|Nissim Black - an Orthodox Jewish convert (Wikipedia)|
According to a 2021 Tablet survey, 43% of American rabbis are seeing more conversion candidates than before. The reasons for conversion are diverse. Some candidates fell down an internet rabbit hole that led to a passion for Judaism. Others took an ancestry test and wanted to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Many were raised as Reform Jews but weren’t Jewish according to stricter halachic, or Jewish legal, standards and decided to convert under Conservative or Orthodox auspices. Despite the common stereotype that Jews by choice must be converting for the sake of marriage, many rabbis said that converts are less likely than ever to be converting for a Jewish partner.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I was only ever exposed to Christian theology. Almost everyone around me was a Baptist. Although my parents intentionally raised my brother and me without a focus on religion, I grew up going to Christian preschool, Christian summer camps, and being surrounded by other Christians–just because there weren’t other options. While this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, I always knew that Christianity wasn’t right for me.
At first, the idea of eternal life and an all-knowing God provided comfort, but as I got older I started to feel disconnected from Christianity. Concepts like the Holy Trinity never made sense to me, and by age 12 I thought I had given up on religion entirely.
I first started looking into Judaism towards the end of 2020. I’m not really sure what led me to this; I just stumbled upon it and found that its emphasis on making the ordinary holy, repairing the world, and the pursuit of knowledge was a perfect fit for my already existing beliefs.
We want people like this.
Contrary to popular belief Judaism seeks converts. Three times a day we say the Aleinu prayer which contains the phrase: L’Saken Olam B’Malchus Shadai - to repair the world with the Kingdom of God. We want the world to accept the Truth of the Torah. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch said that one of the reasons God placed us in the diaspora is to convince non Jews of the truth of the Torah and to ultimately convert them.
The reason we did not actively seek converts was in part due to the fact that throughout our history in the diaspora, our host countries were mostly Christian. And they were not too keen on Jews converting their Christian citizens to Judaism. They were in fact kind of nasty to us if we tried. (And by using the word ‘nasty’, I am being kind.)
We also discouraged potential converts in order to test their resolve and assure that they were not converting for the wrong reasons. And to make sure that they knew how difficult it is to be fully committed to observance. And to make sure they understand the persecution that Jews have had to endure throughout history.
The teenage converts in the JTA story seem to fit the bill of converting for the right reasons. It is a tragedy that when they finally decide to go through the difficult process of conversion, that they end up doing it in a way that is not recognized by all denominations. Especially by the one group that is by far the most observant. I don’t know how any sincere convert can can feel comfortable knowing that. they are not fully accepted. as Jews. By way of analogy, imagine a baseball team only being accepted by the National League.
The bad news is that once anyone decide to convert for the right reasons, they do not know where to turn for a proper conversion. While many of them might realize that Reform Judaism does not represent their newfound religious ideals, they may look to Conservative Judaism in the belief that they represent centrist Jewish ideals without realizing that their denomination is not recognized as legitimate by Orthodoxy. And therefore neither are their conversions - no matter how similar their conversion process is to Orthodox conversions.
The JTA article suggests that all of the very sincere teenagers discussed therein did not have a Halachic conversions by any Orthodox standard. And if they are female converts their children will not be Jewish although that is what they are led to believe by the heterodox rabbis that converted them.
I don’t know if there is an Orthodox organization that seeks out sincere teens who have rejected their secular or Christian upbringing and in seeking truth, find it in Judaism. But I think there should be. There has to be a way to reach out to ideological teenagers like this. They need to be shown what authentic Judaism is really all about and convinced to convert in ways that are acceptable to all denominations. And the only denomination that comes close to that is Orthodoxy.