In her recent editorial, Jane Eisner confronts what she views as the problems with Judaism’s current conversion process — and conversion’s potential usefulness in “sustaining the future” of the Jewish people.
When we speak of the modern conversion process, it’s important to separate social practices from religious mandate. Many of the issues that Eisner notes are social in nature: the stigma of calling a person a “convert” rather than a Jew, the potential shame of using one’s “Hebrew name affixed with ‘son of Abraham and Sarah’ rather than with his (presumably) non-Jewish parents,” and potentially exorbitant fees for conversion classes.
These are issues that may need to be seriously addressed, but they are problems within our own personal outlook and our own sad struggle with the Biblical injunction to “love the convert” — not problems with the mandated conversion process.
What surprises me most about Eisner’s words is the glibness with which she thinks conversions should be performed. As if being Jewish were membership in an exciting club or the latest juicing fad, she suggests that Judaism should be made accessible to everyone who merely “like[s] being [a Jew] and want[s] to pass that along.” In Eisner’s eyes, Judaism is “essentially an emotional decision” — a decision that people can easily make if they want a simple path towards a meaningful life.
But being a Jew means more than just being an ethical and upright person, enjoying a bagel with shmear, and appreciating Woody Allen, Lena Dunham or even Heschel and Buber. And Judaism already offers a potential path for non-Jews looking to live a more spiritually endowed and meaningful life: They can find it in the Seven Noahide Laws and the universal Jewish teachings on the unity of the Creator and the spiritual potential we all possess.
(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.
On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.
Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.
The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.
Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk
Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.
Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images
Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.
Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.
Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”
The Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres’s vanity international blabfest, continues today with a series of panel discussions on the woes of the global economy and the future of the Jewish people. I don’t think we’ve solved the world’s economic problems, but there have been a few bombshells dropped into the field of Jewish identity.
The most interesting was a panel on conversion, which included Rabbi Peter Knobel (Reform), Rabbi Gilah Dror (Conservative), Professor Dov Maimon (modern Orthodox think-tanker) , Israeli justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
It was supposed to include a Haredi rabbi, Yehezkel Weinfeld, but he phoned moderator Shmuel Rosner an hour before and said he couldn’t attend. No suggestion that he was sick or called to an emergency, Rosner tells me. He just couldn’t come. At the end, during Q and A, a Haredi gent rose from the audience, one Shmuel Jakobovits (son of the late, revered British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits) and said that Rabbi Weinfeld had asked him to attend in his place. Not to sit on the dais with the Reformim and lady rabbis, mind you - just to be there.
So what happened? Maimon proposed the introduction of a new form of conversion that he called “civilizational conversion,” in which one would seek membership in the religious community of the Jewish people, but without necessarily committing oneself to observe the Orthodox commandments, as Orthodox conversion now requires. This sort of reframed the discussion. He had few details — it’s apparently still an idea in infancy — but we’re going to hear more about it in months to come, you betcha.