Becoming Jewish Should Be Easier – OpEd


Rebekah Tokatlilar writes in the April 17, 2023 issue of the Religious News Service that “When I was 18, I moved from Round Rock, Texas, to Greenwich Village to attend New York University, my dream school. My dorm happened to be around the corner from the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. I wasn’t Jewish but had always been interested in the faith. So, knowing no one and desperate for connection, I walked into the center and told the first rabbi I met that while I wasn’t Jewish yet, I thought I wanted to be: Could he help me?

The rabbi, who I later learned was a rabbinical intern, promptly recommended the Kabbalah Centre, a mystical Jewish group. Mortified, I walked back to my dorm room, totally defeated.

But my attraction to Judaism was real, and after a year studying at NYU’s campus in Tel Aviv, I returned to New York, and a friend introduced me to some rabbis who guided me through a rigorous conversion to Orthodox Judaism.” 

If Rebekah had been interested in Buddhism, Christianity or Islam she would have been quickly and warmly invited by both clergy and lay members to learn or pray with them. But most rabbis unfortunately are not eager to encourage non-Jews to become Jewish. 

One of the sins frequently found in synagogues is a failure to encourage interested non-Jews to become Jewish and to welcome non-Jews who have become Jewish into the Jewish people. Jewish teaching is very clear on the subject of Gerim (converts). They are to be considered Jews in every respect. It is also clear that some Jews, especially those of an Orthodox or Israeli background, feel that a convert is not a “real” Jew. 

They will admit that a Ger usually knows more about Judaism than many born Jews. They also often confess that Gerim practice more Judaism in their homes and in the synagogue than they themselves do. Yet they insist that Gerim are not “really” Jewish. 

Sometimes they express this opinion because they regard the feeling of alienation and Jewish ambivalence that comes from being an oft persecuted minority as an essential part of Jewishness, although they themselves hope to shield their children and grandchildren from this experience. Usually they have this feeling because they are ignorant of what Judaism teaches about the Mitsvah of welcoming Gerim into the Jewish community. 

Frequently they themselves have not met many people who they knew to be Gerim. Since the process of becoming Jewish is not encouraged when Gerim have contact with people who hold these negative views we need to do as much as possible to make the Jewish community as pro Gerim as possible. 
One very effective way to do this is to conduct all conversion ceremonies as a public ritual at a regular Shabbat service. In the 39 years that I was a congregational Rabbi in Los Angeles over 250 Gerim have joined the Jewish people through this public ritual at a Shabbat service at Temple Akiba. Although many Gerim are nervous about speaking in public, with my encouragement and the knowledge that bnai mitsvah do it at age 13, close to 50% of the Gerim do it.
The reaction of my congregation has been very favorable. Many people have related to me that they were very moved during the service. On one occasion after a family service a non-member told me that the Kabbalat Ger ceremony had inspired her to encourage her nephew’s wife to become Jewish. Another time several members of the confirmation class who were at the service were greatly impressed according to their amazed parents. I always encourage Gerim to speak about their feelings on becoming Jewish at the end of the ceremony. 

This too helps impress people favorably. On occasion someone has worried about what non-Jews who were present might think. I always point out that many non-Jews think Jews are clannish because we do not proselytize and this helps to dispel that negative image. Within a few years of starting this practice at Temple Akiba I could feel a much more positive attitude toward Gerim within the congregation. 
The Kabbalat Ger ceremony is held after the opening song and before the candle blessing or the Kiddush depending on the gender of the person who is becoming Jewish. I announce that we have a special simcha to celebrate. The Ger (accompanied by a present or future spouse if desired) comes up on the bima and stands before the open ark. He or she then publicly declares his or her decision to become part of the Jewish people by reciting the Sh’ma and the words of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” 

When the conversion ceremony is complete a female convert blesses the Shabbat candles and a male convert recites the blessing over the Shabbat cup of wine. This signifies that the congregation accepts the new Jew as one of them.

The Torah relates a famous blessing: “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.” What, precisely, is the Torah speaking about? Why does it use the plural form for comings and goings when the singular would seem to fit better?

Midrash Devarim Rabbah says the plural refers to drawing other people close to Judaism: “Rabbi Judah ben Shimon said, ‘This verse refers to Moses…when he came into the world he brought nearer to God those who were far away non-Jews) (…and when he departed from this world, he brought nearer those who were estranged (Jews).” How so?

When he came into the world means during his lifetime. After he departed from this world refers to after his death. The Torah relates that when Moses led the People of Israel out from oppression in Egypt, a ‘mixed multitude’ of other oppressed foreigners joined them. (Exodus 12:38)

Centuries after the death of Moses, Non-Jews still find light through the Torah of Moses. As it says: “Non-Jews shall come to your light” (Isaiah 60:3)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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