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In Time for Shavuot, Analyzing Conversion

June 1, 2011 By:
Edmon J. Rodman
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Ruth's day is coming. Not the Ruth with all the home runs. The other Ruth, the biblical one who hit an eternal shot for Jews by Choice.

We read her book and story on Shavuot. Her words of commitment spoken to her mother-in-law, Naomi, travel over time to us on the holiday: "Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God."

As more organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute, Interfaithfamily.com and Jewsbychoice.org, as well as Jews by Choice themselves, take note of the connection between Shavuot and Ruth, it's a good time for a Ruth Check -- a Shavuot look into how we are getting along with the converts in our lives.

Are we welcoming or standoffish? Perhaps even a bit uneasy with the notion of having a Jew by Choice standing by our side at Sinai? Do some of us fear losing our spots in religious and communal organizations, even in our own families, to men and women new to the faith?

I know it's popular to say that all Jews now are Jews by choice. But don't some of us feel a bit more chosen than others?

I know I sometimes do.

A few weeks before Passover, I was sitting in Shabbat morning services keenly aware that the woman chanting the haftarah was a Jew by Choice. The morning's reading was long and difficult. Why was I listening more closely than usual? Why was I making extra sure that every word was perfect, every trope observed? What was going on here?

A friend recently put it this way: "They just don't feel it in their bones," he said.

"They said that about Abraham," responded Rabbi Dov Gartenberg when I asked him about the "bones" comment.

"It's so easy for born Jews to feel superior," said the rabbi, the spiritual leader at Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, Calif., who works extensively with Jews by Choice.

Speaking about converts, he said: "Sometimes they don't get the cultural clues."

It takes time, Gartenberg suggested, for those cultural clues to become second nature. That's where born Jews can offer a helping hand.

"It's our responsibility to actively mentor those who have not been born Jewish," he said.

Gartenberg has not always found that kind of support forthcoming.

More than once he has observed that the born Jewish partner of a couple in which the other partner has converted is ambivalent about Jewish life, or at best unenthusiastic. It is often the convert who wants more to "share the joy."

At a pulpit he had in Seattle, the rabbi said he observed that "a high percentage of Jews by Choice became involved and engaged in community life." But that fact doesn't always translate into people's perceptions, especially if they don't know the convert's personal story.

After her conversion 20 years ago, Mary Lane Potter, a convert in Seattle who has a doctorate in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School, recalled, "Some people were suspicious and assumed I didn't know anything, or were very sensitive about my ideas."

Today, Potter, who teaches a Living Judaism class, sees more of an embrace of converts. "In our community, sometimes people don't even know people are converts."

She says the biblical Naomi is her role model, that "she was welcoming, faithful." That's why Potter thinks the Book of Ruth is read at Shavuot -- it's the holiday commemorating "the moment of revelation," a moment when all need to be included and welcomed.Maybe we all need a little more Naomi in our life -- at least the welcoming part.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.

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