I’ve been Jewish for 15 years now, but when I was studying for my conversion, one specific topic came up often. “Are you converting Orthodox?” friends would ask, often in whispers. “You really should, you know, then you’ll never have trouble making aliyah and your kids won’t have problems when they get married.”
These were, in large part, non-Orthodox friends who attended liberal synagogues. In spite of their own religious leanings, they were concerned that, for a prospective convert, there was only one safe way to become Jewish, only one way that wouldn’t cause me problems later on.
At the time, the children in question were merely theoretical and the idea of making aliyah was very remote. Nevertheless, I soon found myself living in a community that only had one synagogue, which happened to be Orthodox.
And so, without having made a decision about where I fell on the Jewish denominational spectrum, I began studying with an Orthodox rabbi.
It was an interesting journey. The rabbi was an engaging teacher and his wife was incredibly welcoming and friendly. They were unfailingly sincere and encouraging as I progressed through my learning by reading, attending services and meeting with the rabbi to discuss my progress on a weekly basis.
I sat in the women’s gallery feeling a mixture of pride that I was succeeding in a system that was so unfamiliar, and at the same time guilt, because I knew that I would never be able to sincerely claim Orthodoxy as my own. These guilty feelings were only amplified by the dismay the rabbi clearly felt toward others in the community whose conversions he had sponsored and who now drove to services, wore pants and ate at non-kosher restaurants.
Ultimately, after 18 months of studying for an Orthodox conversion, I made the decision that I couldn’t, in good conscience, proceed with an Orthodox beit din.
I grew up in the shadow of Catholicism and I recognized the hypocrisy of rejecting one religion that doesn’t ordain women or members of the LGBTQ community, in favour of another denomination with similar prejudices. I also felt increasingly uncomfortable with the way that I was being encouraged to, for lack of a better term, game the system.
Clearly, there were advantages to converting through an Orthodox rabbi. But what did it say about me if I was starting my new life in Judaism – a religion I chose because it was a more honest reflection of my beliefs than Christianity was – with a lie?
The truth was that, while I was prepared to never touch another piece of bacon or set up another Christmas tree, I knew that I would still be eating at the non-kosher homes of my friends and family. I’d keep wearing pants and I’d probably wind up driving on Shabbat.
I also knew that, no matter how much it was wrapped up in halakhah, I would never be comfortable sitting in a women’s gallery.
The idea of justifying to a future daughter that I had chosen this secondary role for her made my stomach churn. (Given the fierce personality of the daughter I gave birth to, it was a wise move.)
Ultimately, I was fortunate to be able to find a Reform rabbi who was willing to finish my conversion with me. And while the assumption seems to be that non-Orthodox conversions are less rigorous, that wasn’t my experience at all. The rigour was just different.
In the Orthodox process, it was very important that I knew how to kasher a liver and could memorize the Birkat ha-Mazon (a skill I remain grateful for); while in the Reform process, it was important that I understood not just what to do, but also why I was doing it. It was left up to me to decide how I would practice, so I needed to have a better grounding in Jewish history and philosophy, in order to make those decisions responsibly.
Fifteen years later, I feel very lucky to have seen both sides of the conversion spectrum. The rote learning I did with the Orthodox rabbi made me more confident. And the Reform process made me more curious. I got the best of both worlds, in many ways.
However, my friends’ whispered fears remain very real. In spite of being heavily involved in my synagogue, sending my kids to Jewish camp and baking challah every week, I would still face an uphill battle to make aliyah and my kids may indeed have to jump through some hoops to get married or serve in the IDF.
There are groups, including the Israeli government, that don’t recognize us as truly being Jewish. It’s very discouraging.
Now, when prospective converts ask me what denomination they should choose for their conversion process, I encourage them to think about where their ideology fits within the range of Jewish practice. To paraphrase my sponsoring rabbi, if you’re converting Reform, I don’t expect to find you sitting under a Christmas tree or eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich on Yom Kippur, but I also don’t expect to find you wearing a long skirt and a wig behind a mechitzah. The process you choose should reflect your beliefs and the Judaism you intend to practise.
I never discuss my anxieties about making aliyah or future marriages, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about them. Until there is a genuine religious pluralism in Israel, the deck will always be stacked in favour of Orthodox conversions. It shouldn’t be a big secret. We can’t hope to fix the problem until we push it out of the shadows.