Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to Jewschool

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven’t even looked at.]

Comments from Conservative rabbis

I don’t believe the Conservative position to be unreasonable — it’s cogent, I get where they’re coming from — I just think they’re wrong. But I have been surprised by how many Conservative rabbis I know personally and consider to be reasonable (where “reasonable” means, as it so often does to many of us, “generally in agreement with me”) have come out in disagreement with me. For instance, this comment from a C-rabbi I know, received via email:

It would be a mess, and I’d leave the movement, as would lots of others.

Joel Alan Katz posted a link to the op-ed on Facebook, eliciting this from one prominent Conservative rabbi:

I have just returned from Budapest where I led a Seder for Dor Hadash – a Masorti affiliated group of young people. I expect to write about this profound and moving visit very soon. I would guess that half of the participants were not Halachically Jewish (maybe more). But from my perspective, they were certainly Jewish in all but a technicality. David makes some points that are very worthy of discussion. These points are even more relevant in many of the former Communist countries.

I do not buy “The Rabbinical Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should accept patrilineal descent: I am Exhibit A!” argumant. One could pull out B through Z to establish the opposite.
I rather suspect that patralinial may be the next big controversy in the Conservative Movement.

To which I responded that I’ve heard argument B through Z and I have answers for all of them. But I find his final statement about “the next big controversy” exciting, if a little ominous.

Another prominent Conservative rabbi:

The article, of course, has some poignant statements/anecdotes. And perhaps one day Halacha will evolve in this way. But, for now, the way I embrace those whose Judaism only derives from their father is this: identity is larger than Halacha. You are Jewish. The difference for you is your ritual eligibility.” And then I speak of a ritual of “affirmation”, which might resemble conversion, but has a very different emotional impact, given that it affirms this person’s Jewish identity

I like this “identity is larger than halachah” argument, especially when it comes up in Orthodox contexts where I know that halachah will never “evolve” in the direction I’m advocating. I’m curious to know more about this “ritual of ‘affirmation.'” If for this rabbi, a patrilineal Jew is not halachically a Jew, what would it mean to use any ceremony other than conversion for this purpose?

I might have accidentally triggered a major change in Reform/Liberal UK Jewry

Deb Blausten (@debzybee) tweeted:

switch ‘conservative’ for ‘UK reform’ and ‘reform’ for ‘UK liberal’ and then read this by @davidAMwilensky…and go hmm

In the UK, the Reform movement is more like our Conservative movement and the Liberal movement is more like our Reform movement. Anyway, the op-ed has produced a serious conversation on twitter about whether RSY-Netzer — the youth group of UK Reform, which as high degree of autonomy from the movement — should recognize patrilineal descent. Debz has started a Storify to keep track of this conversation as it develops.

I’m rude commenter “RCCA”:

[…] I would say to him, “Where’s your reverence and respect for the congregation you supposedly think is superior to congregations where you would be accepted without question?” If you don’t respect the tradition, why follow it? I found his attitude rude, I’m sorry to say. […]

I am rude sometimes, but I’d rather be rude and right than polite and wrong. As I wrote in the piece the decision to undergo a Conservative conversion was a matter of moral rectitude, a matter of honesty. If my tone while explaining that crucial piece of this story was off-putting, so be it.

Fallout from the 1983 Reform decision to recognize patrilineals: commenter “@amazingdancing”:

[…] The Reform movement may or may not have known the implications of its decision. However, every Jewish denomination bases its decisions and does what it is necessary to reflect its philosophy, lifestyle and understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

[…] Sadly, the impasse seems unbridgeable and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“Shloime” responds:

the “impasse” was bridged with a simple, straightforward trip to the mikveh. and if his parents had worked as hard to complete his mother’s conversion, before the wedding, as they seem to have done to find a rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage, even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Leave my parents out of it, schmuck. I regret dragging their their names into this just so you can pseudonymously mouth off about people you don’t know.

How could I betray myself like this?

