Conversion didn’t grant born-Jewish privilege

(Note: This letter is a combination of four communications to me.)

I have a Jewish father and non-Jewish mom. I was raised with some Jewish activities at home and when I got into college, I began to explore Judaism. By the time I was 27, I decided to convert. I found a Conservative congregation and converted with the rabbi. A couple of years later when I wanted to go to Israel, someone pointed out that Orthodox Jews wouldn’t consider me Jewish. I went back to my rabbi and asked him about this. He said, “Yes, that’s true. But what do you care what those people think?” I wanted to curse him with unprintable words about his “born-Jewish privilege!” How dare he be so cavalier about my feelings and my identity! I left his synagogue and am now going to an Orthodox shul and converting there. There should be full disclosure by rabbis and someone should tell them to stop leaning on their blind privilege. I’m really angry about this.
— Could Have Used an Honest Rabbi

Dear Could Have Used: I can hear the anger in your statement. I am so sorry. I know that anger is one of the ways we react to pain. Clearly, this rabbi hurt you deeply.

Of course, you are right. Yes, every rabbi should clearly articulate the huge range of Jewish views and spell out who will accept what when it comes to conversion. I am surprised that your rabbi failed to do so. I am not minimizing your experience, but I want you to know that you are not alone. There are Orthodox Jews who aren’t accepted by other Orthodox Jews.

Second, you are so right, there is born-Jewish privilege and those who have it are often oblivious to how it serves them. Your Conservative rabbi may not be accepted as a rabbi by Orthodox rabbis, but he will certainly be accepted as a Jew. He doesn’t have to study or go before a beit din or go to the mikvah. He was born into that identity and it is his for life.

He can chose to walk away from it, change his name and become a Catholic priest, but the moment he returns to a synagogue, he’s in. Some would roll their eyes, but once a Jew, always a Jew, no matter how they behave.

I venture to say that part of the rabbi’s curt response was not about you; it was about him. He was quick to dismiss what “they” think because from an Orthodox perspective, it is his conversion work that is unacceptable. As you see now, the Orthodox are happy to convert you, using a process that they find kosher, i.e., acceptable and authentic. Sadly, many people are too focused on themselves to get their own ego out of the way in order to listen to the pain being expressed by another. It is also possible that the Conservative rabbi has a twinge of guilt for failing to fully inform you, and he was hastening to cover his embarrassment.

Finally, my friend, there is simply too little information available about conversion — whether for those with Jewish heritage or those with none. I hope that as more adults with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother seek conversion, the Jewish community will take on the responsibility of providing complete information, making it easily accessible. In doing so, everyone will profit.

Remember that your voice and your experience are important and need to be shared. I can assure you that you are making yourself part of the solution to a challenge that faces the entire Jewish community. You are to be commended for that. Should you want to speak about this publicly, please let me know. I am currently planning a half-day conference for May 22 titled “Growing Up Interfaith.” Your thoughts are welcome.

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Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.