Sunday, January 08, 2012

Conversions, and Love

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

From the perspective of Torah thought, the need for human intimacy is a given. Whether from an ethical perspective (the recommendation/ obligation to be married), a Halachic view (the Chazaka of Tav l’maisav), or as advice (o Chavrusa o misusa, knai l’cha chaver), one is always urged or assumed to desire a life partner. This truth applies in a thousand ways to all of us, and manifests in multiple Orthodox issues from the Shidduch crisis to our attitudes towards gay relationships.

I am speaking about this rather obvious truth because of a recent event that has forced me to put pen to paper (more truthfully, finger to pixel).

Among the blogs and websites that I look at from time to time, there is one written by a young woman who, over the last few years, has written beautifully and movingly about her conversion and her journey to Orthodox Judaism. Her blog, in general, is a delightful read, and seems to cover every Jewish topic one could imagine with honesty, clarity, and sensitivity.

While I have never met her personally, she appeared to be akin to virtually every other young woman that I have met making this trek: A deep-thinking spiritual seeker, a person to be admired, and an asset to our faith. (I have been privileged for some years now to be very involved with many people in the conversion process here in New York City.)

Like many converts, along the way to Judaism she had already started a relationship with a born Jew, which was both a positive influence on his observance level and a problem for the very strict Bet Din, which tested him as well as her before allowing the conversion to take place. At some point when allowed, they married. Sadly, things didn’t work out, and they divorced. She moved to another city to start fresh.

This is where the problem occurs: Alone in her new home, she meets a sweet young man in a Starbucks and they start dating. He is not of the Jewish persuasion, although he apparently doesn’t care that she is both Jewish and Observant.

(For those who know who I speak of, I admit I may have some details wrong: As said, I am only an occasional reader. The actual details don’t matter to the topic here, because I am not addressing her particular history. There’s also no reason to quibble about how she could be both observant and dating a non-Jew. In the real world, such things happen often. I always ask people new to the conversion classes what drew them to Judaism, and the most common answer is that they had dated an Orthodox Jewish man.)

What the ending of her story will be, I don’t know. She may be one of those who attempts against all odds to make a mixed marriage work, while she remains otherwise Observant, or she may not. It may be just a post-divorce fling, it may not. Time will tell.

I post this not to condemn her in any way, although undoubtedly others will. I am as strongly against inter-dating and intermarriage as anyone, but I post because I’d like to respond to several requests:

I have been asked repeatedly (through postings on this blog, among other ways) how people who feel sympathetic to the converts and those in the process can help. Assisting these people is not only a humanitarian gesture and a Kiddush Hashem, it is usually a very satisfying experience.

Those in the process are among the most spiritual people you will ever meet. They have abandoned family, often their homes and sometimes even their spouses to follow their hearts to worship Hashem through Orthodox Judaism, and whenever possible we should validate that desire and welcome them, even as the process itself follows the rules of making it difficult.

A person converting, like any other person, has a need for companionship. I am not talking about religious counseling or teaching, I speak of simple being-a-friend behavior, as with any other person. But they have this need far more than most, as they have no one from their past that really “gets it”, that understands how being Jewish is so very different from being another religion, how being Jewish is a full-time job and how it affects not only your eating habits but also your dress, your behavior, and your mind-set.

Only a Frum person can really understand those things, and thus providing that social succor and aid that everyone needs but they need even more is a real Chesed that you can do. It is this search for a friend, for companionship, for being heard, that too often leads people to form friendships outside their new faith, and starts them down the path to this problem.

In addition to just being there for them, there’s another thing you can do, and that’s the raison d’etre for this essay: They have no family to help them find a Shidduch, and most likely their circle of friends can’t help much either. You may be able to help, if you’d make the effort.

Please, be sensitive and sensible, and use the same criteria that you would for anyone else- Don’t suggest someone just because they are the same race or because they are both converts. Likewise, don’t reject an idea just because they aren’t the same color, either. The nature of spirituality is such that the great majority of converts are female, aggravating the already-existing male/ female imbalance, so the problem is very real.

In my experience, it is the inability to find suitable mates that is the single biggest cause of failed conversions. Help them find someone, and you will be quite literally be assisting in establishing a real and permanent Jewish family, and you’ll have a part in all the Mitzvot they ever do. I know that there’s a Shidduch crisis in the FFB world, too, but perhaps assisting someone from this world will help someone from that, on the principle of “assisting one’s friend with something you need” (Kol hamevakesh b’ad chaveiro v‘hu tzarich l’oso davar, hu ne’ena techila).

I am resisting only with great difficulty the temptation to go off on a tangent here about how converts are confused by the inconsistent and very puzzling media reports of conversion difficulties, dueling rulings from alleged Gedolim, and the increasing frequency of Orthodox scandal. Let it suffice to say that if you are capable of it, there are questions to be answered.

Israeli Charedim that display hate, the high incidence of bad marriages, and a hundred other things are among the questions that will come up in addition to those about what Bracha to make, kosher symbols, and if snowmen are allowed. You can always defer questions that you are uncomfortable with, but being a friend is something they almost all need. Of course, bear in mind that you also have the opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem with everything you say and do.

I have many stories to tell of my beautiful experiences with this community, and treasure them. Get involved in a good positive helpful way, and you will soon have our own collection of tales. Real Mesiras Nefesh for Hashem is rare these days, yet amongst this group it’s an everyday event, so take advantage of an opportunity to be a part of it.