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Joel Schiff: I read David’s article this morning. I cannot understand why he needs or wants to be a “Conservative” Jew. They humiliated him to take a ritual bath and “convert” to Judaism even though he was already Jewish. I think David should join a non-demoninational synagogue.

I don’t know if Joel bothered to read the whole piece, but it dealt with a lot of what he’s bringing up here. I have three responses to him:

  • First of all, I was not “humiliated.” I’m not sure where he got that from. I was quite clear that I felt secure throughout the ordeal and that my worries have more to do with my peers, who may not all be as confident in their Jewish identities as I am.
  • Second, I’m not a Conservative Jew, but I do happen to go to a Conservative shul. This entire issue is wrapped up in the increasingly fluid way Jews — especially younger Jews — look at denominational affiliation.
  • And lastly, I’d love to join a non-denominational synagogue. But not all of them — and I’ve been to several — are my style. There are also none near my apartment. Not all of us live in the major metro areas where choices are more diverse. And many of us who do (I work in New York City and I suppose I technically live in the greater New York metropolitan area) don’t live close enough to an offbeat shul to make regular attendance there practical.

There’s always someone further to the right to question the validity of your conversion…

An excerpt from commenter from “YefehQol”:

Very often, I meet Reform Jews visiting Israel, and some of them complain that the conversions done in their movement are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. “Why”, I ask them, “do you feel that you need the approval of the Chief Rabbi?”

As I noted in my op-ed, practical considerations are also an important part of this debate. In Israel, practical considerations abound. In response to YefehQol, my New Voices colleague Harpo Jaeger wrote:

This is only partially about approval. There are also material disadvantages to having your marriage/religious status unrecognized. In your example, for instance, Reform Jews are not accorded some of the privileges under Israeli law that Jews whose marriages are recognized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate are.

“Jaygatz78” commented:

Sorry to say but according to halacha you are still not considered Jewish. i would ask why you didn’t convert under an orthodox rabbi but then again when you start the article off by saying you have always been a Jew obviously you make your own rules so what was the point of you making any conversion. You could have been raised as a bear but that doesn’t make you a bear

That last bit is by far one of the best lines to come out of this so far. The reason I didn’t convert under an Orthodox rabbi is that I don’t have any interest in actively participating in the ritual life of Orthodox community. (Though, as they say, some of my best friends are Orthodox.) In any case, there are plenty of Orthodox rabbis whose conversions aren’t good enough for some other Orthodox rabbis.

On the subject of confidence, Carolyn Klaasen:

[…] For others I can imagine the experience being devastating and alienating. In what way does it strengthen Jewish communities to question or exclude those of us whose Jewish identities are a little more complex?

In response to Carolyn, shloime:

“exclude”? even the local rotary club has rules and membership dues. if the only thing stopping you from being a member of the tribe is a quick trip to the mikveh (and possibly a course of study in judaism), i wouldn’t call that “exclusion”, but more like “self-selection”.

You can’t dismiss “a course of study in judaism” so quickly, shloime. That’s a little more of an undertaking than a quick trip to the mikveh. Thankfully for me it wasn’t so, but for many these two things are not the only thing stopping them: They may have to go through a rabbi who belittles their Jewishness first.

In response to shloime, “Dan_02”:

What’s ridiculous, shloime, is that conversion is something required of Mr. Wilensky, who can lead a service, while it would not be of me, who has trouble following a service. And all because it was my father who was Irish.

Any club whose standards would accept me as a member (and not Mr. Wilensky), isn’t one I’d want to join. The existence of standards is not the issue. Rather, our trouble is with the arbitrariness of which standards are chosen to be enforced.

And more from Dan_02:

[…] The idea that such a conversion, which could never be more than theater, expresses respect for a religious tradition actually denigrates it.

The award for almost — but not quite — getting what’s going on here goes to…

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Felix H. Alomar: I happen to be more or less in the same situation…I’ve born christian but I have a “jewish matrilinear line” so I’m Jew and practice Judaism… but not my son…

I’d say that’s less the same situation, not more. If I’m reading this correctly and this fellow grew up Christian, then the identity of his mother doesn’t matter one bit to me. (Frankly, I think he ought to convert.)

