How Can We Raise Awareness in the Jewish Community for the Unique Issues Facing Jews-by-Choice?


Editors Note: The following is a guest post by friend and supporter of Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

I recently posted an essay on the Huffington Post about the complicated relationship between intermarriage and Jewish conversion.  In it, I mention just a few of the challenges that many Jews-by-choice face in their interaction with born-Jews.  I have a sense of what some of the other challenges might be, thanks to my position as an “ally” to Jews-by-choice: my organization, the Jewish Outreach Institute, operates programs and listserves for women and men who have chosen Judaism. And though I was born into it, my wife is not yet Jewish and may choose to convert one day (and if not, when we have children they may one day choose to convert, should they want to be accepted beyond the Reform and Reconstructionist movements), so it’s an issue that touches very close to home for me.

Previously, I’ve written about something I coined “Born-Jewish Privilege,” which tries to describe how those of us born into Judaism make assumptions and off-the-cuff remarks with little conception of the weight they carry or the personal nature of the inquiry.  I wrote: “It is a Born-Jewish Privilege to be able to ask someone, immediately upon learning that he or she is a convert, ‘You mean you actually chose to become Jewish?’—even as an attempted joke. And it is a Born-Jewish Privilege to then turn around (at perhaps the very same event!) and ask the non-Jewish spouse of a Jew, ‘Do you plan to convert?’”

I believe that like with White Privilege (and other privileges) the first step to encouraging people to change their behavior is to alert them that the privilege even exists in the first place.  By its very nature, the overwhelming majority is generally unaware it possesses privileges.  Once alerted, most people will modify their behavior because (I believe) most people are genuinely fair and welcoming at heart.

I have certainly met a number of Jews-by-choice who’ve only experienced welcoming attitudes and open doors during their journey into Jewish life.  Overall however, it seems that many if not most Jews-by-choice encounter challenges navigating our insular peoplehood, and I’m very interested in making the larger Jewish community more aware of such challenges.  And I’m always interested in learning about the challenges and hearing ideas about how to best address them.

As I mentioned at the end of the Huffington Post piece, there will be a unique opportunity to learn about and discuss Jewish conversion courtesy of the Center for Jewish History in New York on Sunday, April 10, called, “Conversations on Conversion – A Symposium Moderated by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.” I’m honored to be speaking on one of the panels at the symposium, and if you attend please feel free to introduce yourself.  I hope to meet some of you there!

Related content:

  1. The Choice to Include by Rabbi Menachem Creditor
  2. Judaism By Choice Chanukah Party – December 4th in LA
  3. Special Needs and the Jewish Community
  4. When Jews Become the Cool Kids
  5. Reclaiming The C (Convert) Word
 About Avi M
Avi converted to Judaism in the spring of 2006 in his home country of Canada and is a founding member of He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife Tamara and is an active member of the local Jewish community.


  1. 1
     Harold says:

    Interesting – everyone’s experience is different of course, but I’ll relate mine and my wife’s – my wife grew up as a devout Christian, we were an intermarried family for many years, and today she is an observant Jew – we have made the long journey from intermarried to Orthodox. (see my wife’s article from this summer: – we are, in fact, completing a book about our journey with ideas for others interested in exploring this path). Along the way, we’ve spent extensive time with myriad intermarried families, and in Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Conservative settings. So it’s fair to say we have a good sense of “what’s out there.”

    Truly, we personally experience far less of what Paul is talking among the Orthodox than we ever did in any other Jewish setting. And this has been true for the other families in our community who made the same journey (and there are far more of us out there than people realize). (Converts can of course endure annoying and insulting remarks from Orthodox Jews and be warmly embraced by Jews who aren’t at all observant – I’m just speaking generally.) And I think the reason is that the more a Jew is secure in the religious aspects of their Jewish identity, the less likely they are to have an issue with converts. Our neighbors are less likely to ask the question Paul gives as an example (“You mean you actually chose to become Jewish?”) precisely because they are so immersed in and enthusiastic about it themselves. A Jew whose primary identification is ethnic has a harder time understanding not only why someone would be come Jewish, but how they could become Jewish (i.e. I’m Jewish because I was born that way, but why are you Jewish?). Sometimes, in our experience, they even can feel threatened by the convert, because the convert is expressing their Judaism by doing Jewish things that they are not doing. This is where the “Born Jewish Privilege” attitude often comes into play.

