There are reasons my friends (and sometimes my family) don’t get why I converted, or tried to do it a second time. And there are days, like today, when I recall this past Shabbat when someone ran behind me at a shul community dinner and snidely remarked “Nice blond hair!” and quickly hurried off before I could even see who they were. (I only know it was an adult female with the maturity of a ten-year-old because of the voice.) The question of why I converted is totally valid, and simply saying “I always wanted to be Jewish” just doesn’t seem to suffice sometimes. People said conversion would be rough. And, as I’ve stated in previous articles, I was told it’d be tough with family and gentile friends; yet, I found my problems have been mostly with members of the Jewish community far more often than with anyone outside it.
The problems have been so bad that I’ve had friends of mine from high school and college ask me point blank, “Why on earth have you done this to yourself? Why do you even want to be Jewish at this point and keep this kind of company?” When I get nonsense about my hair color, like “You’re the wrong kind of European and don’t belong here” (which I get all the time), and it nags me for a whole week and it nearly feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back… I need to reflect.
Why would my friends ask for an explanation for my deciding to become Jewish? Let me give you the run-down. It’s way more than just the hair. Trust me, it’s far worse, and the whole Jewish community should care because it’s not just converts who are going through this nonsense on a regular basis and leaving in droves. Anyone who wants to know why that Pew Report said that people are leaving their seats in the synagogue, these are probably reasons that they have, too.
1. My friends (and my very concerned mother and sisters) saw me go through the very joyful experience of a conversion through the Conservative movement, then the fear and pain (to put it very, very mildly) of not being accepted and recognized by some (heavy emphasis on “some”) people in the Orthodox movement. They especially saw how terrified I was of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, and of what they would have to say about me and my status as a Jew if I or my future children were to ever try to make aliyah. They saw me attempt a second conversion through the auspices of an Orthodox beit din. They saw me go through this for three years, during which time I was asked very inappropriate questions about my sexuality and bullied into giving consent to speak with my therapist, who in turn was also asked very inappropriate questions about my personal life. I was having recurring nightmares. The final straw for me came about when I was asked to go to seminary with girls half my age for extremely long days, most of the week, when they knew full well that I have medical treatment at least once or twice a week as well as other responsibilities. The moment that a friend of mine talked some sense into me and convinced me to walk away with my head held high and dignity intact, the recurring nightmares stopped.
Conversion is supposed to be a challenge. It’s not supposed to be traumatic, inhumane, or abusive.
2. I always feel hesitant to post about the scandals of the Jewish world on my Facebook timeline. Still, when I see members of the “Off The Derech” community suffering or, at the extreme worst, committing suicide, or when something like sexual abuse occurs, I believe in the need to bear witness and to speak out about it. I don’t like airing our dirty laundry, but at the same time, having grown up in the Catholic community, I’ve seen these crimes and the damage and trauma before, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to speak up. My non-Jewish friends totally get what I’m doing by bearing witness. They just don’t understand why I’d be part of a community in which some members are so sick in the head that they’d allow stuff like this to go on and ignore it all like the elephant in the living room (Great question. Anyone notice what’s happening to the dioceses with the pedophile priests over the past 10 years or so now?)
3. Point #2a. Substitute “Jews of Color” for “Off The Derech”, substitute different kinds of emotional torture and trauma. Remove stories of suicide — I haven’t heard about anything like that (yet?!) Catholic scandals may not apply, but I can sure think of other scandals that parallel. Elephant in the living room? Bring out the biggest one we can find, and a truck full of Febreeze.
4. There’s all that pressure I’ve had thrown my way to get married and pop out babies. Well, with my health being what it is, babies aren’t happening. I’m also not keen on adopting or fostering with said health issues. My ovaries don’t work right, neither does my uterus, and I have other bad health concerns. It’s not happening. And please, stop pressuring me to get married. Just stop. It’s not cute. And my non-Jewish friends who have seen my agony in this department from all the pressure don’t think it’s cute, either. Peer pressure to fit in is never okay. This kind of peer pressure is just cruel and offensive. Yes, there is a biblical mandate to be fruitful and multiply. But it’s also not on the woman to uphold. Why can’t people just leave me alone and stop making me feel like less of a woman? This is not what I planned and is not my fault!