The award for least compelling argument goes to… commenter “SC&A”:

For over 3000 years matrilineal descant has been one of Judaism’s defining characteristics.

Think about that- 3000 years.

While I’m delighted there are those for whom Judaism has some meaning beyond an ancient tradition, I am not one to throw our past away like yesterday’s newspaper.

Belief in God over bagels, identity over ribald Yiddish jokes and finding comfort in faith over food has kept us who we are.

Yes, friends, for three millenia, bagels and Yiddish jokes have kept us who we are. Er. Wait.

Then shloime redeems himself by pillorying SC&A for claiming that matrilineal descent was in use among Jews in the time of the bible. SC&A then drives completely off the cliff:

So what?

Are you so willing to negate 3000 years of tradition? Are you a bible literalist? Do you live a life as mandated by Torah- or are is the cafeteria model good enough for you?

The award for most entertaining comments of the day goes to…

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Linda Tzoref: Judaism is matrilineal. End of story. If your mother isn’t Jewish neither are you.

In response to that moment of blazing clarity:

Dan Parvaz: If you aren’t married by an Orthodox Rabbi, you’re shacking up, and your children are bastards. End of story.

Ooh. This exclusionary game is fun! Who’s next?

Some great back-and-forth on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Aron Brondo: first of all, a female rabbi?? before you point an accusing finger, make sure your hand is clean…. kabbalah teaches us that it is the neshama that makes a jew ba’al teshuvah is merely a formality

Shocking though it may be, yes Francine Roston is a woman. I don’t know what ba’al teshuvah (a “lapsed” Jew who becomes Orthodox) has to do with this. Perhaps the initial commenter meant to type conversion. In that case, if it is the neshama (soul) that makes a Jew and the conversion is a mere formality, then I guess that’s exactly what happened in my case.

A response to that comment from my new hero:

Brian Kresge: Kabbalah has little to do with full participation in a Conservative community. And a patrilineal Jew isn’t considered by halachah to be ba’al t’shuvah. Aside from vacuum cleaner salesmen-come-kabbalah-scholars, kabbalah has little to do with the realities of American synagogue life.

Another response:

Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part. I wish the pill (answer) for this person was an easy one to swallow, but it’s not. As Mr. Olesh said that Conservatived need to come into contemporary times……. What’s that mean? The Torah doesn’t, hasn’t and will change with the times. So why should a movement?


Yosef Wil Goldstein: Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part. I wish the pill (answer) for this person was an easy one to swallow, but it’s not. As Mr. Olesh said [referring to another comment] that Conservatived need to come into contemporary times……. What’s that mean? The Torah doesn’t, hasn’t and will change with the times. So why should a movement?

A dose of cogency then returned to the conversation:

Martin Olesh: Since the subject of the article, Mr. Wilensky is addressing the Conservative movement, the Orthodox or “frum” reply is automatic and irrelevant .For an Orthodox Jew, Torah is never changing, in concept. Therefore the Orthodox community will reject, as Mr. Goldstein has, any effort to consider modern situations as relevant to doctrinal issues. But the Conservative and Reform movements are not that rigid. They do recognize practices in light of modern conditions that the Orthodox in no uncertain terms condemn and will never recognize.

The award for most fun to imagine the commenter having a total nervous breakdown while writing the comment goes to…

Ra’anan Elozory:

Then take out a switchblade, go to your nonorthodox temple, roll open the Torah scrolls & remove the offending passages. In fact, if your a CRAB LOVER, you can cut out those offending passages as well. You can cut those Torah scrolls to your HEART’S CONTENT! Ah, but please don’t call that “Judaism.” You can call it “renaissanceboyism” instead & you can stand justly by the hemorrhaging reform & conservative movements & be “right.”

