Shavuot is past, but its lessons continue. This year our Tikkun Leil Shavuot – the nighttime study for the holiday – focused on conversion to Judaism.
Ruth is the icon of those who convert to Judaism, even though, in biblical times, conversion was a simple matter of marrying into an Israelite clan, unlike later halachic practices.
Throughout the Book of Ruth, she is called The Moabite. While she may have crossed the Jordan into Israelite territory, she was still The Other, a member of a tribe spawned from an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters, a people usually forbidden to the Israelite nation and indeed, sometimes its active enemy.
Making her the ancestor of King David, our once and future king, gives an ironic twist to the story.
Now to our tikkun. We asked a number of our congregation’s members who either converted to Judaism, or were the spouse or child of a convert, to talk about their personal experiences with conversion. (We have many to choose from in our congregation.)
Without identifying them by name, here is a roll call of backgrounds. French-Canadian, Greek, Asian, Dutch, and former residents of the Maritimes, British Columbia and elsewhere on the continent.
The evening began with the moderator giving a brief overview of the pshat of the Book of Ruth, linking it both to the idea of changing identities and to the early grain harvest (in the land of Israel). Then, all the participants opened up their book of conversion and shared their stories. I’ll give a few examples.
Of course, you may think, they all converted for marriage. Not so!
A. began her journey when she volunteered to assist with one of the Jewish non-profits in the community. Soon she was a staple at our seniors home, where she became engrossed in – and welcomed into – the lives of residents there. What was the attraction that drew her? The warmth and caring of our community, and the closeness it offered. Later, well after her conversion, one of her clients introduced her to his grandson – and you guessed it, she had found her bashert.
M. and C. were teen sweethearts and the decision for her conversion took shape when a sympathetic Orthodox rabbi accepted her as a student.
S.’s grandmother in Holland had been instrumental in sheltering Jews escaping from the Nazis. Her daughter converted in North America, and it was her daughter who rounded out the panel. What effect did having a convert for a parent make on the child? Only positive. S. grew up (literally) in the halls and rooms of the shul.
In fact, these Jews by choice, have made incredible contributions to community life, as presidents and supporters of organizations that are the lifeblood of community.
It’s not just women who convert.
P. was married to a Jewish spouse and the father of several children before he was ready to convert. A loving father-in-law, who never stopped believing that one day his Greek Orthodox son-in-law would convert, drew him close. What attracted him – as well as his wife, of course? The teachings and traditions of Judaism, which he thoughtfully explored for years before joining the people of Israel.
There is a deeper theme in the Book of Ruth: what happened to those whose lives were touched and changed by her decision. In his introduction to the evening, our moderator alluded to the effect Ruth had on those around her. Naomi comes home to Bethlehem with no husband or children, and Ruth fills her arms with a child. Boaz has no wife or child (that we are told of), and Ruth gives him both.
So, please, no more “I thought you were a nice Jewish girl (or boy)!” Just think how much the Jewish People are enriched, challenged and changed, by the many converts who have joined us. Welcome, welcome to the club.