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Why does everyone stare at me in shul? My hair is furrier, fuzzier and a foot taller than everyone else's. Even among 'my people' in the Dominican Republic, I am considered rather pale; but in a crowd of Ashkenazi Jews, people tend to see my measly tan as exotic. My skin color, my hair texture and my facial features all betray my desire to blend in. I only wish I could tell all the gawkers outright that, just two years ago, I was a non-practicing Catholic running around in cleavage-enhancing tank tops and short shorts.
Why do people decide to convert to Judaism? It's a question that converts--especially those of us who don't aesthetically blend in--are asked incessantly over the course of our journey into Judaism. Many people make assumptions: "Oh, she's just doing it to marry a Jew." And for the non-Caucasian convert, the journey is complicated by race and ethnicity. I am Hispanic, a first-generation Dominican-American. I am black, white and Other. But being Jewish is what I identify with most of all, even though people can't see it.
At 12 years old, when I told my Catholic mother that I wanted to be Jewish, she slapped me silly. That was when I found out my family was staunchly anti-Semitic, despite the Star of David I stole from my mother's nightstand. (She also wore a cross, and I'm still not totally sure what it was doing there.)
As the daughter of immigrants, I had only just realized that there were other options outside the mix of Catholicism and Santeria--Spanish voodoo--practiced in my home. Even living in Washington Heights, around the corner from Yeshiva University, I assumed everyone was also Catholic and had little altars at home where their mothers made offerings to saints.
It took a visit from a Holocaust survivor, a trip to Yeshiva University's museum and one excursion to the local library's religion section, and I was sold. After all, as a child in Sunday school, everyone had drawn Jesus when we were told to draw G-d, and I had only squiggled my yellow crayon around and said "G-d is light." The nun was perturbed. But I cringed whenever I heard "in Jesus's name we pray," or when I saw all the idols in church.
It wasn't until after college, many non-observant Jewish boyfriends later, that I rediscovered Judaism. My best friend, a sworn atheist, had met a rabbi and gone Orthodox. Instead of freaking out, as many of his friends did, I asked him for books and websites, and when I told my family about it, my sisters said, "Well, great … didn't you always want to be Jewish?"
At the beginning of a religious conversion process, there can be a startling and unexpected chain reaction--a change or loss of friends, a new vocabulary, a new wardrobe and a less than supportive family reaction.
"So, who are you converting for?"
"No, really? Don't you believe in Jesus?"
"You're going to hell."
"I'm sure someone will marry you even though your hair is … nappy."
And then there are those crowds of Jews, who--like some friends and family--simply don't understand who they've encountered in meeting me.
Although the American mainstream has largely accepted Jews as white, an increasing population of non-Caucasian converts is adding brown, black and yellow to the American Jewish milieu. My Muslim African-American student, Reggie, breakdanced with rabbis at my wedding and discusses Talmud with my husband, a rabbinical student. My aunt, always full of questions about Judaism, loves to tell those around her about her Orthodox Jewish niece. She wonders after speaking with a non-observant Jew, "Why call yourself Jewish if you're not doing anything Jewish?"
Do Jews who negatively react to my skin color forget that they were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land?
Sticking out like a sore thumb in your own community--the only dark or different face in the crowd--is the struggling convert's reality. These new Jews are causing ripple effects, perhaps raising the bar as they change how non-Jews look at Judaism and Jewry. The encounters of converts testify to their tenacity and dedication to staying the course, despite absurd and frustrating obstacles.
As more converts from dissimilar backgrounds join the fold, perhaps people will stop gawking at us in shul. If nothing else, it isn't very polite to stare.
David Bernstein, 40, has a Jewish father and an African-American Christian mother. He was raised as a Jew. It wasn't until his teens that Bernstein discovered he wasn't considered Jewish according to Orthodox standards. Immersing himself in his Conservative synagogue has been pretty easy; although, like many non-observant Jews who join Conservative synagogues, Bernstein struggles with his lack of Hebrew and the unfamiliar prayers. He noted that his rabbi's own experience moving from non-observance to becoming a rabbi himself helped him along his own path through conversion.
Bernstein attributes his "half-Jewish" status as part of the reason the community welcomed him with open arms. "In general, Conservative rabbis are very welcoming of half-Jews who decide to convert," Bernstein said. "They treat it as a homecoming."
