Navigating Orthodox Conversion with a Feminist Sensibility

Growing up wasn’t always easy, but I remember feeling comforted in knowing that no matter what stood before me, my voice mattered. I was proud of gaining the ability to make my own decisions and as I entered college and then graduate school, I relished the analytical study of literature, psychology, anthropology and feminism. My human and female narrative was developing all the while, with little obstruction from the outside world and, in fact, was very much supported by it given the coursework I chose, the teachers with whom I learned and my  sense of personal agency. I learned to stand up, to speak and to be counted.  Later, in my work as a psychologist, this internal strength that I developed helped me assist others in finding confidence within themselves and learning to speak when necessary and be heard. It still does.

As time passed, I gradually retreated from the materialism and overconsumption of society as I knew it and began connecting to God through yoga, silent meditation, and the exhilaration of surfing, but a community of the God-conscious still eluded me. I sought the counsel of mentors and elders and the message was consistent, “God lives in the faith of your ancestors.” So, there I went, back to the faith of my childhood with only glimmers still remaining during High Holiday services and occasional Shabbat dinners with my grandfather. I walked into Temples of all denominations, moving up the ladder of observance until I found myself in an Orthodox synagogue, seated in the balcony, trying to find my way through a prayer book which at that time was hieroglyphics of the most complex variety.

For the first time after the death of my grandfather, I shared my story with a Chabadnik who, in his youth, traveled and learned with the young Lubavitcher disciples in Ukraine. I was 75 percent Jewish, I told the Orthodox rabbi, my paternal grandparents and one maternal grandparent were all Jewish. My mom’s mother was Russian Orthodox. “So, you’re not Jewish,” he replied, adhering to the Jewish policy of matrilineal descent. By then, this had become a dagger I knew well, which is why I so seldom disclosed my lineage. I had already internalized the plight of my family members who had been segregated and killed by Russians and Nazis only two generations before.  I already felt viscerally the injustice experienced by my father, the blatant and professionally debilitating anti-Semitism of Soviet Russia. Their traumas were mine. My maternal grandmother met her husband when she was fifteen during World War II. He landed in Siberia with his regiment, met her and two weeks later they were married and headed to Moscow where she remained, with his Jewish family until immigration in the 1990s. I had no other identity, no other religion.

It was very hard to grasp that my Jewishness meant nothing; Hebrew school, Bat Mitzvah, Shabbat dinners, Jewish summer camps, it was all made mute. It felt as if for the first time in my life, my words were meaningless and as a result my sense of empowerment was in danger of being whittled away. Recent findings by Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) cite that 45 percent of potential converts with whom they work have Jewish ancestry, 70 percent of whom consider themselves to be Jewish. This reality must be taken into account and there must be a way to strengthen the Jewish identity of these “converts” rather than disregarding it and likewise stifling their very connection to Judaism.

It is not easy to balance humility with empowerment. Deciding when to acquiesce and when to stand firm has been a constant struggle in this process. In the center of it was a feeling that forever gnawed at me:  I had handed over my Jewish identity and was waiting for it to be given back to me with a stamp of approval. The only thing that kept me moving forward was the deep connection to God that I felt when praying alongside the Orthodox minyan. In those moments when we were all praying together, reciting the same prayers, singing the same hymns, my soul told me that there was no other community for me.

In the next few years, I moved around quite a bit, and in so doing was exposed to many rabbis with whom I continued the conversation about conversion. Many messages confounded me. “More will be expected of you than of your halakhically [legal according to Jewish law] Jewish brethren,” I was told by one. Another kindhearted and supportive rabbi told me he’d be happy to help me, but since his congregation didn’t support conversions, he could not. I was told by many that my genuine interest in the conversion process needed to be proven, which was followed by story upon story of how many previous potential converts had misled them. Why wasn’t anybody listening? Why didn’t anyone understand the difficult and at times emotionally debilitating spiritual position that I was in? When asked about dating, I was told that I shouldn’t and was asked why I would want to date someone who’d be interested in me at this point? It was at this moment that the anger of injustice finally began to well up in me and I became both enraged and exhausted from placing myself at the feet of all these men for judgment. It was not only my religious standing that was now in question. What of the person I had become and the good qualities I had to share with others? I needed a woman to talk to. I knew she would see the bigger picture. Most importantly, I knew that conversion, returning to God, was not meant to be this way.

READ: For Prospective Orthodox Converts, Process Marked By Fear and Uncertainty

It seemed that while I was learning to release my ego, the ego of my male peers was being strengthened by the patriarchal system within which I found myself. Envisioning my grandfather, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who never spoke of faith given their Soviet fears, but still managed to pass the spark of God onto me, brought me strength. Thank God. Each time my words were dismissed, every time I was made irrelevant, every time the heartfelt Judaism in my veins was made invisible, I remembered that I was here for the many of my family who had been massacred. I would keep them alive in my love of God and in living every day with awareness of God. Every time I was made to feel less than who I knew myself to be, in my heart, I knew that God understood. I remember often feeling that it was not only me who faced the rabbis in order to become a Jew, but that they were also presented with a lesson and a chance to become Jews in the truest sense of the word.  When I was in Jerusalem last year, I sat in on a class taught by Rabbi Monty Berger. He went around the room, with a warm grin on his face, asking each student the question, “Are you a Jew?” The right answer, I found out, as I listened to student after student reciting the teaching, was “trying to be.”

The rest of the story is a lengthy one and continues to this day. I have not yet completed the conversion process and still often face frustration and uncertainty about the expectations of the powers that be. What I have found are women not only of valor but of strength. I found Professor Tamar Ross during an Internet search. Reading about her and seeing the words “Orthodox Feminism” felt like I was given a soft place to land. She answered all my questions and suggested I reach out to  JOFA. The writings of Jewish Orthodox Feminists, such as Dr. Ora Wiskind-Elper, Professor Susan Handelman, Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David and many others, now fill my home. They help me understand Orthodoxy with a feminine sensibility and are not afraid to question rabbinical assumptions when they are clearly and emphatically affected by the patriarchal system and all of the bias that it inherently adds to the otherwise clear word of God. Their voices are reconnecting me to the strength that existed in me way back when. I am finding her again, the girl of my youth, the empowered lover of analytical study, the woman whose opinion matters and path in life can be self-determined while filled with God. I am finding her because of these women. The RCA study also found that women make up 78 percent of their conversion candidates. The egalitarian culture from which these women are entering Judaism fosters strength of the feminine and this strength must be acknowledged and integrated into their budding Jewish identity. Their voices must be heard.

In hopes of fostering a community of strong women in search of strong female voices within Orthodoxy, I have started a book club where I introduce books and essays which have been particularly moving and empowering to me along the way. I want to make available for others what I needed to seek out for myself, without which my continued path toward the completion of the conversion process may not have survived. I am not only speaking to women. I’ve also met men who told me that they left Orthodoxy out of fear that their daughters would not benefit from the egalitarian nature of society at large. This issue does not pin one ideal against another. It merely asks the question, “How does a woman maintain her presence as a strong human being in the face of patriarchal norms that often stifle it?” I do not propose that there’s an easy answer. What I hope is that we can talk about this without being dismissed and patronized or with our concerns quickly assuaged by apologetics. There needs to be a discussion and the rabbis in the room cannot approach this topic feeling as if they already have the answers. The answers need to be found through discourse with the women who are actually being affected.

Learn more about Irene’s book club here.

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