Reader, it’s difficult being a convert. Particularly someone whose ethnic heritage makes them stick out like a sore, or – as I like to think – like a rather glamorously manicured thumb.
Getting used to two-day Yom Tovs, being pulled into shul politics, and having to explain to your colleagues for the umpteenth time that, no, I don’t roll on Shabbas and, yes, I don’t use electricity but I’m not about to spend 25 hours by candlelight.
Batting off a barrage of well-meaning but rather nosy questions about the process is a needless chore we can all do without. Here’s my handy guide to being sensitive around ‘new Jews’.
1. Don’t ask if someone is converting
It’s sad, but to this day people ask me my name and then straight away ask if I am converting. This is incredibly alienating, off-putting and, frankly, rude. Conversion is deeply personal and it’s not something most people will want to share within two minutes of meeting. An infinitely better question to ask is ‘Do you have Shabbat lunch plans?’
2. Don’t ask a convert about their story
A person’s conversion will be just one aspect of their current situation, albeit an important one. Be careful not to reduce them to just this aspect. A convert is not titillation, entertainment or there to add some flavour to shul gossip. Work on building a relationship based on trust and friendship and, if they feel comfortable enough to talk about their conversion, they will.
3. Don’t ask, ‘where are you really from?’
If you live in London or any other major city you’ll know that most people ‘really’ come from somewhere else, including most Jews. Asking someone where they ‘come from’ can be ‘othering’ and, however well meaning, can make them feel that they don’t belong. Furthermore, it exacerbates a view that all Jews are white, when we know that Jews come in all ethnicities – not just north London Ashki…
4. Don’t tell them not to pour wine
The Talmud says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person, and that one who shames another in public is comparable to a murderer. Yes, Halacha says that a non-Jew is not supposed to pour wine for a Jew, but be sensitive! If you’ve invited a convert for lunch and that’s an issue for you then why not serve Mevushal wine?
5. Don’t ask them about the Beth Din
For many converts, appearing before the Beth Din is a nerve-wracking and emotional experience. These learned Dayanim cast judgement upon our lives and hold the key to our Jewish future. A convert may have mixed experiences; some positive and some negative but, ultimately, it’s not something one shares lightly.
6. Don’t ask them how long they have left of the process
Conversion is not necessarily a linear process. There may be many setbacks along the way and, as such, this is an insensitive question. It is also pretty nosy!
7. Don’t ask them if they are enjoying it
Most converts choose to convert because they feel a spiritual yearning/feel a connection to/or let’s be frank, want to marry a Jew. Although there are many enjoyable aspects of Judaism – Shabbat, community, shul politics – the very nature of a Jewish conversion is a complete change of lifestyle. This can be very difficult in the beginning so, although it can be hugely fulfilling and joyous to be a practising Jew, the truth is that it is often bittersweet. There is often rejection, alienation and the emotional toll of always having to explain your decision.
8. Don’t ask them how their family is taking it
Family relations are difficult at the best of times. Some – not all – families see conversion as a rejection of their values. Why not instead make an extra effort to invite the person to Shabbat dinners, simchas and community gatherings?
A synagogue should be a surrogate family – not least to those who need it most.
9. Don’t say they are brave/strong/heroic/meshugge
People who choose Judaism do so willingly, with open eyes, and make that choice because it is right for them. But it is indeed hard – and being reminded of that fact isn’t always helpful. Perhaps one should think of it this way: wouldn’t it be fantastic if communities welcomed converts with open arms and helped them on their path?
10. Don’t let rigorous security lead to needless discourtesy
It’s a sad but essential reality of our times that our synagogues have to protected by security. If you know a convert is attending shul, why not give the excellent and abundantly conscientious volunteers from Community Security Trust a heads up?
Rather than seeing converts as objects of fascination or, worse, suspicion, let’s see new Jews in more affirmative terms – part of the great congregation of people who contribute to the collective destiny of the Jewish people being fulfilled. As it says in the Amidah prayer: “Gather us together from the four corners of the Earth, Blessed are you oh Lord who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.”
- Our writer lives in north London
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