May 10, 2011

The Real Danger? Other Converts

When born Jews first find out that I converted - reform or orthodox, it doesn't matter - the first question that gets asked is Why? as in, Why on earth would you choose this people, with their difficult past? The next question usually is How I ended up choosing Judaism, followed by, What Does your family think? Rarely, if ever, does a born Jew say, Who converted you and Who was in your beth din.

Oddly enough, it is the converts who throw out the questionable questions.

You see, I might be the first convert to admit this, but when I first encounter another Orthodox convert, my first thought is usually What led you to Judaism? But it is quickly, and without warning, followed up with Who converted you? Who was in your beth din? Did you have an RCA conversion? But am I the only one? Does this make me judgmental? Or, perhaps, am I more concerned with self-preservation and making sure every Orthodox convert will be accepted by the highest number of people RIGHT now?

For many converts, it is about self preservation. Why? Because you want to make sure the other converts in your community are doing things "right," whatever that means, so that if and when others in your community find out that YOU are a convert they see that YOU did things right. It only takes one "bad seed" to make the rest of us look bad and make those born Jews wonder whether converts really make the kosher cut.

And, I'll admit, this thought process doesn't bother me. It makes sense. However ...

There is a really startling and anger-inducing (for me anyway) trend in the conversion community. I don't know if it's new, but all of the conversion crises talk has exacerbated this self preservation to the point that converts, in some communities, have become bullies. It is the classic case where the bullied become the bullies. What do I mean?

A conversion candidate posts something online in a safe space in confidence or maybe shares a struggle with a friend. It is nothing major, maybe about doing something on Shabbos while struggling to take on observance or gripe about your experiences in the process. But someone in that community sees or hears about it. They tell your rabbi, community members, friends, and eventually you are chastised by your beth din, and, in severe cases, your mikvah is canceled.

In my experience, the people who out converts or converts-in-process are other converts. And this disgusts me. The thought process is baffling, but I am guessing it is that if you turn the light on another convert, and their missteps, then your own won't make their way to daylight. Why would someone question you and your observance, when clearly you know more than the newbie?

As many of you know, I created a "secret" group on Facebook for converts of all denominations to discuss the process, observance, resources, and more. The space was created to be a positive outlet of conversation, but sometimes the interactions become accusatory or hateful or judgmental. A little judging is healthy - it just means we are working out our own insecurities and uncertainties about who we are individually. But when those judgments turn into bullying and outing other converts, a line has been crossed.

After all, if converts won't even stand up for each other, then who will?


Sean M. Teaford said...

I believe that a convert hasn't fully embraced Judaism until they have embraced other converts. We must guide and support one another; all Jews need to guide and support one another.

"Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and quaking mountain, and had they not heard the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?" - Tanhuma (ed. Buber), Lekh Lekha 6:32

Those sincere in their desire to be a Jew and to live a Jewish life should be embraced by ALL in the Jewish community. I am not saying that all conversions should be accepted by everyone but rather than chastising certain converts, embrace them. Make the effort to explain to them what Judaism means to you, what your Jewish life is like, what your relationship with Hashem is all about. Those who have converted with an open heart will find their way to Hashem.

Tara said...

It's those natural questions that leap into your mind that you wrote about in the post that I started thinking, too. The thing is . . . how much of that is because of the rigors of the program of "doing it right" cause you to think like that, and how much of it comes from a place of becoming indoctrinated into the political environment of the time that we're in now.

This is a culture of fear that I think the judgement is based on. And I don't think it's appropriate or constructive to continue that.

Many of my convert friends feel the same frustration with the level of observance in their community from born Jews for the same reasons. There is literally no space in the Orthodox Conversion process (at the RCA level) for acceptance and it scares me. The converts feel out of place unless they, like you, have the resources and wherewithal to join a large Jewish community.

I am constantly being lectured by the board of my shul (of which I am a part) for my insistence on improving its following of halacha - and how I should relax. And where is the reference that a convert is too stringent to be the leader of a Jewish community (I know I've had a rabbi quote me and I think it's in the Talmud?)This is the legacy of a culture that demands you to "do it right" and judge others in the space of what that means instead of being able to take part in the unity of the diverse Jewish people.

Anna said...

It's funny. When I read this immediately my thoughts were drawn to something I read for class a little while back on the subject of race, which I think actually speaks to a whole lot of issues that emerge wherever you have some form of difference operating as a category.

