I’ve had an extraordinary day at the Bet Din. Seven adult candidates from the New London conversion programme were accepted ‘among the people of the God of Abraham,’ as were two infants.
The sheer depth and range of commitment the Bet Din witnessed was deeply moving. One of the Rabbis was a guest, recently retired following a career in South America, USA and Canada, he said that he had never seen such learning, passion and sophistication in 40 years of Rabbinic work. There were discussions of Pikuach Nefesh, matching of Megillot to Moed, the relationship between the nature of the fast of Tammuz and the fast of Av .... I could go on.
One of the candidates was asked why they wanted to convert and responded that they didn’t feel like it was a choice, coming to the Bet Din was simply the next stage of recognising the person they felt they had become through their Jewish journey.
Another candidate shared that, only some months after they joined New London, they found Jewish roots in their own family, stretching back generations. It made them feel as if their journey to New London and Jewish life was of even more importance.
We had candidates who were first exposed to Judaism through a Jewish partner, but claimed that they now felt they had found their own path, own reasons and own beauty in their own new faith.
We had candidates without partners, who found the beauty in Judaism on their own.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner, my predecessor here and now Head of the European Masorti Bet Din, asked one candidate why they chose New London, and they responded that we felt like a community that was not only welcoming of converts, but valued converts. That struck me as particularly important distinction.
New London has always been a place open to those who wished to throw their lot in with the Jewish people. It was a principled stance of our founding Rabbi who believed that the United Synagogue had drastically inflated expectations and the supposed importance of pushing back potential candidates for conversion. I’m proud that as a community we continue to believe that open doors and warm welcomes are better than intransigence and hostility.
The strength of New London owes a great deal to the vitality and commitment of those in, and those who have completed a conversion at New London. Former conversion candidates and their partners are members of council members, heads of committees, Minyan men – and women and the driving force of so much that goes on here.
And then there is that weasel question, of seriousness. How many of these converts are ‘only doing it to get married,’ how many ‘really get it.’ The real answer, is the superb mythic answer of the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China when asked his reflection of the French Revolution, some hundred years earlier. It really is too early to tell. In truth the obligation to value the work of a conversion programme falls on both its participants and the broader community. The participants have an obligation to allow the community to feel that their once-spoken pieties remain strong ongoing commitments to support a people whose destiny has merged with their own. The community need to ensure that no convert is ever shamed or made to feel less worthy simply because they were not borne Jewish.
To everyone who came to the Bet Din this week, welcome and congratulations. To everyone who supports, teaches, welcomes or even opens their heart to this extraordinary journey, my thanks and the thanks of of converts in this community, past, present and future, are with you,