Being a convert to Judaism is not always easy. After having established that Judaism is the true religion and that you should join it, you suddenly realize that you are getting more than you bargained for. The religion comes together with an entire culture that you didn’t sign up for.
It is often this culture that creates trouble for the convert. Not all cultures are compatible; a convert’s upbringing can clash with the new Jewish one.
Take a Southern Baptist who grew up with the non-confrontational Southern culture. She rejects the New Testament, keeps the Old, and embraces Rabbinic Judaism. To convert, she moves up North to be in a larger Jewish community where she suddenly is thrown into this extremely forceful Jewish environment, filled with the usual teasing and in-your-face confrontational disagreements. All the poor gal did was change some core doctrines and add a boatload of practices. Now she has to deal with all this.
Or take a convert raised with the proud Protestant work ethic. He moves upstate to New York where his Rabbi advises him to mess around a little with his taxes because “it’s no big deal, even the goyim do it.”
Or the African American convert who has to deal with casual frum racism.
Or the working class couple who joins a New Jersey Modern Orthodox community where everyone is a lawyer, a doctor, or nebbach, an accountant. The only people on their income level are the non-tenured academics, and they share no culture with them either!
And then there is the xenophobia and, let’s be honest, sometimes the abuse.
We can’t change people’s cultures, but if I could give my fellow converts just one piece of advice, it would be this: “Do not identify as a victim.” Once you don’t see yourself as a victim, things will be much easier. Here are some insights on how to accomplish this.
1. DON’T BE SWEPT UP BY JEWISH NEGATIVITY
This is somewhat of a generalization, but Jews are a dramatic people who like to emphasize the negatives. Communal problems are not just issues to be solved, but full blown crises. During and after the conversion process, people will start overloading you with stories of how terribly converts are treated in the Jewish community. For Jews, this is just another ordinary day of complaining, but to many converts, this negativity can really shape how they interpret even benign encounters. Converts should be aware of this national sport and not to let it influence their experiences.
2. DON’T REMAIN IN CONVERSION MODE
A person who wants to convert has to go through Beis Din. Hence, they have to submit themselves to the rule of the rabbis. This is only natural. The potential convert wants something that only the Beis Din can give her, and the Beis Din on the other hand has the great responsibility of making sure that this potential convert is serious. This creates a situation of submission that could last years.
Such submission comes with all kind of emotions. It sometimes includes hopelessness, born of wanting to be Jewish so badly but having nothing in your power to make it happen. It can also create resentment. I have seen strong individuals unused to any kind of submission crumble like a cookie over time.
In many cases, the Beis Din itself don’t really know the person. You are just one in many, so they don’t feel your pain. You just have to plod through it. But once you are Jewish, you should start to consciously rebuild yourself.
Analyze if you have any mental scars of this trial; namely, conversion mode. Get out of it! You do not have to submit yourself anymore. You don’t have to fear communal scrutiny. You have to move on.
3. DON’T INTERNALIZE THEIR SOCIAL HIERARCHY
The ultra-Orthodox have a clear social hierarchy based on family lineage, public perception of religiosity, and money. This hierarchy plays a major role in who you will marry. In the u-Orthodox world, a marriage is between two families, not just between two individuals. We converts rank somewhat below baalei teshuvah and above mamzerim and jobless drug addicts (although it’s debatable; if the drug addict is from a prominent family, he or she might still rank above us).
Although the social hierarchy often plays little to no role in daily encounters, just being aware of it can really damage a convert’s self-worth. Converts can internalize this low rank and end up marrying someone based solely on social status and not commonalities.
I have found some of the most miserable and also some of the most impressive converts in the ultra-Orthodox world. Without exception, the impressive ultra-Orthodox converts all exhibit great independence, a realistic awareness of their community’s flaws, and a rejection of the whole idea of social hierarchy. This seems to me the only way to make living in those communities possible.
4. IDENTIFY AND IGNORE THE BULLIES
There is a particular type of person, often ranking very low in the social hierarchy, who feels a need to lord his higher ranking over you. This can express itself innocently, with him setting himself up as a potential mentor to boost his own self worth, or it can turn into bullying. The bullying can vary from questioning your Jewishness and constantly mentioning that you are a convert, to asking strange questions about your parents’ assumed anti-Semitism, or saying that you can’t have an opinion in learning because you are an Am haAretz.
If you don’t realize that this is driven by low self esteem, it can be extremely damaging and leave a lasting negative impact. I found that once I realized this is part of the hierarchy cultural phenomena, I could easily place most of my negative experiences in that context. Next time it happens, I suggest being graceful and disengaging as soon as possible.
These are just four pointers that I think can be very helpful. They certainly helped me. Of course, it does not mean that you won’t encounter any bigotry, but it is a tremendous help. We can’t change our community, but we can change our own mindsets.