Writing about black women's experiences, Audre Lorde says:

'So we are drawn to each other but wary, demanding the instant perfection we would never expect from our enemies.'

While she's clearly talking about a very different set of circumstances, isn't there a universal principle about belonging to a minority here?

Proposing a kinder future, she says that by learning to relate with kindness:

'We will begin to see each other as we dare to begin to see ourselves; we will begin to see ourselves as we begin to see each other, without aggrandizement or dismissal or recriminations, but with patience and understanding for when we do not quite make it, and recognition and appreciation for when we do.'

PamBG said...

I know nothing about this specific context but there is a wise spiritual principle that "We become like that which we resist".

If we fear being wrong and we resist being wrong then "wrongness" in others will be intolerable.

Based on this principle, it makes sense to me. A friend who converted to Judaism in Britain noted similar problems and I was a safe person to talk to because I had no dog in the fight!

Tara said...


Thanks for the amazingly poignant post. :) I am stealing that quote.

Anonymous said...

I can't even know what to say about this...I don't think I'm understanding what you are trying to say.

Daphne said...

I'm with anonymous. I had to read your posting 4 times because each time I thought I misunderstood... and I'm still at a loss for words...

But first, Chaviva, if I may, I'll ask you since your brought it up: When you ask someone who was in their Beth Din, and their answer is that they underwent an Orthodox conversion but outside the auspices of the RCA (whether it's Chabad or some indy Beth Din), what are your thoughts? And do you consider their conversion legit? What if they converted before the Israeli Rabbinate decided to call all chutz la-aretz into task?

As for the bullying piece of your posting... I'm at a loss... truly, at a loss... I can quote you numerous biblical passages about why such behavior is SO wrong... I love when people (all people, not just converts) are SO machmir about bein adam la-Makom, and just completely miss the boat on bein adam le-chavero...

Oy.... really... just Oy....

Batya said...

Chavi, interesting, thought-provoking. I guess the openness of today's world exposes converts to more negatives.

Today, like there are too many different Kashrut supervision organizations, there are too many "options" for conversions and it causes insecurity and confusion.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

The longer I've been working with converts, the more convert-bullies I've uncovered. The sad thing is they pose as people who are trying to "help" converts when really they have a vendetta: my conversion was hard so yours better be just as hard or worst or I'll make your life hell.

When those questions turn from thoughts to actually questions said aloud, in the wrong context, it becomes an interrogation even if the person asking is a convert themselves. A white friend who is also a convert dubbed it "the Spanish Inquisition" after it happened to me (never her) so many times while we were sitting together at Shabbos meals. That's what spurred me to write "The Do's and Don'ts of Talking to Converts"

I rarely delve into those extra questions unless I'm speaking to someone one-on-one and I need the information to find if they would recommend their sponsoring Orthodox rabbi or beis din to a prospect convert. Many, not surprisingly, would not because they have developed PSTD, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PCSTD (post conversion traumatic stress disorder, I've joked), from the process. I can't imagine that it was always this bad. It's gotten really bad in the past few years.

Another friend says, without exaggeration, there is an unofficial "CIA: Conversion Intelligence Agency" made up of Jews, including angry converts, who want to make any new and even not-so-new vulnerable convert's life miserable. They hide behind: "Conversion should be hard! Conversion is supposed to be hard! It's my Torah-given right to mess with converts!" Oy vey.

My husband says all of these intrusive questions aren't really about converts so much as rabbis: "Who is a Rabbi? Who is a Jew?" But converts are much easier to pick on and much more vulnerable than rabbis.

Anonymous said...

My concern is with the fact that she more or less contradicted herself in her post.

She talked about bullying yet in the same breath admitted to being judgmental. It's not any of your business what led someone to Judaism, who converted them, and who was in their beit din. All the more disturbing that you find this thought process okay. Absolutely NONE of your business.

So are you trying to say that you judge someone's Jewishness off of this? Really? By doing this, you too, are bullying. Just because you are not going and snitching on them to the beit din does not mean that you are not bullying. It's a fine line.

"Bad seeds" are Jewish too. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Including yourself (and you've just proved this with this very blog post).

If I may, your post came across as insensitive, and snobbish. Many people would be offended by this post.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Okay, anonymous, you missed the point.

Those questions come to my mind. I don't ASK them. I realize they are judgmental and I ask MYSELF why I even care. I. The end, it's a process of dealing with my own insecurities. To admit that I am imperfect and that I am willing to say what so many are thinking, I think, is bold -- not snobbish.

