Searching for a Better Conversation

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Today’s blog entry comes to us from Valerie Jones, a participant in our program for women Jews-by-choice, Empowering Ruth. When people ask her about her decision to convert, she feels that is the perfect opportunity to explore deeper conversations about everyone’s connection to Judaism.

Once I was invited to a Shabbat dinner where one person present, the hostess, happened to know I was a convert to Judaism. When the first person arrived, the hostess hurried to my side (I didn’t know any of the other guests) and breathlessly introduced me with the words “this is Valerie and she’s a Convert.” Four more guests arrived in quick succession and four more times I was introduced as the “Convert.” I am frequently asked if I am a Convert, something I chalk up to my Irish looks and non-traditional Jewish name of Jones. But even for me, being “out’ed” as a Convert five times in 10 minutes was a record.

The rabbis teach that once someone has converted to Judaism, he or she is a Jew like any other Jew in the community. Jews are not to call attention to the origins of the Convert so as to protect the dignity of the Convert. This, of course, is the right thing to do. But there is so much more going on in this conversation between Born Jews and Converts than any potential attempts at public humiliation.

In fact, what I always hear in the voice of the Born Jew, just as I did that Shabbat evening, is a fascination with the idea that anyone would convert to Judaism. When I was introduced it was in the same tone that one might say, “this is Valerie and she’s an astronaut from Botswana.”

It is this tone that stops me cold from reminding people of the rabbinic prohibition. I am fascinated by their fascination. For me, the perplexing question isn’t why someone would convert to a religion that has beautiful rituals, sacred values, is spiritually inspiring and intellectually engaging. It’s why anyone wouldn’t. The fact that I wanted to convert is wholly unremarkable in my eyes. This is why when the inevitable question arises, “why did you convert?” I find it so puzzling and hard to answer.

This gap in perspectives is Grand Canyon-like. We may all be a part of one community, but our paths to that community have made us different. This is not a negative.

It is within the gaps of our Torah, when the sense of a verse is the most obscure, that affords the greatest opportunity for discovering new meanings from the text. The process of midrash asks each individual to cull answers from his or her own experience so that a previously undiscovered significance of the text emerges. How we have questioned and struggled for our Jewish identity is one of the most fascinating discussions we can have in our community, but only if we pay attention to and are honest about how we view that identity.

What is embedded in the question “why did you convert” is a fascination with the dynamics of how and why we believe. So how do we construct a conversation that explores this deeper question?

First, we start with a two way conversation. Too often “why did you convert” devolves into a short question and answer period with the Born Jew always being the questioner and the convert struggling to provide easily digestible sound bite answers. At times, it feels more like an interrogation than a conversation. The question “why be Jewish” is not just a question exclusive to converts – it is a question that all modern Jews need to answer. So the first task is to create genuine dialogue capable of expanding beyond the answers of a single convert.

Second, we establish a conversation that is a “safe zone” for all expressions and questions about our pathways to understanding what it means to be Jewish. We make it acceptable for a Born Jew to admit that part of the reason he is amazed by Converts is because he’s not always been happy identifying as a Jew and isn’t sure, given the choice, he would choose to be one. We listen to the Convert who says that astonishing intellectual explanations of why she converted were never as inspiring as watching a Jew, wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl), praying with reverence. What moves and inspires us is not simple, easily understood or straightforward. It is a collage of experiences, beliefs, relationships, failures, inspirations, and frustrations. Any conversation that is honest about why we choose to identify and live as Jews must be every bit as rich and messy as our daily lives. A better conversation is out there waiting for us. We just need to breathe into it the truth of who we are.

Whether through conversion or soul-searching, we all transform our belief over time. What is significant about how each of us personally arrived at our Jewishness? It is this: each individual’s story can provide the footlights for another’s path to understanding. It’s the fulfillment of the mitzvah to teach Torah and to “speak of it along the way” – for what is a struggle for meaning but “a way” or a journey?

Being a Convert is a piece of my Jewish experience, but it is not the centerpiece of my Jewish life – that center belongs to God, Torah, Israel. I have the right to decide when to reveal my non-Jewish roots, but I also recognize that the very presence of a Convert prompts conversations about all of our connection to Judaism. When this happens, our challenge is to speak about and open up to the difficult questions of what it means to identify as a Jew. Doing so will help us all strengthen our connection to that center.

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