When I told friends that I was converting, most of them asked, “To what?” Many of them had known me for decades and had assumed I was already Jewish.
My first visit to Israel was in 1975 when I was 20. From the moment I stepped off the Egged bus at the kibbutz, I felt oddly at home: the communal life, well-tended gardens, vibrant people, the cycle of holidays through the seasons. In time, I absorbed Jewish traditions and the brash Israeli culture, struggling with guttural chets and reshes until I was fluent in Hebrew.
Eretz Israel had become home in my heart.
As I interacted daily with Holocaust survivors, I also grappled with the theological implications of that historical horror, something that had strangely haunted my utterly goyishe Palo Alto childhood. That I, a Catholic-raised, born-again Christian, a barefoot hippie and latent homosexual, should fall in love with a socialist, atheist, family-oriented kibbutz in Israel … go figure! Baruch HaShem, she works in strange ways.
In the succeeding 38 years, I’ve made 20 extended visits to Israel, and two years ago on a Pesach visit, the idea struck me: Convert to Judaism, move to Israel! My kibbutz voted unanimously in my favor, creating a special status for me since I was “too old” to become a chaver, or kibbutz member.
Back in the Bay Area, I joined a congregation, studied for a year, underwent a hatafat dam (drawing a drop of blood), aced my beit din (rabbinic panel), dunked in the mikvah, completed the paperwork required by the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh, both of which facilitate North American aliyah, and was set to fly to Israel last October.
Then, in August, I received a terse, one-sentence email that my “Aleph Conversion” was not recognized. Clueless, I looked up Aleph, the umbrella organization for Jewish Renewal congregations. Apparently, someone in Israel had determined I was not Jew enough.
A Jewish friend tried to console me by saying, “You know you’re finally really a Jew when you want to join the country club and they won’t let you in.”
But I did not embark on a two-year fool’s journey of conversion without first discussing it with a Jewish Agency representative. My rabbi also had a conversation with the agency; she recalls having used the phrase “non-Orthodox conversion” and being assured it was fine.
Though having long mastered the distinctions among my knaidels, kugels and kreplachs, as a novice to the Byzantine world of religious Judaism, how could I know that my splendid, spiritual, Shechinah-filled Jewish Renewal congregation was not merely some Berkeley variant of Reform?
Israeli authorities contend that my rabbi should have known that her congregation was not kosher for Israel. Yet I would counter that the Jewish Agency, after decades of wooing left coast Bay Area Jews, should have asked what branch of Judaism my congregation was affiliated with. That one simple question would have prevented all this tsuris.
After the initial shock, I cycled through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. Denial: There must be a mistake; fellow Jews couldn’t do this to me! Anger: Suffice it to say, I was royally peeved. Bargaining: Surely there’s an appeal process, proteksia strings to pull … nada! Depression: I sulked and boohooed a bit, noshed a lot and binged on two seasons of “Breaking Bad.” Acceptance: I briefly flirted with this final stage, and then I went full tilt into yet another stage: kvetch.
Ever since I was a little goy, I’ve been an activist — anti-war, anti-nuke, gay and AIDS, environmental issues, you name it. Now I had a new cause to sink my teeth into. They had irked the wrong Jew.
My personal saga of Not Jew Enough is just part of the larger injustice of Orthodox hegemony in Israel. What crazy-making country grants automatic citizenship for being Jewish, yet at the same time restricts immigration for being Jewish of a different stripe?
In December, I converted again with three “kosher” rabbis. This time I was wise enough to first run their names by the Jewish Agency. Sadly, I’ll receive no credit for time already served as a Jew and am required to wait another nine months before making aliyah. HaShem willing, I will be in Israel for Rosh Hashanah and will join with those who fight there for Jewish pluralism.
Bill Strubbe is an East Bay writer, painter, activist, world traveler and dreamer of peace. He can be reached at [email protected]