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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Converts are like a Plague

Daf Yomi Yevamos 47

At the National Jewish Outreach Program dinner one year, Hilly Gross offered the following observations:
“I come to shul Friday night and invariably Rabbi Buchwald approaches and says: would I mind taking three or four of his beginners home for Shabbat dinner?  Since Rabbi Buchwald insists on posing this question in front of the people involved, it makes it very difficult to say no!  Fine, I’ll take them.

Introductions are made and we begin to make our way home. Invariably, one of you will screech, “Wait!! Don’t go on Broadway–that’s the goyish way, go through Lincoln Towers, that’s the Shabbos way.”  Fine, Lincoln Towers.

We get home, and again one of you is screeching, “Stop!! Don’t go in the elevator. Take the stairs, like Effie does.”  Effie lives on the third floor! . . . Ten flights later, we arrive home… breathlessly, introductions are made and we take our places around the Shabbat table. You want to sing Shalom Aleichem–each verse three times, because it says so in the siddur. Fine, Shalom Aleichem three times. Then, you want Ayshes Chayil read in English–because it’s more meaningful. Fine. Then one of you has a question — “We just made kiddush in shul, why are we making kiddush a second time?” Well, to paraphrase Renee Leicht, “How ‘on earth’ do I know why we’re making kiddush a second time?” After kiddush, one of you decides you’d like to make your own kiddush, because you forgot to ask me before my kiddush if I had you in mind. Fine, make your own kiddush–at the rate of three Hebrew words a minute!

Then, after washing, we sit down, and during the course of conversation, usually mine, one of you will interrupt with undeniable sincerity and politeness and say: “Excuse me, but isn’t what you’re saying Loshon Hara?” Yeah, I suppose you could say it’s Loshon Hara. Fine, no more Loshon Hara! Then you want to sing Zmiros, the ones with eight verses–all of them! Fine. Then you want to do D’var Torahs; every D’var Torah you ever heard up there you want to do. Fine. Then you want to bentch, singing each verse, “cause that’s the way Effie does it.”

Fine. At this point, I bleary-eyed excuse myself and again, with unfailing politeness you say, “Thank you for having us, we’d love to come back next Shabbos!!” You’ll be back next Shabbos all right, over . . . .”

The prophet Isaiah declared, “The convert shall accompany them and they shall cling to the congregation of Jacob.”  Rabbi Helbo taught: Converts are as harsh to Israel as the plague (which clings to the skin).

Tosfos Yeshanim explains:  When converts behave righteously, the Almighty punishes us due to the contrast their good behaviour and our poor behaviour present.  He reckons that we are not being as careful in mitzvos as they are, despite their humble origins.

Hilly Gross continued: “But you see, it’s not that we dislike you, Chas V’shalom (G-d forbid), it’s that you make us uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable because after 20-30-40 years of saying Shemoneh Esrei three times a day, when we’re with you we sense that perhaps our Shemoneh Esrei has become flat, routine, mechanical, while yours is vital and exuberant. We’re uncomfortable because in the solitude of our souls we ask ourselves (and don’t believe for a second that we don’t ask ourselves), we ask ourselves if we could do in our 20′s and 30′s and 40′s what you’ve done. Could we uproot the habits of a lifetime, the occupations, change our jobs if necessary, confuse our friends, antagonize our families, just to commit ourselves to our Judaism? And if we articulate this question, few of us dare to answer it.

So, I suppose in the last analysis, we’re uncomfortable because you practice what we preach. By your enthusiasm, by your embrace of everything that’s Jewish, you challenge us. By your insatiable thirst for knowledge, you provoke us. And by your open-hearted love affair with Judaism and everything about it, you ultimately shame us.”

Many people feel uncomfortable around converts or baalei teshuvah (born-again Jews).  Suddenly our own dedication to Judaism leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to their faith and commitment.    We feel ashamed but instead of taking the initiative and becoming inspired by their enthusiasm, many of us choose to denigrate and mock them. 

It’s time to look at these incredible individuals and draw inspiration from their spiritual high!  Instead of thinking that they need mentoring, maybe we should be asking them to mentor us.   Find a convert or a baal teshuvah and ask them to bless you that you begin to view Torah and mitzvos with the same fresh, excited eyes through which they are viewing their Judaism.


Find a mentor today!  It’s not easy keeping up with the Jonesbergs.  Sometimes it feels like the plague, that’s how uncomfortable they make you feel.  But instead of disdaining them, view it is a challenge.  G-d has brought them into your life and He is asking you to reassess your own commitment and see if you can a second look at your heritage with a fresh perspective!