Aliza Elisheva Garvin
Before I converted, people tried to dissuade me. “It’s expensive to keep kosher,” and “It’s hard being Jewish” were the top arguments I heard. “Why are you doing this?” was another question people asked frequently. I was committed to complete my conversion no matter what people said. For me, there was just no other option to live a life of meaning and closeness to God.
A year and a half after I converted and became an Orthodox Jew, I still feel the same conviction towards being Jewish. But, as some people warned, this road has not been easy.
What has been the hardest part about being a convert?
Well, it’s not keeping kosher. I have the luxury and privilege of living in New York City where kosher groceries, products, and restaurants are abundant. Modesty? Not a problem. I joyfully took on that mitzvah. Shabbat? It’s my ultimate spiritual cornerstone to Jewish life.
Don’t get me wrong; some mitzvot are challenging and there is always room to learn and grow. I am no tzadiket; I’m not perfect. I took on the whole Torah to the best of my ability and by no means do I have any regrets.
Some converts, myself included, can lose their entire family because of this enormous change. It’s not that you can’t join family gatherings anymore where treif food is served or where other discomforts or compromising situations can arise. Sometimes a convert’s family of origin, like my own, can take their child’s conversion offensively. Some gentile parents may cut their Jewish convert children off, leaving the convert to fend for themselves, hoping they’ll decide to renounce Judaism and return to their families. For me, renouncing Judaism to get my family back never was, nor ever will be an option. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. It would be dishonest of me.
For me, the hardest part of being a convert is the loneliness. This challenge echoes itself most loudly in shidduchim, dating for marriage. No one ever warned me of the potential loneliness I would face or how hard it can be to get married as a convert.
Shidduchim remind me that I am different from other Jews. Someone may have an interest in dating me until they I find out I am a convert. Sometimes it’s the family that opposes the match, no matter how compatible their children may be; they do not want their child to marry a convert under any circumstances. These families may see the convert as being flawed. They may consider the convert’s background “impure,” thus mistakenly rendering the convert “not- 100% Jewish.” Some people are against marrying a convert because of the custom of their communities is to not allow it, for they assume that all convert converts for insincere reasons. This is unfortunate because it puts an unfair bias against true converts. Have we forgotten the important figures of our history who were converts themselves or born from converts? Did their converted parent’s background stop them from reaching spiritual heights?
I have been shunned and forgotten by some shadchanim, matchmakers. A shadchan may match a convert with another convert, despite having nothing in common other than being a convert or share the same race. For converts of color, this is especially true. As a woman who was never married with no children, when I am lucky, I’ll be suggested someone who is divorced with children because we’re both in the category of “difficult cases.”
How many times does the Torah need to remind the Jewish people to love the convert? I now understand why the Hebrew word for a convert is “ger”, which means “stranger.” You may God forbid remain unmarried and your Shabbat invites may dwindle after you leave the safety net of seminary or yeshiva. You can observe Judaism and feel close to God, yet close to no one.
I write this article not to kvetch, but to give this issue attention. People often do not realize there is a problem in their communities unless they or their loved ones experience the problem themselves. Many people do not talk about their struggles openly or wish to put themselves in the public eye.
Here is my request to the Jewish community: Please make the extra effort to love a convert, to help them feel welcome in your communities and shuls. If they have gone through an Orthodox conversion, their rabbis have already asked them plenty of questions. Don’t feel it is your duty to have them repeatedly undergo the process of conversion. Please don’t treat a convert like a second-class citizen. We are 100% Jewish like you are.
Please do not ask a convert (especially on the first date or at the Shabbos table in front of strangers) why they converted. For me, sharing my story requires some rapport with the person asking for me to feel comfortable. Each convert has their own personal, legitimate reasons for converting that are frequently very private. Don’t be nosy. There is a good reason why Jewish law prohibits reminding a convert that they converted. Please respect their boundaries and look for the good in them. And for shadchanim, try to address a convert just like you would if they were Jewish by birth.
I hope my article generates conversation and helps Jews to fulfill the mitzvah to genuinely love the convert and their fellow Jew.
Aliza Elisheva Garvin is a 26 year old woman living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She works as a legal assistant and as a freelance bridal makeup artist in her spare time. She enjoys reading, writing, learning and art.