For the week ending 6 May 2006 / 8 Iyyar 5766

Conversing Conversion

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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The following are excerpts from correspondence between “Ask” and a young woman interested in converting to Judaism.

From: Sarah in NE

Dear Rabbi,

My father's side is either not religious or take on Buddhist/Tao practices. My mother's side comes from a long line of Southern Baptist ministers. My siblings and I were "forced" to believe in a Southern Baptist context and I was told everyday that if I didn't believe what they taught, repent my sins and give my soul to Jesus I would be damned to hell and my life would be miserable.

I rejected these terms as soon as I was old enough to understand what they meant. It was not just a sense of rebellion but my internal sense telling me what they were teaching me wasn't right. I didn't believe that I should fear G-d just because He feels in order for me to be worthy of heaven I need to be punished first to show Him my faith — I was created in His image and therefore worthy to be in heaven and that my experience there will be determined by my actions here.

I was 8 when I was first exposed to Jewish culture. I changed schools and a young boy in my class was Jewish. He told me about the holidays he celebrated/observed, the rituals and traditions he followed and invited me to attend an activity set up by the synagogue. It was one of the most enlightening experiences I've ever had. A community with such a strong bond was amazing to see, especially in a small southern town that openly persecuted people who thought outside Christian views. I had to hide the fact that I attended the activity, and even that I had a Jewish friend at all, from my family. I was a month from my 13th birthday when I finally told my mother I wanted to convert to Judaism. She was horrified, to say the least, at my decision and I was told that I had to move out and I was no longer welcome around my family.

I am now 18 and still study and learn everyday, I would like to make an official conversion and hope to move to Israel as soon as possible. My boyfriend is a Jew and lives in Israel with his family and he openly supports my decision to convert and is willing to help me where he can. So, my hope is that with this information you can point me in the right direction to where I need to go to help make this happen.

Dear Sarah,

I commend you on your spiritual pursuit in general, and in your interest in Judaism in particular. If you want to convert in America, you must find a reliable rabbi there to guide you. If you want to move to Israel, you might consider going through the conversion here. That would involve enrolling in an acceptable women's seminary and applying for conversion with the Israeli Rabbinate. Please be aware that whatever you choose to do, there are different groups within Judaism today, and only Orthodox conversions are accepted by everyone. This requires a commitment to the Jewish belief in G-d and to keep the commandments of the Torah and of the Rabbis according to the traditional and ancient understanding of Jewish Law.

Sarah: Thank you for responding back to me so quickly, it is appreciated. My hope would be to convert in Israel. If I am not Orthodox will I be allowed to marry in Israel as long as I have an Orthodox ceremony? Will my 'future' children be considered Jewish?

Rabbi: As far as I know, non-Orthodox conversions done in Israel are not recognized by the Israeli government. Ones done outside of Israel are. However, this is only as far as gaining Israeli citizenship as a "Jewish" citizen is concerned. As far as marriage in Israel, it is done through the Rabbinate and only Orthodox conversions are accepted. A woman converted non-Orthodox and married outside of Israel might be viewed by the Israeli government as married, but the Rabbinate would not consider the couple married or the children Jewish. Eventually when the children would want to marry in Israel they would not be able to.

You have had a long search into Judaism, and I'm sure you know a lot about the subject. May I nevertheless take the liberty to share with you that in the years I have been helping Jews and non-Jews come closer to Judaism, many people originally interested in non-Orthodox conversion, including many who actually converted through those movements, came to realize that they are lacking, and eventually came to desire Orthodoxy. It is possible that you might feel the same after coming to Israel, learning in an authentic seminary with other thinking and sensitive young women like yourself. If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.

[Sarah described her distaste with what she referred to as a so-called rabbi who offered to convert her on-line for between $1800-$3600. In addition to many obvious objections, she writes:] “So I explained to him that I thought of Judaism as a caring, giving family and to obligate future members to do this isn't setting a very good example, and that as a rabbi, he should know that above everyone else.” [She then explained why she had not initially considered Orthodoxy:]I was told that I was not allowed to convert to Orthodoxy because I was born to a gentile woman who wasn't married. Is this true?

Rabbi: You certainly do have an interesting past to say the least. But it in no way disqualifies you from becoming a Jew according to Jewish Law. Your unique past makes you all the more special, and can be harnessed in a positive way to enable you to contribute to the world as a person and a Jew in wonderful ways. [We explained the option of following the Noahide Laws, to which she replied that she was well aware of that, but wants to observe the commandments as a Jew.]

Sarah: The person who told me that I wasn't allowed to convert to Orthodoxy was a Jewish woman actually. She lives here and she told me that because I was born of sin to a non-Jewish mother I wouldn't be allowed to become a "full-Jew", that I could practice if I chose, but I wasn't allowed to be considered one. I had no other resources, so even though I considered it pretty harsh, I had to take her word. If this is not true then I am certainly open to exploring this option more, as I have heard of several non-Orthodox converts who later became Orthodox because they felt their chosen movement was less than what they originally thought. Is there by chance a website where I can view these seminaries?

[We referred her to several seminaries.] I'm very happy you sent me those links to learn more about those seminaries. Thank you! I have looked a lot more into Orthodoxy and have seen for myself that it is the right path for me - even though it’s much more difficult than the other movements. That by itself should be more reason to do it. Also, after looking more into the other movements, I don't believe that they have a 'right' to dismiss the Torah or the Talmud and say they are simply out-dated and we have no use for them anymore. I don't believe that we have a right to choose which commandments and holidays we follow and celebrate just because they suit us better; that’s not the reason they were given to us. So I want to thank you for opening my eyes to this.

Rabbi: You have mentioned your boyfriend here in Israel a few times and it sounds that you are both interested in getting married. I understand that your interest in Judaism started long before you met him. Still, I was wondering, if for whatever reason your relationship with him wouldn't continue, what would you do regarding your interest in Judaism and Israel?

Sarah: If it did unfortunately happen that we would part ways, I would still continue converting. He is a part of my incentive to continue because I understand the bad side of intermarriage. A lot of anti-Semitism stems from intermarriage and many people turn away from the faith because of it, and I don't want to be someone to contribute to that. Even if it won’t be him that I marry, it will be another Jew, and G-d willing my children will have two Jewish parents and not just one.

[Later Sarah reported] I was quite persistent with the Orthodox synagogue in Omaha (3 hours from my home) and explained to them my situation and hopefully showed them a little bit of my sincerity in my quest and I received a reply yesterday to set up an appointment.

Thank you so much Rabbi for your support and encouragement, Shalom!

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