    One way my wife does say she has felt slighted by some in the Jewish community: in some circles, it is common to put converts and those who have not converted but are raising their kids Jewish in some fashion – to put them both in the same category. While it’s laudable for people to want to encourage those who are doing Jewish things short of conversion (and we might not have wound up where we are if not for some encouragement), the total blurring of the lines is unfair and even offensive to the convert. Although I know people don’t mean to be sending a dismissive message to the convert, at some level the convert is getting the message, “That’s great that you spent two years studying Judaism intensively, completely transformed your life, and put your very soul into being Jewish. But that person over there who brings her kids to Hebrew school and also goes to her church on Sunday – we value her just the same.” This isn’t brought up very much, but it’s something to consider if we are considering how to welcome converts.

    Finally, halachically speaking, a convert is Jewish – period. So while support groups and listservs, etc. are a good resource for converts, it is important to avoid a situation where converts are unintentionally segregated out, so to speak. In our community, for example, we are friends with other conversionary families and may feel a special affinity because of shared experiences. But we have many born Jewish friends, and my wife relates to them and they to her just as with any other member of the community. I think that’s ultimately where we want to get to.

  2. 2
     Debbie B says:

    I have some similar feelings to those Harold expresses. An aspect that is great about both of my lay-led minyanim is that so many members are very engaged Jews. You can tell that just by the number who are “professional Jews”, that is that their work is Jewishly related: Jewish educators, rabbis who are hospital chaplains, directors and staff of Jewish summer camps and schools, social workers at Jewish nursing homes…. And many of those who work in other fields are also Jewishly active in many ways. Part of it is that given the required duties and participatory nature of a lay-led minyan, it’s just not very attractive to Jews who aren’t willing to put in plenty of time and effort to Jewish activities.

    So when I converted, my minyan friends were delighted because it was an expression of how important Judaism had become to me, so they felt closer to me that we shared a passion. I do not remember a single minyan friend who wanted to know why I would convert. I suspect that the opposite is true: many of them probably wondered why after so many years of dedicated attendance and involvement (I even edited the cookbook the minyan put out for its 25th anniversary) I *hadn’t* converted earlier—but they were too polite to ask. People who don’t understand why I would convert usually have little connection to Judaism other than their ancestry. Very secular Jews sometimes seem to feel threatened by the fact that I am an observant and active Jew.

    No minyan member ever urged me to convert and that’s probably a good thing because in one situation where a member got uncomfortable when he found out that I wasn’t Jewish (having incorrectly assumed that I was for about 10 years), it probably set my conversion back a year because I felt like to convert soon after his expression of discomfort would seem like I converted to make *him* happy. Instead of pushing or asking me to convert, my minyan friends simply encouraged me to learn more about Judaism. Note that they still would have done that if I had been Jewish and expressed the same interest in learning more. In one of the last conversations I had with a minyan member before she died of breast cancer, she suggested that I would enjoy taking the 2-year seminar series for Jewish educators that she (a day school principal) and a number of other minyan members had taken.

    Here’s the thing: I realize that I may not be typical, but I would not have wanted to be singled out for even “positive” attention simply because I was not Jewish. My minyanim did not have special outreach or classes for “interfaith families” or “prospective converts” and I probably would have avoided those if they did. Perhaps its just excessive pride in my case, but I would have been afraid that those kind of programs would be ridiculously basic or patronizing. The synagogue that my “tiny minyan” became affiliated with after I had converted does have these programs. I know for sure that those classes would have been too basic because my knowledge and skill level exceeds that of 95% of the members of the regular congregation. I’m not knocking the classes which are probably helpful for many people. I just think people should keep in mind that being too aggressively “welcoming” can be a turn-off for some people too.

    One minyan member did ask her JBC husband if perhaps I didn’t convert because I thought the minyan members wouldn’t be welcoming to me as a convert. (Incidentally, he converted years before he met his wife.) And he in turn did ask me his wife’s question. He shared his own conversion story with me which was helpful because I was just reaching the tipping point in deciding it was time to convert.

    The situation of a non-Jew coming to our minyan has recently come up. There is a lovely young couple who has started to come to services: He is Modern Orthodox; his girlfriend is not Jewish. She is looking into doing a Conservative conversion. (They probably found out how difficult it would be for her to do an Orthodox conversion given their situation.) The young man lives in the neighborhood and was in the same MO high school class as a few minyan “kids”.

    So I asked the Chair if I could discuss at the annual Minyan general meeting the fact that our minyan does have a few policies which could be seen as “unwelcoming” to interfaith couples. She said she would support me in that, but expressed some reservations about possible negative reactions on the part of some members. Later, I had a long helpful conversation with a minyan friend who was a congregational rabbi for 15 years and is now a hospital chaplain. I finally decided that it was better to not ask for official changes to Minyan policy, but rather for me to be a one-person “Kiruv committee”. That is already what the Chair had basically done in introducing the above couple to me.

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