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I, Ruth: On Converts, Community, and Continuation

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On conversion day in 2011, I told my beit din that I believed there was a prophetic aspect to being a Jew-by-choice. Shortly before I began rabbinical school this week, my rabbi pointed out to me a saying from the Talmud: gerim hador, edim hador. Converts in every generation tend to be the witnesses of that generation. In the past week I encountered a contrasting perspective suggesting that converts should be, essentially, silent about the fact that they are converts. So this isn’t necessarily the post I originally intended to write. 

Originally, I wanted to celebrate the continuation of the Ruth Roundtable, so let’s do that first. Hurray! Last year, a friend from Hyde Park’s KAM Isaiah Israel and I founded a discussion group for Jews-by-choice in the Chicago area. We named ourselves the Ruth Roundtable, after Judaism’s most celebrated convert. At the time we didn’t get very far. The Sunday immediately following Yom Kippur (four days ago as I write this), however, was another story. Half a dozen JBCs and folks on or considering Jewish journeys came together at a coffee shop in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood to continue the conversation.

Our topic for the day was the relative worth of our non-Jewish backgrounds, families, and experiences–that is, whether converts’ non-Jewish backgrounds are worthy and important to the Jewish people as a whole. I know my response, which the group shared as well. Before I get to that response, though, it’s important to note how that ended up being our topic of discussion in the first place.

On Yom Kippur morning, impassioned comments were shared from the bimah of my shul about the allegedly tenuous nature of Jewish continuation. (Given that we have, indeed, continued as a people for millennia, I don’t agree with that kind of stark, survivalist frame of Judaism, but that’s not the point.) These comments were directed to “every Jew in this Sanctuary today,” and we were told that without the heroic efforts of specific individuals during the Second World War, there would have been no Jews left today. No “Jewish blood” would have been left to continue our tradition. No Jew in the room would have had the born “Jewish mothers and fathers” that they were all blessedly lucky to have had.

If you can’t tell what’s missing from the rhetoric above, it is Jews-by-choice. Converts, by definition, have “Jewish mothers and fathers” by covenant only, not by blood. And while our blood may be Jewish blood, it didn’t begin that way.

But our experience–and very existence–was nowhere to be heard. The comments were made as if converts simply did not exist. Not during World War II–as if no one born outside of our tradition would (or did) join it, replenish it, and help save it. As if none of us were sitting on Yom Kippur morning in that very Sanctuary. As if converts are not and have not always been a seminal part of the Jewish experience. Our part of the story was, simply, edited out.

Today, I learned why. Our tradition is clear that Jews-by-birth must not discriminate against converts because they are converts, or treat or consider them any less than full-fledged Jews–which, by dint of Jewish law, is exactly what they are. However, as I have been made to realize, some of us believe that Jews-by-choice, themselves, should not self-identify as converts at all after they have joined our people. Should not even think of themselves as having ever been anything other than Jews. Should consider any language addressed to Jews-by-birth concerning an unbroken Jewish bloodline as being directed to them as well. And “shouldn’t”–as in, have no real right to–feel any insult over such language, because they shouldn’t be thinking of themselves as Jews-by-choice or promoting a sense of community as Jews-by-choice.

There is so much to unpack here, and honestly, I don’t really want to be the one to unpack it. It was heartbreaking enough to learn that some of us think converts don’t have a right to define their own identity. But the trouble is, I feel it should be unpacked. Gerim hador, edim hador, after all.

So…what exactly does “Jews” mean when we say it–and especially when our Jewish leaders say it? How does one go about simply keeping their entire non-Jewish past out of the conversation? How does one’s non-Jewish past simply cease being relevant to one’s identity?

For that matter, why would someone outside of your, for want of a better term, identity group, think they have a right to define your group for you? Usually we’re asking why non-Jews try to delegitimize us. The question becomes almost heart-breaking when it concerns delegitimization within the Jewish community, itself.

No one at the table on Sunday thought that their non-Jewish backgrounds were irrelevant to their lives as Jews. Quite the opposite, actually. The consensus was that if we had not been born into other traditions, we would not be the Jews we are today. Had we been born Jews, we likely would not take Judaism as seriously and as emotionally as we do. We would not make it such a focus of our lives, and by living deeply Jewishly so often inspire Jews-by-birth to take a deeper, renewed, loving look at elements of their birth tradition that long ago they may have rejected. (There’s that prophetic aspect of being a Jewish convert.)

We would also not carry with us fresh and alternative perspectives on Judaism–perspectives that lead to a widening of our people’s conversation through Jew-by-choice blogs (like this one), Jew-by-choice community leaders, Jew-by-choice minyans. And of course Jew-by-choice rabbinical students and rabbis.

There is not one moment of the Jew-by-choice experience–not ever–that we are not aware that we were born as non-Jews. There is often not a moment that we don’t celebrate that fact, too. This is something that was completely missed by those Yom Kippur comments–most Jewish converts would not trade their non-Jewish mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, and childhoods for the world.

To assume that we don’t or wouldn’t value those things, much less to tell us that we shouldn’t, no matter how well-meaning the assumption, is unfair, and not a little audacious. We don’t edit Ruth’s Moabite past out of the cannon. We Jews-by-choice will not have our non-Jewish pasts edited out, either.

