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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Becoming Jewish >