The Human Spirit: Conversion Without Tears
March 04, 2011
Barbara Sofer , THE
Often converts are sent back
to their countries of origin; occasionally they are jailed for illegally
In Hanna Rubin Ausubel's cozy Jerusalem living
room, family photographs fill the walls and punctuate shelves of holy
books. Hers is a grand family. It includes her beautiful children,
grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and life-cycle celebrations for hundreds
of women she's mentored through their conversions into Judaism.
Anticipating my visit, she has loaded her dining room table with cartons
of additional photos, letters and documents from women whom she's
accompanied to the ritual bath for conversion and walked to the wedding
canopy. At least one child of the women she's mentored through the complex
process is named Hanna in her honor.
Each of the converts has
undergone a serious and successful year course of study and coaching in
Jewish practice. But as Rabbinit Ausubel says with a sigh of regret, "All
this took place in the past, the golden age of
IN THE 1990s, after making aliya from
New York, Ausubel headed the English-speaking division of Machon Ora in
Jerusalem. Thousands of women arrived from around the world to enroll in
its classes, which included Torah study and practical Jewish living. In
this school where Ausubel taught, the optimistic Jewish worldview espoused
by Israel's first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, and other leaders
I've come to visit Ausubel as an antidote to the
heartrending stories I've been hearing from men and women, potential
converts, who are frustrated, humiliated and rejected in their efforts to
join the Jewish people in the State of Israel. Nearly all the complaints
lead back to the Interior Ministry, where a committee has the power to
judge converts' sincerity, deciding if they are worthy of enrolling in a
conversion program. Often they are sent packing back to their countries of
origin; occasionally they are jailed for illegally pursuing conversion.
Conversion is an option for immigrants, but non-Jews aren't accepted as
Men and women who want to join and contribute
to the Jewish people face such hurdles that conversion appears
unattainable. Their stories must remain in the shadows, because they are
afraid of going public and facing possible retribution of the tribunal.
One of the potential converts I've interviewed compares herself to the
Jews who refused to convert under the Spanish Inquisition. Another is
studying Judaism sub rosa, pretending to be Jewish, so that she won't get
ousted for learning Hebrew, acquiring the pragmatics and theory of Halacha
and spending many hours a day deciphering the comments of Rashi and
Maimonides on the weekly Torah portion.
Still a third, from Sweden,
who joined us recently for Shabbat dinner, enthralled a table full of
born-Jews by describing how his personal search for truth "quickly led to
He loves Israel, but wouldn't think of coming here until
he's passed muster in a beit din outside the country. He's worried about
the new rulings here that will make uncertain the acceptance of his
Orthodox conversion abroad.
Why do others insist on studying for
conversion here? Jerusalem 5771 offers incomparable Judaism teachers.
Still others want to convert because they've fallen in love with the
country or, yes, they've fallen in love with an Israeli.
potential converts are women.
ISRAEL'S EXPERT in the suffering of
potential converts is Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization ITIM, a Hebrew
acronym for Jewish Life Information Center, helps navigate the labyrinth
of personal status issues at the rabbinical councils, especially
conversion. He confirms that the process has become much harder since
Ausubel's days. "Each month, more than 250 people turn to the ITIM hot
line seeking information about conversion in Israel," says Farber.
"Conversion is one of the tools the Jewish people can use to fight
intermarriage and assimilation. Unfortunately, the Israeli rabbinate is
under too much pressure to seriously engage this issue for the long
Successes are celebrated. For example, a recent story in the
organization newsletter reports the "happy ending" for a South African
Israeli who managed to convert after seven years, including being sent
back twice to South Africa in the process. Not that the story doesn't have
still another ironic side. After living here without status for seven
years, being unable to work, the immigrant has been denied new immigrant
rights. He's been here too long. ITIM is appealing.
students with whom Ausubel worked were those whose starting point in
seeking out Judaism was their love of a Jew who wanted them to convert.
But looking back from the perspective of decades, like a longitudinal
survey, it appears that the motive for converting made little difference
down the line.
"Ninety eight percent of our students remained in
Israel and keep a traditional Jewish lifestyle," says Ausubel. She
supplies a long list of names and phone numbers of those willing to be
interviewed. I've changed their names. If we are prohibited from reminding
the convert, why remind their neighbors? Besides, years after successful
conversion our rabbinical authorities can declare conversions void, with
one stroke of the pen destroying the lives of the convert and her
children. The women I've spoken to confirm that the conversion course was
the seminal experience of their lives, a rich well of Jewish knowledge and
love that has served them and their family. Conversion without
Take Olga, who chose to use her Jewish father's name in
Russia because she identified with the Jewish people. For that, she faced
a lifetime of anti-Semitism. She knew she wasn't officially Jewish. She
separated from her husband for the time it took for her to complete
Evita arrived from Mexico
when her future husband's family made it clear they would reject her even
if she converted. Her future husband threatened to commit suicide if they
couldn't wed. Ausubel arranged for the wedding in a synagogue basement. At
the brit mila of their first child, the extended family was
On the day Diane went to the ritual bath to convert,
Ausubel received word that Diane's father had died. She waited until she
immersed to tell her. Said a tearful Diane, "On this day, one Jewish soul
left the world and another came into the world."
to make Jewish home life so appealing that everyone wants to give their
children the gift of a strong Jewish identity," says Ausubel. "The process
has to work, and then the final pledge has to come as a powerful
conclusion of a process so that even those who might have had doubts
before experience a life change. It's a process filled with love; 36 times
in our Torah we are urged to love the stranger."
We have a peculiar
way of showing it.