The First Word: Welcome, immigrants to Judaism

Immigrants tend to make great Americans; converts tend to make great Jews - and for similar reasons.

immigrans to judaism 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
immigrans to judaism 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
What do the divisive debates between Americans over immigration policy and within the Jewish world over conversion have in common? As a rabbi who recently became an American, and who is actively involved in counseling potential converts to Judaism, I have noticed that these seemingly disconnected controversies raise similar questions. If there are jobs that go wanting, should we open the door wider to those who want to fill those jobs? If the family is already established here with children born, should the journey to citizenship involve fewer toll booths? If intermarriage, low birthrates and secularization yield fewer Jews, should we make it easier for others to adopt our religion? If the husband is a Jew by birth should the wife's conversion to Judaism be simplified? If America is truly the melting pot and if becoming a Jew literally means joining the wider family, then what's the fuss? While I am a Jew by birth, I'm an American by choice, having become a citizen over a year ago. Maybe more significantly, I have worked to guide dozens of Jews by choice on their journey leading to conversion. I use the Internet as a vehicle to reach out to and attract those who might be consider joining the Jewish people. MANY WONDER why someone not born Jewish would want to become a Jew, and whether someone who grew up in another tradition can truly embrace a new one. My own experience as an immigrant has helped me understand the possibilities for such profound transitions. I will always be a Brazilian because I love the hot weather, the warm people, and I have wonderful memories from my childhood. But I chose to become an American for a myriad of reasons influenced by adult rationales and justifications. I encountered America's history, constitution, Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem through mature, experienced eyes and ears. I am most confident that I will be - maybe already have become - a knowledgeable and active participant in my democracy. I made sure I knew where the polling place was a full two weeks ahead of the first opportunity I had to vote. And I was one of the first in line on that Tuesday in November. And unlike the folks on the street interviewed by Jay Leno, I know the name and recognize the face of the secretary of defense, and the senators from my state (Mississippi) and the mayor of my town (Hattiesburg). My experience is hardly unique. I truly believe that those who make the choice and who work toward attaining the goal of citizenship often become among the most involved and informed citizens. More importantly, those who left other societies and have chosen to work for that goal in America have a more immediate appreciation of the blessings of free speech and assembly and a more personal understanding of the value of our constitutional protections from governmental intrusion. Likewise, I know from experience that those who choose to become Jewish typically are more knowledgeable about their adopted religion, more appreciative of the similarities and differences between the various faiths, and tend to be more genuine participants in the rituals, obligations and tenets of our tradition. Whether they were attracted by the philosophy, the history, the ritual practices, or they wanted to further express their love for a spouse, I would be more than pleased to have the pews filled with converts. For the most part, they are adults who have made adult decisions. IMMIGRANTS TEND to make great Americans; converts tend to make great Jews - and for similar reasons. Given this, should it be permanently disqualifying if you entered the US without benefit of a visa if you now are willing to pay some kind of sanction (fine or taxes) and go through a rigorous process to introduce the details and mandates of this democracy? Should there be such a rigid bar to being able to call yourself a Jew or to become a member of a congregation of whatever denomination you choose? In modern times, when religious affiliation is not obligatory, should it be so burdensome to join a synagogue? I was born a Jew; I was not born Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Should we really be using Halacha as a weapon against people who want to convert? Shouldn't we be looking for ways in which Halacha can be used as a bridge for the acceptance of converts? Furthermore, when one approaches a synagogue, why is it that the sincerity of the convert is always questioned, yet we take for granted that the motives of the born Jew are legitimate? Don't get me wrong. I am not in favor of an open border or a free pass to citizenship. And I do not wish to see a drive-in conversion window at the neighborhood shul. There should be realistic standards that help the convert establish the basis for a positive Jewish identity, and there should be serious probing and assessment of the correctness, fluency and sincerity of the answers. But the accident of birth does not make someone different or special and does not and should not provide the title of gatekeeper. I recoil at the self-styled patriots - those minutemen, or is it minyanmen - who want the day laborers corralled and sent home or who want only purebreds speaking from the bima or participating on the High Holy days. My adopted country needs and will thrive on the infusion of new immigrants as much as my birth religion needs and will thrive with the addition of those who choose to worship with me. I welcome them as should you. The writer is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and webmaster of He teaches conversion seminars throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America.