Jul 11, 2011

Membership in the Community: Invading Your Territory


It was recently brought to my attention that some Orthodox synagogues ask on their membership forms whether you or your spouse have converted.

I'm not going to lie -- I find this incredibly invasive, unnecessary, and upsetting. It goes beyond the "once you convert you're as a Jew always." I might be willing to waiver if I knew that the only person seeing the application was the rabbi, but the membership committee of most synagogues gets the form first, and why does the membership chair need to know that I or my spouse converted? Whose right is it?

I understand that it is problematic for Jewish organizations that provide Torah education to individuals and that typically they need to know if the individual they are providing funding for is a halachic Jew (e.g., Partners in Torah), but someone who is willing to pay dues at your synagogue who says they are Jewish, why do you need their certificate of proof? Why do you need to know every last detail of their personal history?

What do you guys think?


35 comments:

Hadassah said...

they ask this info for schools too. i have always wondered why...

Rachel Rosenstern said...

I think it's an invasive and unnecessary question. I am also a convert and although it is not a secret, it's not something that comes up in normal conversation. I consider it a private matter between myself and G-d.

Naked In the Garden said...

@Hadassah because if the mother isn't Jewish, the kids aren't either. So, the same thing applies. Orthodox kids won't take a child who is not halachially Jewish unless a rabbi directly intervenes.

Elle said...

But so far as making sure you are Jewish - that is important. anybody could come in and claim they are Jewish and it could cause minyan problems at the very least. It is important to verify. That said there are far more tactful ways that it could be handled.

Naked In the Garden said...

I mean orthodox JEWS, not kids. Bleah

Dorothy said...

We recently joined a new synagogue and it asked "Jew by birth" or "Jew by choice," or "Not Jewish."

That bothered me. I wished there was another option that simply said, "Jewish." Many who converted simply aren't interested in sharing that.

On their membership forms, another synagogue where we belonged years ago asked about joining a number of committees/groups/tasks. I remember one of them was a group for those who had converted being open to discussing with those interested in conversion or already working towards it. I had no problem with that.

When it comes to life cycle events, if you want to ask for more paperwork, I understand. With membership, though, I don't think it's appropriate.

Stephen Charest said...

My Reform synagogue asks the same question. I think I will ask the new rabbi if that is necessary.

For myself, once again it smells of "are your papers in order?" You will recall a similar discussion concerning an online Torah study service a few months ago.

Naked In the Garden said...

@Elle Any one could lie too. :) In fact, the entire congregation could be lying, and no one would know. No, sorry, but we rely on a certain level of expectation here, that people will behave in a way that is honest. So, saying you have to ask about conversion BECAUSE it might cause problems? Well, if that really is the issue, then ask every member to show the ketubah of their grandparents and prove their Jewishness beyond a shadow of a doubt. Think most Jews could do that?

Yardena said...

That is totally an invasion of your privacy. A Jew is a Jew! And as you've mentioned before, there are times when Jewish converts are much more observant than people who were born Jewish. So, why should it matter? Like @Naked in the Garden said, if it were to verify the Jewish-ness of your children, that would make sense. But as far as we know, you don't have any children, so that question doesn't make any sense.

Are you currently in this situation, Chaviva? Please keep us updated as to what you do about it. I can't decide if I'd petition to not answer, or just suck it up and do it even though I didn't agree.

Hadassah said...

@nakedInTheGarden - yes but if you write that both parents are jews from birth in school applications no one asks you to prove it. so if you have had a halachic conversion - you are Jewish, why should you have to prove it? If the child is halachically Jewish - by gerus or birth, why is it the school's business??

Drew said...

I think it should work on an honesty system for membership. If you are Jewish whether by choice or by birth you should be able to check jewish and move one.

When the schooling comes around, that's a different story since I know jews by birth who didn't "look jewish enough" and they were asked if they were jewish by birth or by choice and where were their papers? In that case a jew by birth got offended by a process meant to double check jews by choice.

There has to be a better way to go about this. Also, this information should be between a convert and the Rabbi, certainly not the membership committee. If I were in this position I would go to the rabbi with my papers and request to check the jewish box after explaining how I felt.

Leah H said...

If they feel they must ask about children and Jewish status and such, how about something like this:

"Do you consider yourself halachically Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards?* Please check: Yes/No

*If you have any questions about this, please consult with Rabbi x, he would be happy to discuss this with you."

batya from NJ said...