My policy toward converts of all stripes is to each their own. It goes to all religions. I cannot say what is right or best or perfect, because I am not HaShem. I can only do and think what is right for me. Would I have created a pluralistic open group for converts of I thought otherwise? Wuld I continue to discuss my life as a nonJew and Reform convert? No, I would box it away.

That you call me names and misread my words and post anonymously says more about you and your insecurities than my honesty posted with name and face does.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Misspellings. Ugh ... Typed too quickly. Sorry folks!

And thank you to those of you who understand what I am talking about.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the only one that "misread" your words. And if you don't want people to misread your words you could have been a little bit more clear in your actually post.

I thought you were all gung-ho about people feeling free to post anonymously? So, when someone is anonymously displeased with one of your posts you are not?

Further more, I never called you names. I said your POST was insensitive and snobbish.

Anonymous said...

Also, you did say that you found this thought process "okay" and that it "makes sense." To me, that is not an indication of one admitting their imperfections. Rather, being judgmental and finding it "okay" to do so.

In this context I don't believe I am misunderstanding your words. I think maybe it is more you not properly communicating what you wish to express.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Seven people understood. Two didn't. Did you maybe think that it wasn't me? Maybe you misread? I have never been gung-ho about anonymous posters, ever. And most of those who post anonymously do so to say things they wouldn't with a name.

The post is my thoughts, my words. You say it is snobbish thus you say I am. Do not mince words.

And I said the thought process makes sense. We understand resolves through the lens of how we view others. Thus, the thought process doesn't bother me -- it is part of growth. I never said it's okay in the sense that it is GOOD.

Please stop twisting my words and thoughts.

Naked In the Garden said...

Back stabbing and betrayal are horrific human behavior. That converts would do this to other converts is deeply offensive. The very people who should be our best supports, who should understand us the best, can turn into our worst enemies. What a tragedy all the way around.

Chaviva, I admire your honesty. We all have judgmental thought processes that, Baruch Hashem, will never reach the light of day. Admitting they exist, to ourselves and others, is sometimes the first step to driving them out and becoming the kind of people we want to be.

However, I have to say that this statement:

“And, I'll admit, this thought process doesn't bother me. It makes sense.”

Sounded like you were ok with this; as if having such thoughts was a good thing. I was thrown for a loop for a few seconds, as if you were saying that thinking this way was something that “made sense” as far as being something that SHOULD be thought.

I am so glad you clarified here:

“Those questions come to my mind. I don't ASK them. I realize they are judgmental and I ask MYSELF why I even care. I. The end, it's a process of dealing with my own insecurities. To admit that I am imperfect and that I am willing to say what so many are thinking, I think, is bold -- not snobbish.”

Sadly, way too many people have no problems not only thinking these things, but saying them right out loud, grilling others over the shabbos table, over the phone, and in unguarded moments as if they had the direct responsibility to root out the so called “bad seeds”. I, myself, have been asked this same series of questions so many times, and with such an attitude of condescension, that when I go to a new place, I often pretend to be a B’aal Teshuva just so I can enjoy my shabbos meal in peace. So, to hear that litany of questions followed by the idea that this “makes sense” really left me reeling. I felt like I was backed up against the shabbos table YET AGAIN by the Spanish Inquisition.

I am so glad you followed with:

“And I said the thought process makes sense. We understand resolves through the lens of how we view others. Thus, the thought process doesn't bother me -- it is part of growth. I never said it's okay in the sense that it is GOOD.”

Thanks for the post, and for the clarifications. I hope we all learn to look past our own insecurities and learn to honestly love and support our fellow converts no matter where they are on their journey.

Anonymous said...

Not so secret now, is it? Way to advertise. Whoops, sorry, I forgot I'm not allowed to be critical of other converts. My bad.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Secret = a Facebook group category. The membership and content are secret. How do I grow a group if no one knows about it? Should I keep a privileged group for myself?

Seriously. Come on folks!

Anonymous said...

Wow. It's hard to imagine someone doing this to another convert, but |'m sure it happens. I do think we have a special responsibility to one another, as "landsmen" from Ur Kasdim, as it were.

The only reason I could think of to "leak" confidential information to a rabbi might be if the person in question confessed to retaining a belief in Christianity.--"Curmudgeonly"

Keyboard Wench said...

