Filled with uncertainties and fear about gaining final rabbinic approval, the road to conversion can be long and difficult for many prospective converts to Orthodox Judaism. Yet even once they emerge from the mikvah as newly minted American Jews, many find the challenges hardly end.
“Most of my negative experiences were after the conversion,” said Aliza Hausman, a 34-year-old writer and former public school teacher in Los Angeles.
“I was really excited about [attending] my first bar mitzvah. But when I got there the rabbi’s shtick was that he would tell the most derogatory jokes about goyim he could think of,” Hausman recalled. “My first Pesach was listening to someone whose daughter was in a matchmaking situation, and out of nowhere she starts talking about shiksas,” a derogatory word for non-Jewish women.
One Yom Kippur, Hausman, who is of mixed-race parentage, said she was stopped at the door of her in-laws’ synagogue by people who assumed she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. She ran back to her in-laws’ home in tears.
Many Orthodox converts contend that the Orthodox community is less accepting of Jews-by-choice than the more liberal Jewish denominations, where converts are far more numerous.
Orthodox converts say it’s not unusual to be asked to produce their conversion papers — either by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, if they seek to marry in Israel, or by a Jewish institution, potential matchmaker or prospective in-law.
One woman who asked to be identified only as Sarah said that when she became involved in a serious relationship with a man from a Chabad family, his father
demanded to see her conversion papers and decided her conversion wasn’t kosher. Thus began a long odyssey to convince her future in-laws that hers was a bona fide conversion.
Back when she was studying for conversion, a rabbi offered Sarah an early indication that finding a mate would not be easy.
“The rabbi said to me, ‘We don’t have much to offer you in the way of husbands. The only thing we would have to offer is the bottom of the barrel,’ ” she recalled.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, a Yeshiva University spiritual adviser, is among the 15 or so rabbinic volunteers who staff the Rabbinical Council of America’s conversion courts in New York (the RCA is the nation’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinical group). He says the courts are very cognizant of the challenges of integrating converts into the Orthodox community, and wary of converting those unlikely to succeed. That’s partly why the conversion courts require that every convert have a sponsoring rabbi, he said.
“There has to be a sponsoring rabbi so there’s someone who is going to take responsibility to keep up with that person after the conversion takes place, making sure the community accepts that individual fully as Jewish, has a place to go to holidays, for example,” he said. “It’s hard enough for a single person to function in the Orthodox community, which is family oriented.”
Unmarried converts often are fixed up with the community’s least desirables, converts say. Non-white converts say they are frequently fixed up only with members of the same race, even if they have nothing else in common.
Rabbi Zvi Romm, who administers the Orthodox conversions in New York certified by the Rabbinical Council of America, says the demographic profile of most converts doesn’t make things any easier: Most are women in their late 20s and early 30s.
“When you convert at that age, you’re at a disadvantage,” said Romm. “These people convert and they’re all starry-eyed, and they have this very idealistic image of what the Orthodox Jewish community is all about. Then they have a hard time getting dates. There is a certain degree of prejudice against geirim,” Hebrew for converts.
Conversion also can be lonely. New to the community, converts often have no place to go for Shabbat or holidays.
Yossi Ginzberg, an Orthodox activist who along with his wife runs support programs for converts, says the community needs to be more attuned to welcoming converts — a mitzvah the Torah makes clear in passages about “loving the ger,” or convert.
Ginzberg says some of the greatest resistance to converts comes from their own non-Jewish families. At a recent wedding for a convert who remarried her Jewish husband just hours after formally becoming a Jew, the bride’s mother unexpectedly refused to attend because she was upset that her daughter had rejected Jesus.
Some converts say they face hostility within their own families when they explain that they can no longer eat in their parents’ kitchen or when they face the predicament of a sibling’s church wedding (Orthodox authorities commonly forbid entering churches or attending church services).
Of course, not all Orthodox converts have difficult transitions.
Clark Valbur, who lives in Brooklyn, said he was worried about acceptance before he converted five years ago. But his fears turned out to be unfounded.
“I have only had really good people who were genuinely interested in helping me, who were there for me and continue to be,” said Valbur, who is married to a Yemenite Jewish woman, with whom he has a child. “Most people that know me don’t know I’m a convert.”