By Debra Lynn Shelton
Years ago, my Catholic husband decided he wanted to convert to Judaism. At the time, we’d only been married a few years, and my family belonged to a reform synagogue. My husband signed up for and attended the conversion classes, and over a six-month period he studied history, holidays, religious teachings, and even a little Hebrew. It was an involved process that he was deeply committed to completing.
The final piece was his appearance before a panel of rabbis. They asked him questions designed to determine whether or not he would be accepted into the Jewish fold. Not surprisingly, he said it was challenging. But they accepted him and allowed him to become a convert to Judaism.
At the time, we were aware there were those who didn’t fully consider him a Jew. Reform and Conservative conversions aren’t legitimately Jewish in the eyes of some ultra-Orthodox Jews, while converts are often viewed as “less than” even within the more progressive Reform community. And what did this mean for our kids? Though we were raising them Jewish, there was always the background noise of, “but their dad’s not really a Jew…”
I thought about this when I read about Nachum Eisenstein, the chief rabbi of eastern Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood, who said, “Reform and Conservative Judaism threaten to undermine the survival of the Jewish people.” In Israel, some would have it so that conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis don’t count. Rather than Reform and Conservative Judaism undermining the survival of the Jewish people, I have to wonder: is it the“I’m a Jew and you’re not” mentality that will eventually bring us down?
Lately I’ve experienced a large chasm among my fellow Jews, specifically between those who consider themselves secular or less religious and those who consider themselves religious. Why, I wonder, do we Jews often pit ourselves against one another?
In a previous article, I wrote about my transformation from Jewish-Leader-Wannabe to atheist and secular Jew. I received a lot of grief for speaking my truth. But doesn’t the freedom to follow a religious or spiritual path apply equally to those whose paths eventually walk away from observance? I don’t understand the ultra-religious way of life, yet I never question others’ freedom to observe as they please. Shouldn’t that be the case for all who claim to be Jewish, no matter the branch of religion or depth of faith?
As long as some people see themselves as the only true Jews, I doubt we will ever be able to come together as a worldwide Jewish community. In a time when the Jewish population is stagnant at best, it makes sense to welcome with open arms those who observe in a liberal fashion as well as those who choose to convert.
It’s been said before, but it’s true: in Nazi Germany, it made no difference what one’s relationship to their Jewish faith was. Whether in name only, or deeply religious, all were Jews and all were targets. So isn’t sticking together no matter what arises the most important lesson we Jews can learn? Isn’t that the key to our survival? Didn’t every one of us, no matter our particular background, feel a sting of fear, anger, and horror watching Nazis walk down an American street yelling, “Jews will not replace us?”
In the wake of horrifying incidents like Charlottesville, how do we teach our children about the ills of bigotry and prejudice when we’re not even accepting of all within our own religion?
In some ways, the infighting reminds me of when my children were little.
Those who breastfed and those who chose not to were (and still are) at complete odds. How about we take a step back and entertain the idea that each of us knows what’s best for ourselves and our families?
And in the case of religion, can we get to the place where we agree that “I know what level of religiosity works for me, and you know what works for you”? Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could?
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.