Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Ger, the Baal Teshuva, and Shiduchim

Two of the most difficult problems in Orthodoxy are acceptance of Jews whose backgrounds are different from our own and Shiduchim.

Intolerance of diversity is most acute when one goes from being nonobservant to observant or when one converts to Judaism. Combine that with the current ‘crisis’ in finding a Shiddach and you’ve got a real problem. If you are a woman and factor in age... every year beyond age 23 becomes a further impediment. Over 30? Pretty bad. Over 40? Just about hopeless.

Though it is not always the case – many people in their 30s, 40s, and even older do get married – it does seem to be a generally sad fact of life that the older one is, the more difficult it becomes to get married. Exponentially so upon decade changes in age! This is true for both men and women although I think it is even truer for women than for men.

Which brings me to an article in It is in a column that offers dating advice and contains a letter from a 34 year of woman who recently converted to Judaism. She lists the qualities she is looking for in a husband – which in my view are very reasonable – and laments the fact that she has not met anyone who even comes close.

As a result she is beginning to feel her situation is hopeless. She wonders if she should ‘lower her standards’. She is also feeling increasingly lonely without her family who lives in a foreign country and has not been supportive of her conversion.

The two professionals who run that column gave her some pretty sound advice consisting mostly of not lowering her standards in the values she seeks. But they do say she should broaden the scope of her search by including divorced men who may very well have the qualities she’s looking for.

They also recommend putting off dating for a while (a few months or even a few years if necessary). She has now devolved into a pattern of negative thinking which she can easily project on to her potential dates and ruin any possibility of marriage.

They recommend she evaluate how she wants to live her life as an observant Jew (e.g. Charedi, MO, Chasidic, etc) and immerse herself into the community that is compatible with that. But at the same time they advise that she not change who she really is and be true to herself. Once comfortable with herself and her community and becoming well integrated into it -she can start dating with a fresh new and realistic perspective about what she wants and what is available.

For the most part I agree with that advice – although at age 34 I don’t think she should take a few years to figure it all out. But what they fail to address is the prejudice that is working against her. It is enormous and grossly unfair. Despite all our lip-service to the contrary the Ger is not well treated in the Jewish world. And to a lesser extent neither is the Baal Teshuva.

I often speak of my own admiration for them and the trek they have taken. I feel awe for someone who becomes a Jew by choice - or religious by choice. I cannot even stand in their shadows. I don’t see how one can see such people in any other light.

And yet there are far too many people who have negative feelings about converts and Baalei Teshuva . They may not say so out loud. But they ‘think it’! On more than one occasion I have heard people whisper about a Ger, Giyores, or a Baal Teshuva: ‘I wouldn’t get involved in Shiduchim with them.’ Think what it will be like to have non Jewish in-laws (or non religious in-laws in the case of a BT)!’ Or: ‘Do you want the values from their past – that must in some way influence them – to be a part of your life? And how will that affect the children?

Shadchanim know that this kind of thinking exists and they will often recommend only other Baalei Teshuva or Gerim for Shiduchim. Or perhaps divorcees. Not that any of these are bad people. But it is very limiting and more importantly insulting to a human being to be considered a second class citizen because of their background.

The irony is that the situation should be looked at in the exact opposite fashion. A Ger and a Baal Teshuva have thought about their Judaism and have chosen a path that the rest of us have been born into. We did not make any choices. It was automatic for us. To me that means they have a far greater sense of value attached to Judaism than most of the rest of us do. We do things mostly by rote and don’t think about it much.

By contrast a Ger and a Baal Teshuva have spent many hours of serious thought about it and have dramatically changed their lives because of it. No one who has been indoctrinated from birth to be religious can make that claim. None of us have had to change our lives. We have not sought truth from the perspective of not being Jewish or religious only to find in Orthodox Judaism. We’re already there. We have been there from the start.

The Ger and Baal Teshuva on the other hand have a far greater sense about the value of their Judaism and appreciation of its expression through Halacha than most of the rest of us do. They tend to be far more committed to those ideals. What better role model can there be for a child than a parent who is that committed.

But that is rarely given any weight when thinking of Shiddach prospects. Instead the differing backgrounds are. Not that backgrounds shouldn't be a factor. They should be. But they are way over-weighted.

The Giyores in this article may not be fully aware of this sad fact of reality and she should be. But more importantly the rest of us need to be better at how we treat our fellow Jews. Diversity should be embraced – not shunned. We have much to learn from them – and they from us. They want to become fully integrated to Orthodoxy and we should be more than accommodating.

And just like the letter writer needs to broaden the scope of her Shiddach search we should broaden the scope of Shidduchim we recommend to include all of us. They should be made to feel like the first class citizens that they truly are. We need to make the Ger and the Baal Teshuva feel at home with us. Anything less would in my view be insulting in the eyes of God and a Chilul HaShem.