I think the shuls & schools want to be sure that their potential congregant/student is Halachically Jewish & received an Orthodox conversion in order for them to join the synagogue/schools. I think they should have a right to ask this question as long as the powers that be keep the information confidential & are not using it for gossip purposes which I would highly doubt is the case.

Anonymous said...

On the preschool app for my toddler, they asked "Is the child's maternal grandmother Jewish?" So, no, she's a pretty devout Christian (and she's really nice and a great role model, and has a great relationship with her grandkids, B"H).

I sent in a copy of my conversion certificate along with the application, and it did chafe. But that's my lot. I can't change the system, and while I'm not thrilled by the idea of having to whip out my "papers" with every school application (and don't even bring up shiddudchim), the unpleasant feelings did subside (even more so when my child was accepted to the program).

That said, I wonder how having to constantly reveal my conversion jives with the fact that I've been advised to keep my convert-status on the DL (that's why I'm posting this all anonymous-like). How am I supposed to not reveal that I'm a convert if I'm going to be constantly revealing that I'm a convert in order to educate my children?

Naked In the Garden said...

@LEah, yeah. That would work. @Batya. Then, lets be equal. Lets make every Jew prove their halachic status. Because, you know what, some can't. And, some might not be. How would we know? And, while we are at it, lets mandate blood tests for parentage, because you know... that mamzerim thing, and we all know people cheat. People, who can trust em?? Where does this end? No, they should not ask. They should ask "are you Jewish" and leave it at that. Its not their job to decide who is honest, and it is not their job to vet conversions. Anyone wanting to join an orthodox shul KNOWS the halachic definition of Jewish. BTW, its actually a bigger "risk" that someone raised Jewish reform, who is Ba'al Teshuva, might not have a Jewish mother. So, why target converts? Maybe they should just ask for the religious status of everyone's mother and be really invasive, and then watch as no one wants to join their shul anymore. ;)

Naked In the Garden said...

@Hadassah, it is not their business, and its not fair. The underlying assumption is that there is something special about converts... because... you know.. we might not be "real" converts. I suspect the status of the full paying child is questioned less often than that of the scholarship kid. Paying full cost? Hey, you are Jewish enough for us!

DLP said...

I get all of the frustration about this question -- but consider the ramifications for ritual purposes: namely, what if the MAN in this case is not considered halachically Jewish either because he didn't convert at all or because he didn't undergo an Orthodox conversion? He can't be counted in a minyan, be given an aliyah, read from the torah, lead services, participate in a mezumin, etc. etc. etc....

If you're upset about the question now, think about how much MORE upset you'd be if your Orthodox synagogue wasn't doing things in a 100% kosher way and you weren't yotzeh at services because the 10th wasn't halachically Jewish... Is there a better way to verify? Maybe. I'm sure the synagogue committee would be open to suggestions if someone came up with a good one...

Chaviva said...

Then it should be a conversation between the person/couple and the rabbi -- not between the applicant and the membership board.

Kochava said...

I don't have an issue with this. My response: http://crazyjewishconvert.blogspot.com/2011/07/should-synagogue-membership-forms-ask.html

DLP said...

@chavi -- fair enough and a good alternative. but either way (whether it goes through the rabbi first, or through the committee first), the question is going to be asked, no? or are you suggesting that it doesn't have to be asked, and that the applicant should decide on his/her own whether or not to approach the rabbi to "devulge" the information?

Naked In the Garden said...

We don't ask born Jews to prove their status. We rely on their honesty, and their honest representation of their status. And, lest you think there is not an issue with born Jews, there are plenty of Ba'al Teshuva who are the product of an intermarriage and were raised in other Jewish traditions (reform/conservative). Some may not even be aware they are not halachically Jewish. Also, how far back should we go? What if your grandmother was the covert? What about your mother? How far should we look for the nefarious non-Jew? At SOME point, you have to assume that people are reasonable, knowledgeable, and responsible. Unless, as this implies, born Jews think converts are inherently less trustworthy? There is no way to pretty this up.

Esther said...

I'm a proud atheist humanist, bacon and lobster loving, shabbat driving, elbow and collarbone flaunting Jew by birth married to a Catholic and my daughters would have an easier time being accepted than Chaviva? This is racism pure and simple.

D said...

I feel that if you are applying to join a private organization, that organization has the right to ask you whatever question they want. If you don't want to answer, then don't. Call the rabbi and discuss. Furthermore, we should trust the shul board. They are involved in other very confidential information, why is this information any different?

Sarah said...