So, yes, why in the world would I want to stay Jewish when this is the crap I have to put up with on a regular basis? (And these are just four things. I’ll leave out the others for brevity’s sake). These are my reasons for staying — and reasons why people who are leaving Judaism may want to pause and rethink. (I don’t necessarily mean the “Off The Derech” crowd. If they wanted to join a different movement, that would be awesome; I’d love to see them join mine. But, after the trauma they go through, I don’t blame them for not doing so.)
1. Most of my shul community doesn’t make snide remarks about me or behave in inappropriate ways toward me because I’m different. The vast majority treat me with decency — better than that, most of them treat me just like everyone else in our congregation. When I first had a myomectomy for my gynecological problems, right after I moved to New York in 2009, several members of my community rushed to my aid with meals, errand running, even light repair when the light in my kitchen decided to not cooperate and wouldn’t stay on. I still didn’t even know the congregation that well, and some of the people who came over were still strangers to me. But, they helped me out. Since then, my community has still kept an eye on me and been there, making sure I’m not alone for meals on holy days, even inviting me over for Shabbat dinner after an ugly break-up with a boyfriend to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone in my depression. That sense of community was something I barely knew even when I belonged to a church when I was a kid. All that considered, as aggravating (and sometimes flat out painful) as comments about my hair or conversion status are, the overall sum of my experiences with my home congregation make sticking around worthwhile and then some.
2. Being Jewish has taught me mindfulness in every aspect of my daily life, and that has helped me through so many painful moments in my life. I say “Modah Ani” the moment that I get up to thank G-d for having enough faith in me to wake me up for one more day. There are all the other blessings that I have the chance to say throughout the day. I’m able to recognize the sacred in the ordinary. This helps me to feel way less alone throughout the day and gives meaning and centeredness to my life that was sorely lacking before. I need that spiritual grounding that is unique to Judaism, and I simply resonate best with the conceptualizations of G-d that Judaism espouses. This is home to me.
3. Someone has to continue to speak up in my corner of the Jewish community for the “Off The Derech” community. (More of us do. In the meantime, I’ve taken this on as a very personal task.) A lot of people in my Conservative movement look upon the more insular parts of the Jewish world with rose-colored lenses and don’t realize what abusive things are going on. That’s not to say that abuse of any sort doesn’t happen in the Conservative Jewish world. However, because certain other communities refuse to cooperate with law enforcement and would prefer to manipulate it instead, innocent children and vulnerable adults are being harmed and very few outsiders are aware of what happens unless disaster strikes. I’m privileged, for lack of a better word, to know what’s happening from people who’ve survived, and I can bear witness for them and live out the commandment of “Justice, justice you shall pursue” for them. Could I do this as a gentile? Not so well for the rest of the Jewish community. This isn’t a role I want to give up, as difficult as it is.
4. It’s been six years now since I first went before the beit din and then to the mikvah. How could I possibly turn back now? And turn back to what, a life that was empty and miserable?? Yes, times have been tough since, but that was in good part because I tried to gain the acceptance of people who would never accept me, and for whom I ultimately ended up losing all respect.
Those people and those three miserable years aside, I do have to say, I wanted to be Jewish since I could barely read. I would feel an inexplicable joy whenever I came across anything Jewish when I was small. This life does actually make me happy more often than any of the times when I feel down. It’s home. There isn’t anything to which I could possibly return. This is it. Period.
5. As for the unhappy moments I have now and then today, I know I’m not alone in my unhappiness. It’s not right that I get snide remarks. It’s not right that there is disdain or cruelty toward converts, or racism or sexism or homophobia or any other injustice or bigotry in our community. It’s appalling for there to be any hatred of this kind in a nation that has been attacked by Nazis or any of the scores of others bent on wiping us out just for being Jews — why do I even need to say that?? It boggles my mind that victims could act like the people who wanted to see them dead. But this very magazine is testament to the fact that I’m not the only one fed up with this and wants to see it stop.
Change starts with talking and acknowledging the problem and then issuing a challenge to ourselves and others to flip the script both internally and externally. If you don’t want to see other Jews feel ostracized, or converts questioning whether or not they made the right choice when they joined our people, then start looking at how you talk and behave toward your fellow Jew. If you see someone acting in a way that is disrespectful, unkind, or just flat out hateful, don’t stand quietly by. Speak up. As Rav Hillel stated, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah.”
Let’s put that down as my sixth reason for why I wouldn’t ever leave Judaism — truthful statements like that one. Yes, other religions and cultures the world over have similar rules that boil down to “Don’t be a jerk.” But the notion that this is the whole Torah is why I stick around.
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of cloudsmountain via photopin cc.