Everyone has certain issues which are especially close to their heart. It might be a particular area of halacha, or a social issue; perhaps you are an advocate for furthering women’s involvement in communal life, or for eliminating child abuse in the Jewish community. For me, the issue is the treatment of geirim (converts).
The Torah is very clear about how we should treat gerim. We are not only commanded to love every Jew, but there is an additional commandment to love converts. We’re forbidden to remind them of their past, and in fact, we aren’t even supposed to remind them that they are converts. Their Hebrew names, ‘child of Avrohom v’Soroh’ remind us that they, too, are the children of our ancestors, and they, too, where there when the exodus from Mitzrayim took place.
So why is the reality so different for many geirim?
A part of my life in the Jewish community involves meeting and working with geirim. Many of my closest friends were not, in fact, born Jewish, and a number of others whom I have met have spoken to me about the struggles they face. Those undergoing a reform conversion often feel pushed away by orthodoxy. “I wish I could be modern Orthodox,” one friend told me. “But they’d never accept me as I am. My Jewish status is never going to be accepted by everybody, now”. Reform conversions are not halachically accepted. Although reform converts can make aaliyah, they cannot get married in Israel, or marry orthodox Jews.
I spoke to reform converts about how they feel about this. “I would never want to move to Israel, anyway,” one told me. “Why would I want to go there if they aren’t going to treat me as a Jew?”. Another told me that the issue of their Jewish status plagued them every day, and a third began an orthodox conversion, even though she disagreed with some social elements of orthodoxy. “I wanted to do a ‘proper’ conversion,” she told me, but she ended up quitting the conversion due to the shul’s treatment of her.
It’s easy for me, as someone who was born into this religion, to say that they aren’t dedicated enough. This is an exclusive club, and if people aren’t even willing to sacrifice corporeal pleasures, why should we be expected to accept them? But is that the reality- or are we making conversion unnecessarily hard?
When we look at Megillas Rus, the story of Judaism’s most famous convert, and the commentaries surrounding it, we find that conversion was probably a lot simpler ‘back then’. By today’s standards, it is unlikely that Rus would be accepted as a Jew! Understandably, things are different nowadays, and conversion requires a lot of dedication. This means years spent studying, shul attendance, and, of course, keeping the mitzvos. We also know that it’s forbidden to encourage conversion, and that it’s customary to discourage converts- but do we go too far in discouraging them?
The orthodox converts whom I have met largely agree. One told me that they are anxious every time they have a meeting or receive an email from the Beis Din, as they ‘just know’ that they will be rejected. I happen to know that they are extremely dedicated, but the fear remains. Another has been offered next to no support from their sponsoring rabbi, who seems to take discouraging conversion to an entirely new level. They shared their fears about what will happen after conversion, as well; “People have refused to accept me as a Jew, even though I converted Orthodox,” one told me. “I’ll never get married,” another wrote. “Who would want to marry a convert?”.
I think about some of the converts I know. Not only are they close friends, but many are, in fact, role models. They have endured not only the gruelling conversion process, but the ups and downs of difficult lives- and they have remained faithful throughout. They inspire me, but they also make me wonder if I could ever endure the prejudice they have faced. The most recent generation of converts, and those in the conversion process, seem worried about their future. They feel that people are not only making conversion as hard as possible- something they can almost understand- but they completely forget the mitzvah of never reminding a convert of their past, and allow prejudice to seep into their interactions with converts. Almost all of the people I have spoken to faced discrimination at some point, and others reported physical attacks in supposedly ‘frum’ areas.
So what exactly should we do?
I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?
But above all, I’m asking us to look at the way we treat converts. If you’re reading this article right now, it’s unlikely that you contribute greatly to the issue, but the problem of discrimination against converts is very real, very widespread, and very ossur. Converts already have challenges. Many spend festivals alone, without families to go to; others lose their jobs for taking time off. Lots of them face anti-Semitism from family and old friends, and throughout, many feel that they lack a support system. We need to be that support system. Not just because it’s a mitzvah, but because the prejudice is real, and if we want to be good Jews, we need to recognise that, and counter it with true ahavos Yisroel.