I'm a Christian. I'm not sure why any of my beliefs would lead me to ratting out a fellow human being to a pastor. It would be against everything I've learned about Christianity.

After all, Jesus did say that of all the ten commandments the most important was to love one another.

I believe that faith is very personal and everyone is on their own journey. Some are walking hand and hand with God while others of us are just catching sight of him.

Our responsibility, as people of faith, is to encourage the seeking of God.

Nina said...

Oh, I would love to join an FB Jewish conversion discussion group. I tried searching for it just now, but there are a ton and I couldn't figure out which one is yours. What's the name?

K.L. said...

I'm a bit confused as to your main point here, and this probably will only seem on-topic in my own brain, but I do have something that's been gnawing at me in the meantime re: a convert and the desire to "out" them.

I used to follow someone online who is currently doing an Orthodox conversion and over the time that I read their blog, they revealed some really personal and sexual feelings about their sponsoring rabbi and other rabbis in their community, some of which were acted upon, according to this person. The rabbis in this situation were all married and shomer negiah.

In this situation I feel conflicted because it doesn't seem appropriate at all, but at the same time I know that it is 100% not my place to intervene or "tell" on them. What I question is why I care about it, and whether it's because I'm a sad/envious little convert-in-progress living in the middle of nowhere, because I care about the idea of not having people messing around with their sponsoring rabbis (and rabbis messing around with their conversion students), etc. I agree that it's disgusting and petty to out someone just for a minor struggle with certain observances, but in this case I feel conflicted because I don't think my wish for this person to be "outed" is only dictated only by my status as someone in the conversion process.

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeonly Israeli Convert says:

Hey Heather! There's nothing wrong with being a Christian, unless you're maintaining those beliefs under the guise of trying to become a Jew. The reason I would consider divulging this to a rabbi on a beit din is that undergoing the ritual of Jewish conversion under such a pretense would be a total lie. And there is a distressing amount of that going around.

Anonymous said...

Chaviva--My only question to you is why, having chosen the name "Chaviva", you go by the nickname of "Chavi", which is usually associated with "Chava".

Don't get me wrong, I have a daughter named Chaviva. I chose the name because 1) We wanted to make a "change" on Great-Aunt Altutchka, who was a real tzadeket, but who wants to call a baby "Little Old One"; 2) During my pregnancy, I was inspired by the word "Chaviv" in the blessings after Shma; 3) She was born in parashat Bamidbar, in which Rashi speaks of Hashem "counting" the Children of Israel. Why should G-d, who knows everything anyway, need to count Bnai Yisrael? Because they were "Chavivim elav", "precious to Him", like someone counting out precious gems, not because he doesn't know how many he has, but because each one is special and counting them brings Him pleasure.

I thought this would be an auspicious start for a 5th baby born 18 months after #4: she should know that she was precious and special.

Besides, "Vivi" or "Viva" are, to my ear, cool names.

The Hebrew name I chose for myself is, truth be told, kinda plain. But it means something to me.
--The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Anonymous My name is Chaviva Elianah, and I have always been told that "Chavi" is the nickname for Chaviva. I've never been called Viva or Vivi ... so ... no clue about that. When people meet me for the first time they always ask me "Do you prefer Chaviva or Chavi?" So, not sure whether maybe it's different in Israel or what.

THANK YOU to those of you who get why I posted this and for those of you who see my honesty as something positive and not negative. Hugs :)

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

Acceptable answer. EVERYTHING is different in Israel, I guess. My Chaviva complains that we gave her a name for an old Sefardi lady. (Although personally, I am very fond of old Sefardi ladies...)

Naming among different groups here tends to be very stereotyped and VERY trendy. "Eliana" is all too in with girls maybe 5 years younger than you. This is like what happenned to my sister, who was named "Jennifer" in 1963. In April, it was relatively uncommon, but by December it was too popular.

Or maybe this means old Sefardi girls' names are going to come back...

MokumAlef said...

Indeed, my little downstairs neighbor of under 5 years old is named Eliana. And we are in the land north of the U.S. ... Most local Chavivas are way in their teens.

Anonymous said...

Enough of the victimhood. We have enough people in this world making a career of being a "victim"
One thing every convert should learn right now is to keep silent. Stop talking about each other. Stop gossiping or making other people the topic of your conversation! Restrain your urge to speak about another Jew or convert and judge your brother favorably. Hashem judges us however it is we judge others - mida kneged mida.

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