Monday, February 12, 2018

The Sad Odyssey of a Righteous Convert

Ariella Barker (Kol HaBirah)

This is a tough one. A heartbreaking one. One that defies the norms of society and tugs at the heart. It is terribly sad. And terribly unjust.

Ariella Barker is a Giyores, a righteous convert to Judaism. She is a highly-educated attorney, writer, and activist, who describes herself as worldly, witty and whimsical. She also has a disability. Ariella  does not say what her disability is. But based on her picture, it seems that she is wheel chair bound. Reading her story in Kol HaBirah simultaneously broke my heart and made me angry. And yet I’m not even sure where to direct my anger.

When Ariella converted - the conversion court of the RCA challenged her. Why did she want to convert since as a single women desiring to get married, the marriage pool would be dramatically reduced to less than 2% of the population? Her answer was the right one. She could only see herself married to a Jew.

Now 11 years later she is still single. Ordinarily this would be a sad but not so uncommon experience even for people with no disabilities. There are a variety of reasons that people don’t get married. Often the blame lies in the individual (for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post).

But this was not the case with Ariella. It was not for a lack of trying. It was for a lack of any dates! The the vetting process of Orthodox Shidduch and dating sites always ask if there is any disability. By disclosing that she was disabled, it effectively cut her off from any recommendations. She did not get a single recommendation from any of those websites! No one was willing to date her because she was disabled!

There was however attempts by friends and even strangers to set her up with a disabled man. Which amounted to 95% of her dates. As if that was the only quality that mattered. There was no attempt at seeing compatibility or whether there were other issues like moral character.  The other 5% were: 
...blind dates were with actual untouchables: married men, grandfathers 40 years my senior, the perpetually unemployed, and, once, a convicted pedophile. 
She no longer accepts blind dates and has sworn of internet dating. But that too has ended up badly thus far: 
I decided to only date men I knew personally. But these relationships often led to heartbreak. Boyfriends ended the relationship for a variety of reasons: Their rabbis advised them to. Their parents insisted that marrying me would ruin their lives due the burden of caring for me. They were overwhelmed by the difficulties of sharing a life with someone who endlessly faced inaccessibility. They were afraid one day they would resent me for my disability. They were afraid we’d have children with my disability. And some simply couldn’t handle the tzaddik (righteous person) status many placed on them for having the chesed (kindness) enough to love me. 
The saddest part of this story is that the frustration and heartbreak Ariella has experienced has led her to be content to remain single… and if the right man comes along, that it would be God’s will.  The joy of marriage and family is eluding her as she watches her friends get married – one by one - and have those families.

What an indictment against the Jewish men who turned her down for any of those reasons. Even worse is the fact that their rabbis advised them not to marry her! Especially in light of the fact that before she converted she said she rarely struggled to find a partner. She now wonders whether - had she not made the decision to covert – would she have been married by now.

I do not think anyone with a sense of humanity and compassion would not empathize with her sitation. And at the same time give her credit for her ability to adjust and remain ‘content’ as a single woman for the rest of her life.

But in my view it is tragic that she has found so much difficulty finding a religious Jew that can overlook her disability. What kind of priority is that? Shouldn’t a disability like Ariella’s be less important than her midos? Her character? Her personality? Her achievements? Her potential? Her commitment to Judaism - despite the difficulties it as brought her as a disabled person? A woman that is in every other way healthy and can live a full life and happy life as a wife and mother, and contributor to her community?

Ariella is a great person – with a great future.  And yet, it’s hard to blame anyone for having reservations about dating a disabled person. I don’t think that people that have reservations about that are evil. It is a natural concern for most people. But at the same time, it should not be a deal breaker. One should not automatically rule out someone with a disability which does not affect their health in any other way. 

Yes, it is legitimate to give some weight to the fact that the person you are considering spending the rast of your life with is disabled. But that is only one factor among many more important ones. 

What single people should look at the most is the character of the people they date;what kind of contributions can they make to a family; and the kind of  future you can build together... I believe that if one looks those issues first, than a disability like Ariella’s will end up being an insignificant detail that will ultimately be irrelevant to a happy future.