An Orthodox Rabbi Says: Don’t Turn Converts Away
"When faced with such enthusiastic young souls seeking Torah, how can any of us say anything but Welcome?"
When I go to a new city and it happens to be a Friday evening, the first thing I do is see if there’s a Base. It’s a Jewish organization that supports young rabbinic couples who welcome people into their homes for Jewish life, and it’s all very hamish and warm.
The co-founder of Base is a man named Avram Mlotek, an “unorthodox Orthodox” rabbi. This week, he writes about his work with converts and wrestling with some of the tension between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox conversion protocols — and how he’s come to think of it all.
Avram, married to Base co-founder Yael Kornfeld, is a charming, funny, and musical man. So to anyone reading who might be living in or visiting New York, I highly recommend getting a seat at his shabbat table. The whole family is special: His father is Zalmen Mlotek, one of the great forces behind the Yiddish theater.
And I’ve said it before but: as someone wary of Ashkenazi food (Israeli food, the best food in history, is right there!), I’ve been blown away by the Base shabs dinner, so really you’re in luck whatever Base you find nearby.
Thank you as always to our Chosen By Choice readers and writers!
When I first became a rabbi, I never thought I would spend as much time working with non-Jews . . .
Non-Jews. What a hilarious term! Jews make up the tiniest percentage of the world’s population but everyone else is a non-Jew? If that’s not chutzpah, what is?
I learned something quickly, though, as I began my rabbinate. Here were young people, especially folks who have fallen in love with Jews, who were seeking rich Jewish life and serious ways of tapping into the Jewish wellsprings of living without undermining or hiding who they are at their core. I quickly learned that millennials, regardless of their faith and affiliation, were thirsty as ever for tradition, aching for authenticity, and not just meme-able Jewish quotes. But, as the Pew Study shows, young Jews are far from rushing to bring them to synagogues.
So, where then do these youngins’ turn?
That’s why we dreamed up Base.
It’s a project I co-founded when I finished rabbinical school with my partner, Yael Kornfeld, and our dear friends, Faith and Rabbi Jon Leener. We support pluralistic rabbinic couples to use their homes as convening places for Jewish life. Through celebrating the Jewish calendar via hospitality, learning and service, we welcome young 20s and 30s into our hearts and homes.
We started with two Bases six years ago in New York. We figured if we could prove proof of concept in the most saturated Jewish city in the world maybe we’ve got something. With G!d’s help, we did. Today, we have over ten sites: in Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, Miami, Ithaca and now operate as an integrated arm of Moishe House, the preeminent Jewish organization serving post-college Jews worldwide.
Back when we opened our first Base in Chelsea, the question I often got asked - more than any other question was: “Do you offer conversion paths for people looking to convert?”
First things first, I really don’t dig the term conversion.
It implies you are some type of computer operating system that is somehow being dissected, changed and replaced whereas one’s religious, spiritual DNA is more fluid. There will be and ought to be parts of your past that are always part of you. The sages even say that all Jews, past, present and future were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.
Secondly, conversion in the Jewish communal landscape is painstakingly political. That is to say, if you convert through a Reform rabbinical court, some Conservative congregations would not see such a conversion – giyur – as valid (though Reform Jews make up the largest sect of American Jews). While Conservative conversions are deemed as kosher by those to the left, they are still “suspect” for those on the right. Even Orthodox conversions – while most to the left will see them as valid, there will always be those for whom it’s not quite kosher enough.
And so I say the following time and time again: because the political make up has become so alienating, because we have moved so far away from the values of giyur as outlined in the Torah and the rabbinic writings, because the political process can be such a burdensome crapshoot, to say the least, I encourage my students to be painstakingly honest with themselves, with God, and find their rabbi. I encourage them to find a community where they feel at home and undoubtedly to begin a course of life-long study.
We built Base to say yes, to provide an opening for countless Jews who did not have an opening, a space for them to be themselves freely, regardless of their familial background, religious upbringing or sexual orientation. We built Base for people who wanted to learn Torah and experience the magic of Judaism without the political bull.
I slowly started teaching out of my home and in a year developed a curriculum with my co-founder Jon Leener, called Jewish Questions.
Every class is devoted to a Jewish question like, “What’s Judaism’s relationship with sex and sexuality?” or “What is Jewish mysticism”? (For the questions we inevitably don’t cover, we invite folks to listen to our podcast, “Rabbi, is Pot kosher?” where we tackle modern and ancient events. I also wrote a book on it, illustrated by students of mine who converted, called, “Why Jews Do That, or 30 Questions Your Rabbi Never Answered.” Other great book: Sarah Hurwitz’s “Here All Along” and Rabbi Adam Greenwald’s “On One Foot.” A few years later, through Jewish Questions, we’ve overseen dozens of young adults giyurim, partnered and not, eager to join the tribe. (And yes, in other cities, Bases offer similar “conversion work.”)
In New York, at Jewish Questions, we like to think we offer an “unorthodox Orthodox” approach. Our conversions are not done through a “higher governing body” like most synagogue conversions might be. In this way, we believe we offer a slightly more authentic experience vis-à-vis how conversions have been practiced for hundreds of years: through local rabbis and communities.
As a rabbi, working with gerim is by far the holiest part of my work. The daily liturgy describes this privilege where we beseech G!d “to place our portion among them, the righteous converts.” Thousands of years ago, the sages of the Talmud taught in Yevamot 47a:
“With regard to a potential convert who comes to a court in order to convert,
at the present time, the judges of the court say to him: What did you see that
motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at
the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships
are frequently visited upon them? If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy
of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to
do so, then the court accepts him immediately to begin the conversion process.”
It is this process and the openness in which the rabbis of the Talmud taught that I personally strive to uphold. “Conversion” is a commencement. Any learning process ought to leave the learner humbled knowing just how much more there is to learn and discover.
Lastly, and related to the aforementioned Gemara in Yevamot, Jew hatred is just as popular today it seems as it was thousands of years ago! And still, surprisingly, here are countless souls eager to become part of the covenant of Abraham and Sarah.
When faced with such commitment especially amid such violence against Jews, who am I to close the door? When faced with such enthusiastic young souls seeking Torah, how can any of us say anything but Welcome?