Gil Mann is the author of: How to Get More Out of Being Jewish Even If:
A. You are not sure you believe in God,
B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time,
C. You think keeping kosher is stupid,
D. You hated Hebrew School, or
E. All of the above!
Gil's work on this book, on America Online, and this column are all done pro-bono. You are invited to his area of AOL (Keyword: Judaism Today,) for a free download of the first 2 chapters of his book and other Questions and answers with Gil. He welcomes your E-Mail comments and questions about this column or any subject. Write to DearGil@aol.com. To order the book ($17.95) call: 800-304-9925.
Are Converts Treated as Second Class?
I always had a deep fascination with Judaism since I could remember. I believe my parents both have Jewish blood in their veins. My mother's maiden name is Lewin. Further evidence is that my late father's hometown, Siedlce, Poland, was populated by 17,000 Polish Jews before WW II. Unfortunately, any genealogy information is probably most likely lost or destroyed during the war.
I am wondering should I or shouldn't I convert to Judaism? I always get the feeling that born Jews are more resentful and distant to the Jews-by-choice. I think the Jews by birth feel offended when Jews-bychoice convert. Do Jews treat Jews-by-choice like second-class citizens?
Shalom. In my experience, sadly the answer many times is yes. This is a shame on many levels, not the least of which is that the founding father of Judaism--Abraham--converted to Judaism, and King David is a descendant of a most famous convert: Ruth!
In addition, Jewish law repeatedly prohibits mistreatment of converts. One of the greatest rabbis of all time, Maimonides (known as the RAMBAM) wrote: "Toward father and mother we are commanded honor and reverence, toward the prophets to obey them, but toward proselytes we are commanded to have great love in our inmost hearts."
In keeping with this teaching, I am also able to answer your question with the response that many Jews accept converts fully. I have heard from converts who were so warmly welcomed that their feelings of conviction about conversions were only strengthened as a result of their wonderful reception from Jews by birth.
As for the second-class citizenship reaction, I offer several possible explanations. First, many Jews carry the hurt of centuries of persecution from gentile neighbors, and this colors their view of non-Jews. I think many also feel that this pain is something we Jews own and a person who converts (and whose relatives did not suffer anti-Semitism--or worse, whose relatives may have persecuted Jews) does not have the same kind of "ownership" of Judaism as a Jew by birth whose ancestors suffered.
Also, I have heard Jews by birth express skepticism and cynicism about the sincerity of a Jew-by-choice's conversion. Converting "just to marry" a Jew is often cited. Marriage is one of many possible events or "stirrings" in a person's life that might motivate them to convert to Judaism. I am fine with marriage being one such event. Marrying someone is a huge life decision that should involve deep soul searching. If part of that soul searching includes a reevaluation of one's faith and an embracing of the Jewish way of life, then I say "God bless." Becoming a Jew is a huge sacrifice and commitment and I greatly honor any Jew-by-choice who sincerely embraces Judaism. As I have written in the past, I wish all Jews by birth (Jews by chance I call us,) would be as serious about their Judaism as many of the converts I have met!
A problem arises in the eyes of many Jews (including mine), however, when a person converts to Judaism because that person is marrying a Jew, but following the marriage practices no Judaism... or even continues to practice his or her original religion (i.e., actively celebrating Christmas). Still, in my experience this is the exception. In fact, I have found that in couples where one of the partners has converted to Judaism, the convert is often more committed to Judaism than the Jew by birth.
I must say in closing that the danger in all that I have written is that I am generalizing. Whenever a person generalizes they are asking for trouble because there are so many exceptions. Still, I offer these answers to you in the hope that you will not be dissuaded from your interest to pursue Judaism. And I offer these words to others, in the hope that the "distance" often felt by Jews by choice be eliminated. Instead, we should welcome converts as a blessing to our people with the following RAMBAM teaching in mind: peace be unto converts... fellow pupils of OUR father Abraham.
Thanks for writing!