A tale of two converts

Why someone seeks to become Jewish often determines just that.

moshe feinstein 63 (photo credit: )
moshe feinstein 63
(photo credit: )
I met Skyler the first week I started my tenure at the Dallas, Texas synagogue where I served as spiritual leader. Among my other rabbinic responsibilities, I had inherited the ongoing conversion class. More than two dozen spirited men and women had been meeting weekly to learn selected texts and discuss various aspects of Jewish life (in Bible-belt country there are always a lot of non-Jews interested in Judaism). I introduced myself to the students and made the following statement: "I have two non-negotiable rules for conversion: One, you must spend a minimum of one year in the program so that you can experience the entire spectrum of the Jewish calendar. And two, by the end of that year, you must live within walking distance of a synagogue. "Judaism is much more about faith and commitment than it is about book-learning; the simple yet faithful Jew outranks the erudite but non-practicing scholar. Your success or failure in this course is less concerned with your scores than with your sincerity." At the following week's session, only five students returned. BUT SKYLER was one of them. He had actually gone through a conversion a couple of years earlier - dipping into one of the other "streams" of Judaism after a few months of study - but was left unsatisfied. He craved the experiential side of religion, not just the existential one. He talked openly about his need to discover God. He not only studied the mitzvot (commandments), he pursued them with an insatiable zeal and excitement; he had a way of churning the waters in a sea of Jewish complacency. He also became a regular shul-goer, and more than once had to politely remind the gabbai of the shul not to count him in the minyan just yet. He spent his last three months staying at our home, and taught us a thing or two about spiritually. I felt perfectly secure when he had his second "symbolic" circumcision ("Twice," he said, "was more than enough!") and immersed in the mikve; I felt proud when he married his Jewish-from-birth wife, and I still get tremendous naches every time I speak to Shlomo and hear him seamlessly bandy about the lingo of traditional Judaism. I like to tell him, "You may have left the 'Sky' behind, Shlomo, but you're a lot closer to Heaven!" KATIE WAS a different story. Sweet as sugar, beautiful inside and out, she attended every class and followed every rule. She showed little passion for Judaism, but had a remarkable stick-to-it-ness and was determined to embrace a new faith. I used to kid her that she was "too observant" - observing, rather than participating in the action. Some time after her conversion, I learned that she had been dating, on and off for a couple years, a Jewish guy from a very traditional family. This immediately raised a red flag in my mind; had she been attracted to Judaism out of love for Torah - or for him? But I felt better when Katie, now Kayla, married the boy and they settled down and had a child. Kayla was strict in her rituals; she kept a kosher home, enrolled her child in a religious day school and even covered her hair. But when she stopped coming to shul, I finally went to see her. I was shocked when she opened the door; her face was bruised and she had the nervous mannerisms of someone clearly in a state of fear and anxiety. "He's abusing you, isn't he?" I asked, and her tears answered in the affirmative. When the abuse got bad enough she escaped, leaving her abuser - and his "love the stranger" religion - behind. EVERY RABBI has his successes and failures, the stories in which he revels, and the ones he sweeps under the rug. No one can predict how any convert will turn out; for all the precautions we take and the judgments we make, conversion is the just start of the process, not its conclusion. As in sports and high school reunions, sometimes the least likely to succeed does just that, and vice-versa. But if there is a demarcation line between the dati and the dropout, it lies in the sincerity of his or her quest, the "mission statement" made at the beginning of the journey. Why someone seeks to become a lifelong member of the Jewish people often determines if he or she will do just that. HAVING SAID all this, let me add a postscript, and a word about yet a third convert. What is true of conversion in the Diaspora is not necessarily applicable in Israel. Over "there," Judaism is a separate garment in which we clothe ourselves, one which often clashes with the culture around us. To be a Jew abroad is to be different, and we rightly do a double-take at the thought of anyone taking on this new and difficult challenge. But here in Israel, being Jewish is natural, comfortable, the 'in-thing." Kashrut, Jewish holidays, Jewish history, God, miracles - they are all part of the landscape. And so while we might good-naturedly scoff and shake our heads at the Diaspora's would-be convert, here he or she is already immersed in Jewish life and accepted as a Jew with little or no fanfare. Such individuals - who are committed to Israel and will almost invariably marry Jews - deserve a kinder, gentler path to formal conversion. Indeed, halachic giants such as Rav Moshe Feinstein and former chief rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman wrote responsa urging a "fast-track" conversion for Israelis of non-Jewish lineage who express a sincere desire to embrace our faith. Twice a month at our house we have the merit of hosting a soldier for Shabbat. Eli's father is Jewish, his mother is not, and he is now completing his conversion course through the IDF. In a month, he will openly declare to a religious court his allegiance to the mitzvot, even as he is faithful to the state. As a combat soldier, he has already gone through fire for the people of Israel. Now, God willing, he will go through the water. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. [email protected]