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Welcome Gerim

Jewish teaching is very clear on the subject of Gerim (converts), who are to be considered Jews in every respect. It is also clear that some Jews, especially those of an orthodox or Israeli background, feel that a convert is not a “real” Jew.

They will admit that a Ger usually knows more about Judaism than many born Jews. They also often confess that Gerim practice more Judaism in their homes and in the synagogue then they themselves do. Yet they insist that Gerim are not “really” Jewish.

Sometimes they express this opinion because they regard the feeling of alienation and Jewish ambivalence that comes from being an oft persecuted minority as an essential part of Jewishness, although they themselves hope to shield their children and grandchildren from this experience. Usually they have this feeling because they are ignorant of what Judaism teaches about the Mitsvah of welcoming Gerim into the Jewish community.

Frequently they themselves have not met many people who they knew to be Gerim. Since the process of becoming Jewish is not encouraged when Gerim have contact with people who hold these negative views we need to do as much as possible to make the Jewish community as pro Gerim as possible.

One very effective way to do this is to conduct all conversion ceremonies as a public ritual at a regular Shabbat service. In the last 34 years over 200 Gerim have joined the Jewish people through this public ritual at a Shabbat service at Temple Akiba.

Although many Gerim are nervous about speaking in public, with my encouragement and the example of the bnai mitsvah who have to do it when they are only 13, close to 98% of the Gerim do it.

The reaction of my congregation has been very favorable. Many people have related to me that they were very moved during the service. On one occasion after a family service a non-member told me that the Kabbalat Ger ceremony had inspired her to encourage her nephew’s wife to become Jewish.

Another time several members of the confirmation class who were at the service were greatly impressed according to their amazed parents. I always encourage Gerim to speak about their feelings on becoming Jewish at the end of the ceremony. About one third of them do. This too helps impress people favorably.

On occasion someone has worried about what non-Jews who were present might think. I always point out that many non-Jews think Jews are clannish because we do not proselytize and this helps to dispel that negative image. Within a few years of starting this practice at Temple Akiba I could feel a much more positive attitude toward Gerim within the congregation.

The Kabbalat Ger ceremony is held after the opening song and before the candle blessing or the Kiddush depending on the gender of the person who is becoming Jewish. I announce that we have a special simcha to celebrate. The Ger (accompanied by a present or future spouse if desired) comes up on the bima and stands before the open ark.

He or she then publicly declares his or her decision to become part of the Jewish people by reciting the Sh’ma and the words of Ruth, “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.”

When the conversion ceremony is complete a female convert is invited to bless the Shabbat candles on behalf of the congregation and a male convert is invited to recite the blessing over the Shabbat cup of wine on behalf of the congregation. This signifies that the congregation accepts the new Jew as one of them.  Allen S. Maller

                                  Our Attitudes Towards Converts                by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have much of a missionary impulse. That is why there are so few Jews in the world. Mormons, who very actively seek converts, already outnumber Jews even though they have been around less than 200 years compared to more than 3,500 years for Jews.

Judaism lacks a strong missionary impulse because Judaism is a pluralistic religion. Judaism teaches that the Jewish way is right for us, but good people in other religions also have a place in the world to come. Correct behavior in society is more important than correct beliefs about God.

Thus, while Jews welcome non-Jews to join us, we do not have a urgent motive to 'enlighten' or 'save' them.

Lacking the missionary impulse of more universalistic religions, Jews react to potential converts in varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement. Practical community concerns guided many of out Sages. Some like Rabbi Helbo said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab. Perhaps Rabbi Helbo felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of converts irritated too many born Jews, who take their Jewishness much more casually.

Or maybe he agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”. Both these Rabbis lived in the early 4th century when the Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians.

Perhaps they feared Christian anti-anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts.

On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai. This seems rather extreme. Perhaps he was reacting to those who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes.

Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Johanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, was really a God given opportunity to influence Gentiles to become Jewish.

Some Rabbis tried to test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them. Opposing this, Rabbi Johanan advises that you should push potential converts away with your left hand and draw them close with your right hand. Since most people are right handed if you actually push away more than a few you are being too negative.

Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning, when he interpreted a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts.

And the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt.

If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine.

Indeed, Rabbi Johanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn't try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan.

And several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested. Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish.

The recent attempt by some Haredi Rabbis in Israel to retroactively dejudiaze thousands of Jews who were converted according to Halakah is an shameful example of what not to do.

Two decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience.

She told me that at age 18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card. Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued. She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish.

The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done. When I heard that story, I told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. I did.

I was at the circumcision of her son two months later. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of L.A.

                       Most converts have reincarnated Jewish souls    By Rabbi Allen S Maller

Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations that were cut off from the Jewish people. Through conversion to Judaism they are coming home.

Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos. Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their children as faithful Jews.

An example of the later is recounted by Rabbi Barbara Borts: “One of the most touching conversions I ever did was a young girl of 11, brought to me by her mother, to discuss Judaism. The mother was a widow, living back at home with her mother and her father, who was a minister.

This girl, B, had done some research on Chanukkah for her school class, and in the process both loved what she learned and discovered that her late father’s grandfather was a German Jew.

I asked her mother why she would support this. Her response - her 2 daughters were no longer going to church and she was delighted that B had found a religious home. She hoped her older daughter might also find that of interest.

When I said that I could not imagine doing what she was doing if the positions were reversed, she said, ”It's different for Jews, after the Holocaust and all."

So, B started Hebrew school classes, and attending services. I moved a couple of years later, and bequeathed her to the next rabbi. Some years later, we met up again when she was in University.

She had converted, changed her name permanently, and was an active member of her Hillel. Bless the girl - she may even now be in rabbinical school.”

Other people who become Jewish do not know of a specific Jew who was an ancestor but come from a population that contains the descendants of past Jewish communities.

Millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century. In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized.

The Church viewed these baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike the Jews of France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized.

Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms.

Of course, Jews forced to be Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice it and teach their children in secret. The Church knew this but they thought that all the children and grandchildren of the Marranos (as the secret Jews were called) would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers.

This did not happen. In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands would be tried/tortured, and imprisoned or executed. In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled.

Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to Portugal. In 1497, they were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to freely choose baptism.

In later decades many of these secret Jews and their children came to the new world seeking freedom so the Inquisition was established in Lima in 1570 and in Mexico City in 1571 Secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth). 

Many of these people have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people. How would someone know if he or she could be one of them?

Signs of a Jewish soul.

1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.

2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You couldn’t believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.

3- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were culturally different from your own family.

4- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family.