Author Archives: Jim Remsen

Jim Remsen

About Jim Remsen

Jim Remsen has given workshops throughout the United States for intermarried couples and parents of intermarried couples, as well as synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and other Jewish organizations. He is currently Faith Life Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and lives in suburban Philadelphia.

Understanding One’s Motivation to Convert to Judaism

If you are drawn toward the idea of conversion, it’s important to recognize your motivations. There are both positive and negative reasons for wanting to convert. Some motivations provide a strong base for your new religious identity; some provide a much weaker foundation. Look into yourself for any of the following negative motivations: unresolved anger at your own family or heritage, too much eagerness to please, a desire to submerge into the new family, or a desperate acquiescence in order to put an end to the pressure from your fiancé or his family. 

The desire to please is a matter of degree. Of course you want to please your spouse or fiancé and to be accepted by his family. But this alone is not a valid motivation. Conversion demands so much change of you that unless it has intrinsic satisfactions, it can throw off your inner balance. It can make you feel that your lifestyle is out of synch with the real inner you.

Unresolved anger is also a matter of degree. Every convert, by definition, has found her religion of birth unsatisfying. But if the dissatisfaction has become disgust or rage, a conversion is primarily a “statement” made in reaction to the past rather than a considered step made as part of adult development.

We recall one convert to Judaism who had been furious at the Catholic church of her childhood. But when her marriage fell apart, she found herself equally furious at Jews and Judaism and the pressure her ex-spouse’s Jewish family had placed on her to convert. She explored other Christian churches and finally realized that, with all its problems, the Catholic church had shaped her and she belonged there. After struggling through her angers at the Church, she was able to find a place where she could comfortably participate as her own kind of Catholic.

By defusing anger at the family, religion, and community of your childhood, you will be better able to decide if you belong in the new religion, the old one, or neither. The “motivation to merge” is seductive and difficult to acknowledge. For people who have gone through a period of religious experimentation or personal tumult, immersion in… a Jewish way of life can offer a welcome structure and stability. Jewish families often have a closeness that may be very attractive to a gentile who grew up in a more restrained family….

How to Deal With Negative Jewish Attitudes About Converts

Excerpted from The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians (William Morrow) with permission of HarperCollins Inc.

Just as you need to be patient with yourself, you need to be a bit patient with the frowners in your new community. 

Understand the Discomfort with Converts

Until the present generation, the Jewish community has been forced to be a rather tight and ingrown world. You may not look or act like other Jews they know. Your spiritual approach might intimidate them. They may flaunt their ethnicity to hide their religious illiteracy. Don’t let the skepticism undercut you, but see it as a simple consequence of their experience.screaming woman

In addition, some born-Jews scoff because they can’t understand why anyone would voluntarily become Jewish and risk the perils of anti-Semitism.

Many converts have taken to calling themselves Jews-by-choice to emphasize their joyful embracing of the Jewish way of life. If a number of people in your synagogue don’t seem to understand why anyone would take this step, ask your rabbi to arrange to have you, or an outside speaker, explain. This can be an affirmative experience for the whole congregation.

Confront the Discomfort

Try to let someone’s first insensitive comment or glance roll off your back. You are an emissary for all converts and need to keep your image in mind. At first, if confronted, be abstrusely polite or disarmingly direct: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Episcopalian parents.” “Yes, I’m a convert. Have you known others of us?” “I converted and I’m trying to settle into it. Have any pointers?”

If the person is well meaning, it should be easy to fall into pleasant conversation. But if she is scornful, you can turn on a bit more tartness. Tell her there are Irish Jews, Chinese Jews, blond Jews, black Jews–and there always have been. Tell her that Judaism honors you as a righteous convert.

As this is happening, remind yourself of the many people who have welcomed you into the religion. Try to redraw your friendship circle for awhile so that it brings you into contact with the welcomers and not the rejecters. Gail has felt suspicious glances from some parts of the community, but she has tried not to let them penetrate. “To some people I will never be Jewish,” she says. “That’s the way they feel. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t consider myself Jewish, just because one Jew in the whole world doesn’t feel that I am Jewish.”