger also plans to educate rabbis and communal leaders about the needs of converts, since sensitivity to the hardships of converts is sorely lacking.

A new group called Amech Ami is to run social programming for young converts, under the auspices of Ohev Ger.

“Tzorchei amcha merubim (the needs of our people are huge), especially those of converts,” says Rav Menachem. “For decades I have been privileged to teach and guide amazing people from all over the world through the entry gates to the Jewish People. Over time I realized that no one was supporting these people after their conversion and helping them integrate. I tried to help whoever I could with a smile, a hug and a warm welcome. But, practically, that is not enough. We need to thoughtfully and concretely address the specific needs of each convert, and this requires real resources.”

Rav Menachem tells of the daughter of an American preacher, newly named Ruth, who was thrilled to finally immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath), but is now facing the challenge of finding a marriage match appropriate for her age so that she can start a Jewish home of her own. Another student, Moshe, is an academic from Europe who has healed from his adult circumcision, but with his beginner’s level Hebrew and debts to yeshiva, is desperately looking for any job so that he can pay the rent.

Ekon is a ger from Nigeria who studied with Rav Menachem and married a giyoret (female convert) from Sweden (with Rav Menachem officiating). Ekon has now been ordained as a rabbi too, but still hasn’t found a job in education. Ohev Ger is trying to help.

Ya’acov, an electrician, and Naomi, a schoolteacher, and their three children from the Philippines have completed their life’s dream of conversion. Finding appropriate employment, schooling, community and friends is an uphill battle that will take time.

Loneliness is a particular problem for converts. One convert, an orphan, tried to commit suicide a few times. Ohev Ger is now paying for her psychological rehabilitation (and dental treatments).

“It is our moral responsibility, historic opportunity, and mitzvah obligation to imitate God – who ‘loves the convert’ (Ohev Ger) – by supporting these unique individuals and attentively addressing their needs,” said Rav Menachem. He encourages “mainstream” Jews and “veteran” Israelis to get involved by volunteering their professional and social services or becoming an Ohev Ger community coordinator, and by donating funds to the cause.

The author’s diplomatic, defense, political and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com