And yet Bernstein's conversion is one of those stuck in the gray. Bernstein converted through the Conservative community, and today, the validity of even some Orthodox conversions are suspect.
"The impetus to finally push me to convert was wedding planning," said Bernstein. "She wanted to get married in the Long Island Conservative synagogue where she grew up, and I needed to get official in a hurry."
As the son of a Jew, Bernstein feels connected to the community, but still is challenged by his own motivation and struggles with prayers and services. "Mostly," he said, "it's hard for me to get off my butt and learn Hebrew better."
One ex-wife later, Bernstein still lives a Jewish life, and his observant relatives still admire his decision to convert. "Although for those of them who are Orthodox," Bernstein said, "a Conservative conversion is fairly meaningless."
Too many assume that conversions are done for the sake of marriage. In fact, there are a growing number of converts who are drawn to Judaism in their early teens. We all suffer from infatuation in our teens, but for these converts, Judaism has etched its way into adulthood, as well.
Rivka, a 27-year-old African-American convert, was "probably 15 or so" when she became interested in Reform Judaism. "I was looking for something more progressive than the Pentecostal church I was brought up in. When I was 16, I inquired into a Reform conversion. The rabbi said I was too young."
In college, she joined Hillel and "identified solely with the Jewish faith as my own." After graduation, she moved to Florida and converted under Reform auspices. But, she found she didn't fit in at the Reform synagogues. "They were geared either towards empty-nesters or to parents of young children." She tried dating Jewish men, but found it "pretty disappointing to see that many of these proud Jewish men had not been inside a synagogue since they were 13."
Already one of the most active and observant Jews in the synagogue, Rivka took her Jewish education into her own hands, and found Aish HaTorah.
"I had no inkling they were Orthodox," Rivka said. "Despite my negative feelings towards Orthodox Judaism in general, I stayed around for the education. Pretty soon, I found myself totally losing interest in the Reform movement. After my first Orthodox service (yes, behind the mehitzah [the partition between men and women in the synagogue]), I knew I had found where I belonged."
Is this a happy ending? Conversion is much more complicated than most people think, and Rivka's story doesn't end in a glorious homecoming. While most of the rabbis she has dealt with have been very polite, Rivka explained, "I've had to prove myself over and over in order to be taken seriously." She attributes this struggle largely to her race.
"I've gotten to the point where I have my friends," she said. "People have seen me in shul enough to figure out that I am not a visitor or a lurker." In fact, friends told her she needed a halakhic conversion, and, in spite of a few "downright rude" rabbis, she took every class on Judaism she could find.
Forming connections with people has proven difficult for Rivka, as has keeping kosher. "A lot of my favorite foods did not have a hecksher (rabbinical supervision)! Like Combos," she said. "I'm [also] irked by the insincere converts that make conversion out to be a sham," she said.
But what Rivka seems most worried by is the idea that she might not get married. "I don't trust the shidduch (religious matchmaking) system. My hope is that the Jewish people will live up to their potential for greatness and be able to see the neshamah (soul, or spirit) over the outside appearance."
Gloria, a 30-year-old Hispanic convert living in Riverdale, N.Y., knew at an early age that she wanted to be Jewish. At 10, Gloria's mother told her she wouldn't impose any religion on her. "When you are ready, you can choose for yourself," said her mother. "With your mind, heart and eyes open."
The first time Gloria attended Shabbat services, her Orthodox husband sat on the other side of the mechitzah. "I sat with a friend, who held my hand through it all. She whispered short explanations to parts of the prayer and helped me to find my place in the siddur," said Gloria. "I didn't know the order of the prayers and I hardly knew which way to turn the pages, but I felt comfortable."
A month-long conversational Hebrew class and a trip to Israel greatly helped Gloria in her path to becoming a Dominican Jewess. "During the same trip to Israel," she said, "I looked up and saw a Dominican flag…my two worlds living in harmony right there in the streets of Jerusalem."
Gloria searched for Orthodox rabbis to help her conversion along. "But most dropped contact after an initial meeting," she said. She makes excuses for them.
