Friday, June 9, 2000

Confessions of a Quickie Converter (Jewish Week)


Confessions of a Quickie Converter

The Jewish Week 6/00
by Joshua Hammerman

Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of the obligation of the State of Israel to recognize non-Orthodox conversions. At issue are the fates of more than 50 individuals who were either converted in Israel or who studied for conversion there and then traveled abroad for the actual ceremony. Some of these cases have been pending for many years.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky used a curious tack in defending the government s refusal to recognize the conversions of those who had gone abroad, and in doing so crossed a red line that had never been officially traversed before. Until now, it was a given that all conversions performed outside of Israel would be recognized by the Jewish state. Sharansky used the term "quickie" in describing those who study in Israel and then travel outside the country to complete the conversion process. The use of this derisive expression is in truth a not-so subtle indication of his bias against the liberal movements and their rabbis, and not just their conversions. Who would perform "quickie conversions," after all, other than proponents of "quickie Judaism," a superficial, one-night-stand version of the real thing?

That is unfortunate. Mr. Sharansky should take notice of the very serious manner in which conversions are handled in the liberal Jewish world. I convert maybe two dozen Jews-by-Choice each year, and each one goes through a long, engaging process of study and questioning, followed by a ceremony that follows halachic standards. My process is impeccable because I know that the integrity of Jewish peoplehood has been, to an extent, entrusted to me. This hardly warrants labeling me a proponent of Judaism Lite. And I believe that rabbis of all denominations take conversion very seriously; we grapple with the new realities that face us, including the rising intermarriage rate and the surprising marketability of Judaism among Americans seeking a firm religious grounding.

But Sharansky has done us all a favor by highlighting something that is fast becoming an important fact of Jewish life. Yes, there are such things as "quickie conversions," and yes, I ve done a few. Conservative rabbis do them, as do Orthodox rabbis, and rabbis of all denominations. We do them with increasing frequency, and the "quickie" is a phenomenon that the Jewish world needs to understand and discuss.

My most recent quickie was done a couple of years ago and the scenario was typical: A woman comes to me in a great panic. All her life she has lived as a Jew. She was brought up as a Jew with a Jewish father and a mother who had converted to Judaism at the time of her marriage. Suddenly, questions are being raised about the validity of the mother s conversion. It turns out it had not been done according to minimal halachic standards there was no ritual immersion. So suddenly, the grown woman -- with a child, no less -- finds out that for her entire life she has been living a lie. She has gone through all the milestones of a Jewish life Bat Mitzvah, Shabbat candles, her own wedding to a Jew only to be ruthlessly run off the road, told that she s a spiritual fraud, and that her kid is too.

How, Mr. Sharansky, would you propose that I clean up this mess?

I wasn t the one to alarm her, mind you. I had never met her before, but even if I had, when people inform me that they are Jewish, I typically adopt a "don t-ask-don t-tell" policy. I never seek to verify the credentials of the converting rabbi. But in this case it was the woman herself who felt less than wholly Jewish, and she was concerned for her daughter. So I said to her, "Listen. In my mind you are a Jew," not telling her that the history did indeed raise concerns for me. Then I added, "and you should feel that your child is a Jew too. The last thing I want to do is make you feel like an outsider among your own people and chase you away. But just to tie up this little loophole, why don t you and your child come down to the local mikva with me for a little dip?"

She did and remains to this day extremely grateful. I think Sharansky might even have approved. At least my quickie had purer intent than all those quickies allegedly performed over the years on foreign basketball stars to bypass Israeli citizenship requirements under the Law of Return.

But I know that this woman and her family are hardly home-free. There is surely a rabbi out there who will see my name on the certificate some day and say to them, "You re still not really Jewish." And he (can t imagine it would be a she since he would likely be Orthodox) will offer to do a quickie of his own on humanitarian grounds. And then some other rabbi will not recognize the validity of this rabbis conversions, so he ll offer his own form of quickie. By this point the entire family will likely opt to settle in some ashram, far away from rabbis; but if somehow, miraculously, the daughter decides to move to Israel, it will happen again. Then the problem then will land right on the lap of Natan Sharansky, who will undoubtedly recommend some form of quickie too, because he ll have hundreds of thousands of similar cases cluttering his desk.

The Jewish world has become so darn confusing that it s getting harder to tell who is and isn t a Jew. I can foresee a time, not too far off, when a near-majority of those who will undergo conversion rituals will be people who always thought they were Jewish, but found themselves slipping through the quicksand of shifting definitions.

Sharansky has helped us to understand that conversion is a global Jewish problem crying out for a cooperative solution. The first thing world Jewry must convert is its priorities. We need to see how much pain our confusion is causing our people. The longer we allow this anarchy to continue, the more Jews we will lose.