The Problem With Calling a Jew a ‘Convert’ – Tablet Magazine

Posted By on June 4, 2022

Will I ever be Jewish enough? I asked. The question came at the end of an hour-long meeting with my soon-to-be rabbi, in August 2019. The meeting was meant to determine whether the conversion program at his synagogue was a good fit for me and my family; but my question for him was meant to determine whether Id be strolling through shul with a scarlet C over my head once I was officially Jewish.

Converts are Jews, he said. Full stop. Though my question had come out casually, my eyes told a different story; I was wiping away tears. Deep inside, I feared Id do all the work only to not be considered fully Jewish by those born into Judaism. The rabbiBeau Shapiro of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in Los Angelestried to reassure me that converts are quite respected because they chose this path. And technically, he added, no one is allowed to ask if youre a convert anyway.

Ive since learned that most Jews have imposter syndrome: Reform Jews who compare their observance to their Conservative friends, Conservatives who compare their practice with their Modern Orthodox friends. To be a Jew is to feel you dont know enough. But take it from me, a mikveh swimmer since just before the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: Comparing your Jewish practice to your friends is very different from feeling like you wear your newish Jewishness on your sleeve, now and forevermore.

Which is why, as we approach Shavuot, the converts holiday, I ask you to please avoid the word convert.

As my rabbi promised, no one has ever asked me outright if thats what I am, and Ive never heard the hard-C pronunciation I feared, the word snarling its way out from behind the molars. But when it comes up innocentlyeven affectionatelyin conversation, not only is the word an ill-fitting descriptor, but also it immediately separates my Judaism from yours.

Literally speaking, a convert is one who has been converted, one who has been persuaded to change her or his beliefs. This surely applies to some: Four pupils in my course of study were there at the behest of their fiancs, so that they could have a Jewish wedding, and likely wouldnt have charted this path on their own. But this doesnt apply to me. Nobody converted me or persuaded me to change my beliefs. I was raised Christian, but always felt Jewish. I explored it off and on for decades; when my mothers 23andMe DNA test revealed she was actually slightly more than half Jewish, I felt like whatever permission I was seeking to go make it official had been granted. So no, no persuasion there.

At its best, convert describes a specific space and time when a person is moving from whatever spiritual space they inherited and into the Jewish space theyre meant to be in. But labeling someone a convert after the conversion paperwork is signed just underscores that we are different from you.

And we arent lacking for reminderstheyre all around us. Like at my daughters summer camp, which we toured with the incoming class of Ramah-niks. As the kids set off to check out the ropes course, the parents were corralled together, and our introduction icebreaker was to announce which Jewish summer camp we attended. I kept my three nights at a Brownie camp in the second grade to myself. There are the reminders when we visit friends during Hannukah, and theres not just one family hannukiah, theres a whole crop of themsome that were baby gifts, some crafted from bolts as a Hebrew school craft, some heirlooms. And speaking of, I dont have any. Every Shabbat, I set a kiddush cup on the table that holds no generational or sentimental significance. I bought it off an Instagram ad during my ceramics phase. For as much as I love my Judaism, a part of me is envious of those who never have to feel othered by it within the Jewish world. When I hear convert, Im reminded more of the ways I dont fit in and not of the many ways I do.

Labeling someone a convert after the conversion paperwork is signed just underscores that we are different from you.



I cannot share my discomfort with convert without also sharing that I have a very tight-knit community of Jewish friends and clergy, all along the spectrum of observance, who dont give a second thought to how I got here and make me feel like one of them whether were together for a simcha or shiva. And I am so grateful for my non-Jewish friends whove stood beside me on those same occasions, as if theyve known me no other way. Something all of those people have in common: No one calls me a convert.

Having always felt uncomfortable with the convert tag, I have looked into other possible descriptors. Maybe something was lost in translation, I thought. Certainly, whatever word convert is in modern Hebrew or Yiddish must be better. Nope! The word is ger, which means stranger, or worse, resident alien. A word that means youre not part of us cannot magically mean you are one of us.

Does that make me a Jew by choice, another popular alternative? It bears pointing out that program I was a part of what was called Choosing Judaism. A gentler approach, to be sure. But the trouble with this one is that I dont feel it was a choice. Judaism was always baked into me, something I just wasnt ready to pick at, until I couldnt bear not to a minute longer.

The truth is, there is no label that fits me except Jew.

As I tried to get to the root of all this, I was reminded of a real flash point during the process of becoming halachically Jewish, and it came at the very end of my mikveh. After my three submersions were complete and a chorus of Siman tov umazel tov was being sung in the background, the mikveh attendant crouched down, looked me in the eye, and said, Welcome home.

When youre home, you just are who you are. Sure, your experiences forever lie under the surface, but you arent being constantly reminded of them. The luxury and reward of feeling a sense of home is you get to just be there without dwelling on how you got there. At home, like you, I am Jewish. Not a convert. Just Jewish.

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The Problem With Calling a Jew a 'Convert' - Tablet Magazine

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