Where I live, Orthodox shuls ask not just whether you are a convert, but whether any of your parents or grandparents converted and who converted them. It definitely has the potential to cause distress.

Esther said...

The tacet implication is that there is something inherently superior about pure Jewish bloodlines. Voldemort would approve of this line of reasoning.

Lullie said...

"but someone who is willing to pay dues at your synagogue who says they are Jewish, why do you need their certificate of proof?"

Whoa, whoa, whoa. So as long as anyone shows up to a synagogue, has $ and wants in, they should be accepted with no questions? I agree, this is an issue that should be handled with tact, but don't forget: you said ORTHODOX shuls are asking this. That makes a big difference.

If a single person shows up to a community claiming to be Jewish, but can't really prove it, what happens if they want to marry someone from the shul? Suddenly it's a problem. All the dues in the world don't make someone Jewish if they really aren't.

Chaviva, if you felt "Jewish" at Reform you would have stopped there. There's a reason you finished with Orthodox, right? There is halakha and there should be boundaries in Orthodox shuls as to who is considered a Jew or not.

By the way, I am set to go to the mikveh soon for an Orthodox conversion, so I understand all of these feelings of prejudice and feeling inferior at times... but Orthodoxy is a hard, difficult road, but worth it all for those who are HONESTLY living it.

Chaviva said...

Conservative shuls -- and even some Reform shuls as I've discovered over the past day -- ask this.

Also: We're willing to allow Christian and non-Jewish groups to fund Birthright, but not our synagogues?

DLP said...

@ Chavi -- funding is one thing, but membership comes with voting and veto power... that's 2 different things... I'm more comfortable with the funding as long as there are no strings than I am with membership...

foryourhonor said...

What a great discussion! My thoughts here: https://foryourhonor.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/is-daring-within-us/

Anonymous said...

I hear your concerns, however, as the daughter of a rav I've been exposed to numerous cases of people who were not born to Jewish mothers who were not converted at all and raised as Jewish (participated in holidays, attended shul, school, camp) and then when it came to getting married, the rabbis in the (different) countries they wanted to get married had to tell them they were either not Jewish or had not done anything beyond the giur katan and had to postpone the wedding etc.

This was an incredibly painful and difficult time for all parties involved. Bottom line: when a child is welcomed into Jewish life, it is very easy and almost natural for him/her to assume that he/she is Jewish even when that is not always the case.

If all authorities allow a free for all, not only will they contradict the Torah, they will most probably cause the extinction of our people.

Of course any and all inquiries should be with dignity and respect of the family's privacy.

Angi said...

I semi understand the reasoning behind this question, i also find it invasive and unpleasant, but as a convert, our lives a almost inherently more difficult and this i believe is one of those difficultlies we must indure. Although i do think the question could be asked with more tact.

Mike S. said...

I can understand why an Orthodox shul would want to make sure that all the members are halachically Jewish. I can't for the life of me understand any halachic justification for treating those who claim to have been born Jewish differently from those who claim to be converts--either one can be either mistaken regarding the halacha or lying. For that matter, I knew one person who was, according to halacha, born Jewish, and underwent a Reform conversion ceremony; her mother had converted out during the Holocaust and remained a practicing Catholic, and it seems that at least some Reform rabbis recognize out conversion. If the shul wants to vet its new members it should have each new member meet privately with the Rav and have them discuss the matter. And such a policy should be applied regardless of appearance.

Susan B said...

Either ask all potential members to prove they're Jewish, or take everyone's word for it. There is no excuse for singling out the converts for substandard treatment.

MiriamS said...

A membership form isn't the place. It just shows what disconnected lives we live nowadays, that people add a checkbox to a form to replace what should be getting to know someone as they join your community.

And for all of us who bristle at the question, maybe we should try and remind ourselves that the more we carry our cards with self confidence the easier it is to ignore the one or two occasional tactless fools that make us uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

I like this alternative from Leah H:

"If they feel they must ask about children and Jewish status and such, how about something like this:
"Do you consider yourself halachically Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards?* Please check: Yes/No
*If you have any questions about this, please consult with Rabbi x, he would be happy to discuss this with you."

I'm a ger.
If I'm going to be asked to submit proof of my identity and conversion, why should someone who checks "born Jewish" on an application not? Why are there such different standards, when the outcome of someone not being halachially Jewish being considered halachically Jewish is just as bad in either situation? Why single out one group?
And, furthermore, why do I have to tell a whole COMMITTEE of people that I'm a ger? Why not just the rabbi? This seems incredibly invasive.

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