But WHAT IF G-d really does not want male homosexuality, but you DO want it? Who do you think would be right, you or Him? What if every “victimless crime” really did have universal consequences, but we weren’t aware of them, similar to a guy in a cruise ship drilling a hole in the floor of his “private” room, yet taking the whole ship down with him? Why do you want to be Jewish at all even w/o your objections to some parts of Judaism? If we aren’t part of some supernatural/divine plan, then why in the world do we have to do ANYTHING Jewish? Is there any evidence that we are part of some supernatural/divine plan??? Have you investigated or are you too busy dismantling ideas that offend your sensibilities?

To conclude: commenter “benjilachkar”:

[…] Anyway, the writer is not halakhically Jewish but define himself as a Jew and is accepted as a Jew by a big part of American Jewry – so unless he decides to move to Israel, he has no problem and can live his life as he wants to. So why are we having this discussion at all ?

Amen, I guess.

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14 Responses to Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

  1. Zackary Sholem Berger April 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to wade through all those comments. It’s an enlightening bit of literary analysis. Usually I just ignore the Forward commentariat and think they’re just a bunch of wackos. This close reading might have redeemed it for me. Might. 

    • Jeff April 23, 2012 at 5:59 am #

      Usually I just ignore the Forward commentariat and think they’re just a bunch of wackos. This close reading might have redeemed it for me. Might.
      No, they’re still wackos. The Forward staff has allowed its comment section to become a hangout for rabid Right-Wingers who live for the moments in which they can hurl invectives at the rare unsuspecting Liberal who innocently wanders in. Plus, its reportage is now at the level of a daytime talk show.
      They’ve ruined what was one of last bastions of Jewish Liberalism, a holdover from the golden age of Yiddish socialist culture. Abe Cahan (a”h) must be spinning.

      • David A.M. Wilensky April 24, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

        The Forward staff has not “allowed” the comment section to become like this. All comment sections (save for the rare bastion of sanity like this one, thanks to the few intrepid regular readers who keep it lively around here) are like that now. It’s one of the unfortunate, but unavoidable consequences of the combination of the unlimited space afforded by the internet and the ease with which anyone can post a comment. It leads to a volume of comments that would require multiple people working all day every day to moderate.

        And as for the Forward’s reporting, keep in mind that the Yiddish Forverts still exists online and in a weekly print edition. I’m Yiddish-illiterate so I have no idea what they write about, but perhaps they’re still bearing Cahan’s standard. In any case, I don’t know what you’re reading in the English Forward. Do you read their regular columnists? JJ Goldberg in particular is one-man “bastion of Jewish liberalism.” Or what about their editorials? They tend rather leftward. Though you’re right that they’re not quite socialist anymore. Then again, if they were I don’t know who their readers would be; the Jews are not really a bastion of socialism anymore.

        • Jeff April 24, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

          The Forward is worse than most of the other blogs and online journals that claim to be Liberal. The “wackos”, as you all them (and I don’t disagree with the designation) are all that’s left there now. Pretty much everyone with a handful of neurons to rub together has departed – and I do blame them. There aren’t so many stories or regular commenters that they couldn’t be policing it. The lunatics have Fox News, World Net Daily and a plethora of other sites. They don’t need to be hanging out there; they do it solely to attack anyone to the left of them (which turns out to be pretty much everyone). They enjoy giving Liberals no quarter; it makes them feel good about themselves. They’re schoolyard bullies, and the adolescents running the Forward these days are too apathetic and/or scared sh*tless to do anything about it.
          Re: reportage – I was told, recently, that the Yiddish edition has remained truer to its roots. I’m not conversant, so I wouldn’t know.
          Also, David, on Jewschool, there’s a typo in the Jewschool post. You posted the paragraph beginning with “Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part” twice.

