Monday, August 15, 2016

No, we are not ALL Jews by Choice

Me (and other Jews by choice): "I am a Jew by Choice."
Jew by Birth: "We're all Jews by Choice."
Me: *cringe*

In the April 2013 issue of Sh'ma, Rabbi Justin Goldstein explained an increasingly common idea - that we are all Jews by Choice. This was not the first appearance of this sentiment and certainly not the last, but Rabbi Goldstein summarized the idea so well: "In our world, even the most stringently observant wake up each morning and make a choice, even if not a conscious choice, to be a Jew and live a Jewish life."

There is plenty of evidence to support this idea - the ease of assimilation into mainstream American culture and rising rates of intermarriage make it easier to simply stop practicing Judaism or performing Jewish culture. Maintaining a Jewish identity in a world where it is so easy not to is necessarily an active choice that we all make. I understand that sentiment and I even agree with it. But I take issue with Jews by Birth laying claim to the phrase "Jew by Choice" as a way to express this idea.

To that Jew by Birth above who says, "We are all Jews by Choice," let me say once and for all, no, we are not.

I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that when he says this, he means well. He means to include me, to say that we are the same, and I appreciate that.

But it often feels like he is erasing a need that I have in that moment. I could just introduce myself as a Jew to him and frequently I do. When I "out" myself specifically as a Jew by Choice, it is usually because it is relevant to the conversation, often as a way for me to explain a gap in my Jewish knowledge. Maybe we're talking about summer camp or Hebrew school or any of the other childhood activities for which I have no first-hand experience. Maybe we're talking about family traditions surrounding Passover or he's recalling his bar mitzvah. Maybe it's December and I'm talking about going home to be with my family for Christmas. In that moment, I need him to understand a difference between the two of us that exists because I came to Judaism later in life and he did not.

This common interaction is why I have stopped using the phrase "Jew by Choice" to describe myself, sticking instead, when need be, with the term "convert."

This is on my mind at the moment because of a series of posts that have been floating around the internet this summer about the phrase "Jew by Choice."

The first, written by a woman who converted to Judaism, appeared in Lilith Magazine in June, and chronicles the author's personal Jewish journey and distaste for the term "Jew by Choice." She argues that: "The phrase 'Jew by Choice' is meant to be affirmational, but instead erases the ambiguities of my experiences and the experiences of so many others...How can I do anything but reject a term that dichotomizes what should be a messy spectrum?"

At the end of July, Mosaic Magazine posted a response. This author (I'm not sure if he is a convert, but if I had to guess, I would say he was probably born Jewish) dislikes the term "Jew by Choice," because "the term conveys a false idea of what Judaism is about. Judaism is about a people—and no people can be a people, much less remain one, without a sure sense of itself that can in the main be provided only by birth, parenting, and belonging to a community from an early age. One can join a people only if there is a people to join—and only if one understands that choosing to join it is more than a matter of selectively identifying with some of its beliefs."

Finally, a third author who was quoted in the Mosaic piece, responded with an attempt to clarify or more fully flesh out his experience of converting to Judaism. "I became Jewish because I hold a set of convictions that I see rooted in the Jewish experience...Of course, I understand and positively appreciate that my being Jewish also connects me to a people and makes me part of a broader community."

I highly recommend reading all of these pieces in full.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Converting the Children of Converts

Last week, I used this blog to answer a question about converting for marriage that was posed during a Shavuot discussion at my synagogue. Today, I want to try to answer another question from that forum:

Do you plan to take your future children to the mikveh to convert them when they are born?
I've heard this question asked before as "Would you convert your children according to Orthodox Judaism when they are born?" I'm not entirely sure of the thought-process behind the question, but as far as I can tell, it is simply an extension of our existential struggle to define who is a Jew and it exposes the ripple effect that these debates have for future generations. I have to imagine that it also stems from a misunderstanding of the conversion process in the different movements of Judaism. 

To be completely honest, I find the question pointless. Either, as a female convert, I am Jewish and therefore, my children will be Jewish or the question implies that my Jewish status is not transferable, which, to be fair, it is not in certain circles. The hard fact is that my conversion is not accepted everywhere. I am not Jewish by Orthodox standards, so by matrilineal descent, my children won't be considered Jewish in the Orthodox world either.

To be considered Jewish in every movement,* I would have to undergo an Orthodox conversion and take on an Orthodox lifestyle. I have considered converting again, even consulted an Orthodox rabbi about it, but in the end I decided that Orthodox life is not for me. I am happy with the Conservative Jewish life I have and I am accepted as a Jew by those standards. If I were to undergo an Orthodox conversion simply to be able to say that everyone considers me Jewish, it wouldn't be sincere. I am not strictly shomer shabbas or shomer negiah, nor do I want to cover my hair or give up my short sleeves and jeans. For me to convert in the Orthodox movement (at this point in my life, at least) would be a lie. 

Given that I am not planning to undergo an Orthodox conversion personally, the point becomes moot when talking about my future children. For one thing, I highly doubt you could find an Orthodox rabbi willing to convert an infant if that rabbi didn't consider me to be Jewish and we were not planning to raise the child in an Orthodox household. Second, if I didn't convert in the Orthodox movement and don't plan to raise my children in an Orthodox community, what would be the point of converting them to Orthodoxy? If it is just so that no one can question their Jewish status, then I refer you back to my own reasons for not pursuing an Orthodox conversion.

The short answer to this question then is no, I don't plan to convert my children. If I consider myself Jewish and my community considers me Jewish, then my children will be Jewish by the same measure. 

If my children grow up and decide to become Orthodox, they will have to undergo their own conversion process. Hopefully, growing up as a Jew in a Jewish home will make that process easier for them, should they choose to pursue it.

*The Orthodox community is not a cohesive organization and not all converts are recognized as legitimate Jews by different rabbis within Orthodoxy. Even if a convert is universally recognized by the American Orthodox establishment, the Israeli rabbinate may not accept them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Converting for Marriage

Last month, I co-led a discussion about Ruth and modern-day conversions for Shavuot with my synagogue's young professional group. Their questions about conversion and life in the Jewish community as a Jew by Choice were insightful and thought-provoking. This question in particular has stuck with me.

How do you feel about people who convert for marriage?

Three years ago, Rabbi Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York proposed a new approach to Conservative conversions that he hoped would solve the movement's intermarriage crisis: convert the non-Jewish person right away for the marriage. He seemed to think that if both parties were Jewish, even in name only, they would become a "Jewish household." I took exception to his plan at the time and I still think that it would be detrimental to those converts, like myself, who chose to convert to Judaism for ourselves. What Rabbi Cosgrove failed to acknowledge is the stigma surrounding conversion for marriage, which is seen by many in the Jewish community as a sign of the person's insincerity, lack of commitment to the Jewish people, and/or unthinking adoption of a Jewish identity that they don't full understand.

So how do I feel about converting for marriage? Personally, it makes it harder for me as a convert, because there will always be people who assume that I converted for Marc and attach that stigma to me. I've worked hard over the years to learn and grow Jewishly, to develop an identity and place for myself in the Jewish community, so to have it written off as a decision that Marc made for me in a way is hard. 

Part of me would like to think that cracking down on conversion for marriage would alleviate the stigma, but I know that people come to Judaism in all sorts of ways. A recent article in defense of those who convert for marriage proves that being motivated by love for an individual does not preclude one from developing a sincere, personal commitment to Judaism. After all, Ruth's conversion was prompted by her love for Naomi, but it blossomed into her acceptance of Judaism, the Jewish people, and God.

I will struggle next week with another frequently asked question: should a convert have to convert their children?