Let's talk conversion (1)
Updated: Nov 15, 2018
So what's this conversion business about I hear you asking, eh? eh? Probably not exactly like that – but you're likely still wondering, somewhere in that big big brain of yours.
Right – I did kind of make it part of the title so I likely only have myself to blame for your reasonable inquiry – and thus begins our tale. Gather around my friends and get a blanket...it may be a rather long post.
Making Aliyah and Who is a Jew
First question we should get out of the way is: "Why would you even cover this topic? I thought we were talking Aliyah here, not conversion? Stick to the topic please!" Whelp - the main reason for covering this topic is to establish provenance if you will. And yes, I just turned myself into a priceless artifact there with that nifty word. In all seriousness, conversion is a tricky topic for many folks on all sides of the 'Jewish spectrum'. "Why is it a tricky topic?" I hear you asking.
My my, you are full of good questions today.
It's tricky because there are various strong viewpoints on what is considered a valid conversion and what is not. What makes a Jew a Jew? Now we're getting deep. It also impacts the 'right to make Aliyah' and how potential Olim are treated during the Aliyah process. It can also impact where your children are allowed to go to school and what synagogue/congregation you're allowed to daven with. It will also come up when we talk about feelings associated with making Aliyah, and the complications it can add to the picture - which may in turn be closer to how some folks from North American feel about the prospect of making Aliyah. In other words – I hope it helps you.
I also feel I have a bit of a unique viewpoint on this topic because I did investigate various options for conversion until I selected the path that I felt was 'most correct halachically' – or closest I could get to Emet for the conversion. Last but not least, the number of conversions has dramatically increased in the last few years – as reported by many of the Kiruv Rabbi's that are actively involved on the forefront of educating Jews via the internet. Without further ado - let's get to the story.
Please note: All names have been changed as well as any ability to identify the folks involved due to any potential risks around Lashon Hara.
You Need a Rabbi?
Once upon a time, there was young man around the age of 30 who we'll call C. C was dating a young Jewish lady, whom we'll call M. M's background was quite secular - except the noted oddity around having separate sinks for milk and meat in her parents house, and the yearly Pesach and Yom Kippur get together - but otherwise things functioned pretty similar to what C was familiar with. C grew up in a goyishe suburban household where the major spending holidays (X-mas, Thanksgiving, Easter etc) were observed - but absolutely no religion. C&M lived together downtown in the big city and worked in software, doing their hustle, and eventually they bought a property together. Time went on - and they decided they wanted to get married, and contacted a Jewish wedding planner that had been recommended.
The planner arrived at the designated time at M's parent's house. M and her parents, as well as the planner and C sat down together in the brightly lit contemporary kitchen of M's parents house to hash out the details. The first question the wedding planner asked was whether C & M were both Jewish. M's parents confirmed her Jewish identity, but obviously C was not. Given that answer, the wedding planner then asked whether they were planning on having an 'officiant' perform the ceremony - which essentially means that it would be an individual who was licensed to perform a wedding ceremony and no religion would be involved. C, to everyone's surprise, promptly replied that he wanted a Rabbi.
Now the gravity of this moment was not readily apparent to me until many years later, but this is where it all began; a well-intentioned question with an innocent response that lead to a radical departure from my known lifestyle and propelled me in directions that I hadn't even imagined - and now possibly to the other side of the world - but more on that later. I digress. The conversation, amusingly, went something like this:
C: "No I don't want an officiant, I want a Rabbi"
Wedding Planner(WP): "Unfortunately most Rabbi's will not preside over a wedding ceremony unless both participants are Jewish"
C: "Then I'll become Jewish"
...I think it was around here that most of the participants at the table looked at each other in a slight amount of shock.
WP: "Ok - are you sure that's what you'd like to do?"
WP: "Ok I know someone that can do the conversion in about 6 months, and we can still keep the timeline we talked about, I'll send you the contact details"
And just like that we were off on our conversion journey. M contacted the Rabbi and we set an appointment time to meet with him at his 'place of worship'. I was rather nervous about the conversion and meeting a Rabbi, mostly because of the need to have to try to articulate why I wanted to convert, and being assessed on sincerity. I've never been comfortable with the concept of trying to 'convince' someone that I'm telling them the truth - and this inherent 'anxiety' I had was going to be tested time and time again over the next few years. It's strange, I know, but just go with it for now.
At any rate - we met with him - he was a warm, portly man in his mid 30's with a beard and the 'black hat' attire. He invited me to attend one of his classes for converts - which conveniently enough was in session at the time we were there. I reluctantly accepted, and followed him in to a large office that was dominated by a thick wooden desk of the University professor style and adorned with several aquariums filled with fish, turtles and other fresh water creatures and plants. As the gentle hum of the air pumps filtered into my consciousness interrupting a slight sense of disbelief, I noted that were also 2 couches and some comfortable chairs in somewhat of a semi-circle, occupied with students waiting for the class to start. I awkwardly took a spot on the couch next to a man who looked to be an ex-professional hockey player in his mid 40's, and waited for the class to start. The Rabbi let us know that he had to leave for a few moments and exited the room.
"So why are you here?" the burly x-hockey player looking man asked me rather pointedly as soon as the Rabbi had left.
I was caught a little off guard by the rather invasive question but responded that I was interested in converting. Burly-x-Hockey-man raised his eyebrows in a 'ya right' expression and lowered his voice to conspiratorially whisper
"Listen, you don't have to lie to me, I'm not the Rabbi. I'm only here because she.." at that point he gestured to the woman sitting next to him "is making me. She told me if I didn't convert, we couldn't be together anymore. So why are you here?"
I told him I was genuinely interested in conversion - that no one was making me convert. He responded surprised that M's family, or better yet - M herself wasn't forcing me through this process.
Luckily the Rabbi returned at that point as I felt the conversation was starting to get more than a little awkward. At any rate - the Rabbi placed some food on the table in the middle of the students, and opened it up and started the lesson.
"Whether you believe in G*d or you don't believe in G*d, it doesn't matter." he began. "What matters are the cultural aspects of Judaism - because that's what Judaism is. Cultural. What's cultural? Bagels and cream cheese, Rugelach, matza balls, these kinds of things.." he gestured with his hands at the food "...are cultural. It's what we do on a day to day basis that is Judaism."
Disappointment. Sheer and utter disappointment. To me this wasn't like one of those disappointments where you were passed up for a promotion that you had worked so hard for. This to me was more like you've been dating someone for a little bit and you think maybe you're in love - and then you find out they are hollow and shallow rather than the person of substance you thought they were. While I myself wasn't religious, I had spent the better part of my life up until this point looking for the truth - and was heavily disillusioned by what I had found throughout my life. Here I expected some answers - not "G*d? Nah, just food!"
Anyhoo, I quickly started looking for the exit and wondered if faking rabies or some sort of coronary would be out of the question. Instead, I kept my mouth shut, nodded politely and watched the people devour the snacks while I looked for an opportune window to leave. In hindsight I probably should have done the rabies bit. My frothing and convulsions are top notch.
And that was the end of Rabbi encounter #1.
If you're still with me – and I know its long – I've decided to split this into several posts. You can find the next post (part 2) in the series here.