  2. Fred Mason April 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    Thanks for such an entertaining couple of articles…I am also not “kosher” since my Mom’s Father not Mother was Jewish…one step further away that even you… My tested dna though says that at the moment I am related by blood to some 1159+ folks most of whom are “Russian Jewish” with origins all over the Pale of Settlement…likely you and I are at least 10th cousins as were all those millions of martyrs who died in the Shoah…
    I take pride in my Jewish heritage and regret the human-defined silliness that tries to define it…
    Best wishes to all my combative cousins now at the time of Yom HaShoah…Remember…They were ALL our cousins…How dare they do that to our cousins!

  3. Harold April 20, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Two points: (1) It has always baffled me that a very tiny minority works so hard to keep people out. (2) I felt that Rabbi Roston and the other two rabbis who made up the beit din handled the situation sensitively and professionally.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      Yeah, all three of them as great as three people in their situation can be. In fact, the comments and responses to the op-ed from Conservative rabbis has indicated that the vast majority of them are the same in that regard.

      But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re being really considerate and sensitive while clinging to an idea that not only has stopped making sense, but keeps some people away no matter how considerate and sensitive C-rabbis behave.

  4. Friar Yid April 20, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I liked the op-ed. The comments were interesting, though I didn’t have the patience to wade through all of them. Will try to hop back over here before Shabbat to share some thoughts of my own on the issue.

  5. Michael Doyle April 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    As I understand it, Affirmation and Conversion are the same thing ritually, but the term, Affirmation, is used for individuals already of Jewish identity for reasons of emotional empowerment. The Mayyim Chayyim mikveh touches on this on their Conversion/Affirmation  page.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      And perhaps that helps those of for whom the only thing stopping them from taking the plunge is “emotional empowerment.” I, however, can see past these relatively shallow attempts at making it lookand sound better. At its heart, the procedure — whether you call it conversion, affirmation or skinny-dipping — contains the same core idea: that the person in question isn’t a Jew.

  6. ML May 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Here’s a question I haven’t seen addressed.

    Do you take alliot under different names depending if it’s Reform or (now) Conservative?

    A convert’s Hebrew name is ______ ben Avraham v’Sarah.  I’m guessing that prior to your dunk you used, as a name, your Hebrew first name (maybe second) followed by ben “something”.  Have you made this a permanent change?  Do you change depending on the shul? 

    Just curious. 

    • ML May 21, 2012 at 11:08 am #

      For instance, what Hebrew name would you sign on your ketuba, should you choose to get married in the future?

      • David A.M. Wilensky July 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

        It is customary for a convert to take a ben A. v’S. name, but it’s not necessary. There are a few instances in which it’s normative to do otherwise. Aside from my situation, there are lots of Jews who adopt a baby and have it take a quick dunk. In cases like that, the baby’s Hebrew name would still include its adopted parents’ names.

        However, my Hebrew name did recently change because my mother had her Hebrew name changed.

  7. J June 10, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Great article, David, I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one. I’m also a patrilineal Reform Jew/person, raised and educated in a liberal synagogue. My boyfriend is Conservative and I likely will undergo a conversion at some point for him and his family. I would like to stay within the Reform movement, and hopefully he will be willing to do that too. However, even if I live my whole life within a Reform setting, I will undergo an ultra-Orthodox conversion in Israel before I have kids – so that they don’t have the same identity struggle, and can travel to anywhere in the world without having their Judaism questioned (Israel, namely, does not accept Conservative or most Modern Orthodox conversions – plus, you never know when they will stop accepting a particular American Ortho rabbi’s conversions, with all of the skepticism toward Amcn Judaism). But I digress.
    Realizing in college that some people don’t consider me a Jew has been a really eye-opening experience. Very frustrating at first, now just… complicated. I’ve become fascinated with the various interpretations of Halacha on various controversial issues. You can be conservative-halachic, orthodox-halachic, or “non-halachic” and still be a Jew. At the end of the day, aren’t all of us Rabbinic Jews just like the Karaites — interpreting what we we will from the Tanakh and previous authoritative interpretations, and leaving what we don’t like? Religion is so strange — religious-ethnicity-culture-demographic even stranger.