Gloria found a Conservative rabbi, and for the next nine months, she studied. All through that time, her rabbi made sure she knew the Orthodox point of view. When she finally made her kitchen kosher, she felt she was somehow cleansed, too. "I was purifying my soul," she said.
She left Conservative conversion classes and contacted Rabbi Avi Weiss at his modern Orthodox synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). Sara Hurwitz, HIR's Madricha Ruchanit, or religious mentor, returned Gloria's call.
Less than a year later, Gloria immersed in the ritual bath, a final rite of passage for any convert. On conversion day, she was surrounded by family, friends, her Beit Din (the rabbinical court presiding over her conversion), and Hurwitz, whom she calls her spiritual sister.
"The mikvah gave birth to me, and I was new again," Gloria said. "I understood that I could call myself a Jew, but I have so much learning left to do."
|Yitzchak Jordan, who raps under the name Y-Love, in a publicity photo.|
Yitz Jordan, 28, is an American convert with a café con leche complexion whose parents are Ethiopian and Puerto Rican. Jordan has made his face well-known in Jewish circles as Y-Love, and is a writer and hip-hop artist who won the award for Best Hip-Hop at the 2006 Jewish Music Awards. Heralded as "the scene's next crossover success" by the Jerusalem Post, Y-Love represents the new face of Judaism, but still hasn't been spared the struggles of a convert.
"Being black does make the 'convert' title a bit more salient and readily evident within the Ashkenazi community," Jordan explained. "I dealt with racism on a daily basis during the conversion process--but this changed 180 degrees after I spent a year in yeshiva at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem."
"Now," continues Jordan, "I had 'yeshiva friends,' now I had 'a year in Israel.' At that point, many of the same people who wouldn't speak to me previously were relentlessly inviting me for Shabbos meals."
Jordan finds the Hasidic community more accepting of his conversion. "The Hasidic community is such that if you want to come to the community, keep the halachah, live the cultural mores and norms, and keep the traditions and speak Yiddish, you will be accepted more or less readily," said Jordan. And then he adds, "Accepted as what is the question."
Jordan said he has wanted to be Jewish his entire life. Jordan began learning Hebrew from the siddur as a young teen, on his own. By the time he was 14, he was wearing a kippah and tzitzit, going to Shabbat services, and praying every night after high school.
He says his instinctive draw to Judaism puts people off. "People expect to hear about this huge theological soul-searching process," Jordan said. "For me, I always knew there was a group of people called 'Jews' and I wanted to be one of them."
Are the Jewish people who he expected they would be?
"I lost my mother a few years ago to coke addiction and lost a number of friends to drugs and car accidents," Jordan recounted. "One of the rabbis said in response, 'You see, this is one of the problems with the black ghetto.' I never looked at him in the same way again." Jordan hadn't mentioned to this particular rabbi that the friends he lost to drugs had been white, not black as his rabbi had assumed.
Still, another rabbi, this one from Ohr Somayach, surprised him. "After I told him of how the N-word was said in my presence at yeshiva, he said 'that young man is a baby, an idiot, he's the reason the Moshiach is not here!'"
"Because there is so little interaction between many ultra-Orthodox communities and their non-white neighbors," Jordan said, "there is no learned sensitivity that those of us who live in multicultural environments take for granted."
When Jordan tells me that he hopes to contribute to Jewish unity, I wonder if he realizes that his very presence in the community seems to be doing just that. He is open about his fears, about not reaching personal and professional goals.
"My rav says that, today, we see people paying less attention to the Torah being said than [we do] to the person who's saying it," said Jordan. "I fear that people will not want to listen to me. I fear becoming overly reactive and withdrawing myself from Torah because of other people's racism. And my biggest fear is that my words will fall on deaf ears for a century or two, until a bochur (young man) with a better last name and yichus (community status) repeats my words and is heralded as a visionary and a pioneer."
To shield himself against such fears, Jordan holds onto his grandmother's memory. Though his mother didn't support his decision to convert, Jordan's grandmother told him that his decision to convert was the best he had ever made.
"A black child born since 1980 has as much chance of being in jail by age 20 as he does being in college," Jordan said. "Here I was, saying that I wanted to dedicate my life to Torah and to a strict life within the bounds of halakhah--who would be opposed to that?"