For those fellow Jews who haven’t been paying attention–and I guess there are more than I realized–there is a thriving Jew-by-choice community on this planet. We meet in email, we meet in online forums, we meet in conversion classes, we meet on blogs, and sometimes we even meet for coffee. We are not the same as Jews-by-choice, no matter how that may unnerve some born Jews to hear. No matter how far away from your birth tradition you went in your life, as a Jew-by-birth the fundamental difference will always remain the same: you had the tradition by birth in the first place. We didn’t. That matters–especially to us.

As Jews-by-choice, we have a halachic right not to be stereotyped or singled out or thought of as inferior Jews. But we also have a right to tell our stories and have our stories told. To have our experience validated by our fellow Jews. You couldn’t–and I’ll furthermore give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you wouldn’t–dare to tell a black Jew that their unique experience didn’t matter, or walk into a Sisterhood meeting and say that the unique experience of Jewish women didn’t matter. No one has a right to say that the experience of Jewish converts doesn’t matter, either.

And frankly, we won’t stand for it, even if you try.

On the highest holy day in the entire Jewish calendar, it is not far-fetched to assume that every synagogue-affiliated Jew-by-choice was sitting there in the Sanctuary to hear their story edited out of the story of our people. That should never happen in any Sanctuary. I pray it never happens again in mine.

We are a wide, diverse, and ever-changing people of this covenant. We have a duty to respect each other’s privacy. We have an equal duty to hear each other’s stories. Most of all, we have a right to tell them. If it weren’t for Ruth, the House of David would never have been, and we wouldn’t have a path to the moshiach. We don’t shy away from telling her story. Why should the rules be different for any convert?

One of the most central aspects of our tradition is knowing, honoring, and gaining insight from where we have been, and from those who came before us. Without the acknowledged experience of Jews-by-choice, how much less rich a tradition ours would be. And if you haven’t guessed by now, working–openly, joyfully, publicly–with Jews-by-choice is one of the most important reasons I am entering the rabbinate.

For I will never return to Moab. But I–and we–will always remember it well. 

Categories: COMMUNITY Emanuel Congregation JEWISH CONVERSION

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion

Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

10 replies

  1. Great post! I heart your website. Would you be able to share your favorite online forum for Jews-by-choice and those considering conversion? I am hungry to meet others. I LOVE your idea about the Ruth Roundtable. Would you mind if I used that same name for a DC branch?

    1. Hi! Thank you for reading, Deborah. A small but very friends forum I could recommend is the Jewsbychoice.org forum. It is a forum created by members of a former, major JBC online community that was shut down suddenly by its admin a couple of years ago. I’m honored that you love the Ruth Roundtable idea. Please, use the name and make it awesome in D.C.! Let me know how it goes!

  2. Great post Michael, and as one who is considering taking her first steps along the path to conversion one I read with great interest. My father was a convert, although in his case from Protestant to Roman Catholic. At his funeral a a priest friend described him as a Catholic who enriched his faith community with the traditions of his Protestant past. Dad himself described his conversion as rejoining the “Faith of my Fathers”.

    I always knew that my parents viewed God and their relationship to the faith community differently. Mom, bless her has always done things in a very dogmatic way. If you do X then Y will happen, why? That is what the church has always taught us, there for it is to be believed, end of conversation. At the age of 12 Dad placed a King James bible in my hands and told me to read this book, listen to the priests but to follow my own mind as I was responsible for my soul. As any Catholic could tell you this is a very non Catholic point of view, yet it was his as a Catholic.

    As a product of such two differing viewpoints within the same faith community, I consider one basic fact. My Mother as she sits in the pew brings with her the traditions of her Irish forbears as they left their home fleeing religious and political oppression. My Father sitting next to her brought his freedom of choice, ability to examine his heart and relationship to God plus one difference, for lack of a better term a vigor that enriched and strengthened his chosen faiths “gene pool”. In a way my Mother never could, by true choice of his faith with the foundation of his past.

    As I take my first shaky steps along what I believe is the faith path I was to find in my middle years. Just like my Father before me I also hope to bring to my community of choice a mature yet newly born follower of the faith of my Fathers and Mothers. With passion and vigor bringing the unique gift of the convert to the fold, the strength of free choice in light of totality of experience.

  3. Thank you so much for your words. I too believe that the person I am today is the sum of all the places I have been and all the things I have known. To pretend that that never existed is to deny the miracles that Gd had created in my life.

  4. No one at the table on Sunday thought that their non-Jewish backgrounds were irrelevant to their lives as Jews. Quite the opposite, actually.

    Well…

    I didn’t answer the question then precisely because I’m not sure how much difference it would have made at all. I actually kind of do think my previous background is pretty much irrelevant, honestly. I have a hard time even imagining the answer to the “Would you feel the same if you were raised Jewish?” question, since my parents were so archetypally WASP that I’d probably be an unrecognizably different person if I had been.

    1. The beauty of JBCs is that we are varied as Jews-by-birth. But I wonder what your answer to the question would be if you did think about it. Your background as an “archetypal” WASP is not materially different from the backgrounds of many JBCs I’ve met who might have a different answer than you think you would about the meaning in their non-Jewish pasts. Whether we come into Judaism easily or via soul-searching and struggle, it seems to me it is our backgrounds–who who were and how we got there before we got to Judaism–that determine how we will meet and engage with our new tradition from the ground up.

      1. Oh, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it. Perhaps it’s just thinking of the question in religious terms that leads to the disconnect in my mind, and I’d have a different answer if I took a more expansive definition of background.

        It’s also possible that I’m an outlier. During that Intro to Judaism class I took, I was the only person who didn’t mention their religious upbringing in the round-the-room self-introduction because I didn’t think it was relevant.

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