June 20, 2024
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Learning From Our Failure: We Can Do Better With Converts

Integrating Jewish converts into mainstream Jewish life has been a perennial challenge. The roots of the issue appear in the Torah itself.

In Parshat Yitro, we read how Yitro, inspired by all of God’s wondrous acts, travels together with his daughter and two grandchildren to meet the Jewish people in the desert at Mount Sinai. Yet, despite Yitro’s spiritual awakening, he returns home, back to Midyan: Moses saw his father-in-law off, and Yitro went back to his land (Exodus 18:27).

Why did Yitro leave? Yitro was clearly taken by all of God’s miraculous acts on behalf of the Jews; why didn’t Yitro join them on their historic journey to the Promised Land?

I believe that Yitro decided to return home because, from the day he arrived at Mount Sinai, he felt like an outsider. While people undoubtably showed Yitro respect as Moshe’s father-in-law, they may never have truly embraced him. This lonely feeling did not abate during the entire duration of his stay. And thus, when it came time to travel to the Promised Land, Yitro chose to forgo the opportunity.

There is an important lesson to learn from this narrative. As Jews, we do a very good job of cultivating feelings of community among our extended national family, but we struggle to integrate those who join our people by choice at a later point in life.

The Torah addresses this difficulty. In fact, according to one school of medieval rabbis, the Torah demands of us 24, 36, or 46 times, depending on how one counts the various commandments, to love the convert.

God expects us to draw upon our suffering as slaves and foreigners in Egypt to inform the way we treat outsiders. Unfortunately, it is not always easy. There is a great deal of inherent bias. We are loyal to our extended family and cautious in our approach toward those who enter from the outside.

In the fall of 2018, the Orthodox Union’s quarterly magazine, Jewish Action, featured a series of articles on converts. One of the articles highlighted the unique struggles that converts face as they attempt to fully integrate into the community. One convert described the distinct stigma she carried when searching for a spouse. Another woman shared her despair that matchmakers suggest matches for her children only from other families of converts.

Personally, I could not be more pained when I read these firsthand accounts. I have met incredible converts of all ages who display a unique passion for Judaism. I have spoken with male candidates for conversion who want nothing more than the privilege of counting toward a minyan. I have met mothers who desperately seek to finish the process of conversion so their children will be accepted into a Jewish day school. “Perks of membership” that we take for granted are just dreams for those who hope to convert.

I have had the special opportunity of naming converts minutes after they complete their conversion process. Watching their eyes fill with tears as they accept upon themselves a new identity is awe-inspiring.

I remember one powerful story in particular. A young man finished converting and we, the beit din, reminded him to put on tefillin when he arrived home, as he was now formally commanded in the mitzvah. He replied, “My tefillin are in my car! I am not waiting until I arrive home!” I was struck by the simple realization of how many times I have put on tefillin without pausing to consider what a privilege it is.

It is heartbreaking and disappointing that such extraordinary people can sometimes remain on the fringe of our community. Yitro’s decision to decline traveling with the Jewish people to the Promised Land is an important reminder that we, as a community, can do a better job to embrace those who are Jews by choice.

In particular, we can improve in three ways:

1) If you, your children or grandchildren are dating a convert, be open-minded. Assuming you are not from a priestly family, there are no restrictions on marrying converts. Just the opposite! Oftentimes converts are more sincere and passionate about their Judaism than Jews by birth. These qualities should be sought after… and admired!

2) If you know of converts, remember that they likely do not have the same robust Jewish family infrastructure you may have. Keep these inspiring Jews in mind when you make your guest lists for Shabbat and Yom Tov.

3) More generally, the commandment to love the convert is really a mitzvah about keeping our eyes open for people in the community who do not fit into the regular mold. Every Jewish community is composed of wonderful individuals who do not have a vibrant social structure. Not everyone is blessed with a spouse, children and grandchildren. God’s constant demand that we remember our experiences in Egypt is a clarion call that we care for all those who need an extra dose of love and kindness.

Converts are a special class of Jews. We as a community have so much to learn from their self-sacrifice and passion for Judaism. Each and every convert deserves to be cherished, loved and embraced.

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book on the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, edited by Grunny Zlotnick and Professor Joan Zlotnick.


Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi at Young Israel of Fort Lee.

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