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Lessons Learned from

T he receiving of the Torah,
which we celebrate on
Shavuot, serves as the model
for the laws surrounding conversion
to Judaism. Having been involved
Rabbi Zvi Romm
Faculty, Isaac Breuer College
Rabbi, Bialystoker Synagogue, NYC
with the Manhattan Beth Din for Menahel, Manhattan Beth Din for Conversions
Conversions for close to a decade,
I have been privileged to watch
hundreds of individuals engage in detail. The end result, typically, is a halachically required, we find that the
their own personal reception of convert who often knows more about connection to Hebrew enhances the
the Torah, as they embrace a life of Judaism than many of the people he or connection to Torah and community.
Torah and mitzvot in all its fullness. she sits with in shul on a regular basis. A few months after we asked a stellar
Along the way, I have been inspired candidate to learn how to read
many times over by the commitment Why the contemporary insistence
Hebrew, she wrote to us:
and self-sacrifice displayed by these on acquiring extensive knowledge,
individuals. As all of us prepare to if the Talmud does not seem to I write to you to express deep gratitude
receive the Torah anew on Shavuot, require it? I think the answer lies in for asking me to learn to read Hebrew
I share some lessons learned from the recognition that the knowledge is in preparation of my joining the Jewish
converts and their process that can not only an end in itself; it is a means people.
serve as a source of inspiration to us to enable the candidate to deepen a I am excited and humbled by the new
all. sense of connection and commitment world that has been opened up to me.
to Torah and the Orthodox Instead of doing my prayers in English, I
community. While the beth din may read them in Hebrew...yes, it takes me a
Knowledge is a Key to
not be obligated Talmudically to long time but the joy is immeasurable... I
insist on a certain level of knowledge, have a long ways to go before I can read
Reviewing the Talmudic passages it is mandated to determine the fluently with speed, but I can read, I can
candidate’s level of commitment, and follow prayers in shul from my siddur.
regarding conversion, one gets the
impression that the conversion in the contemporary world, one way It is an amazing feeling! I am really
in which to do that is by observing the looking forward to the High Holidays,
candidate needs to acquire very little
depth of commitment generated by G-d willing I will be a halachic Jew who
Judaic knowledge before conversion.
the acquisition of knowledge. for the first time will use the Machzor’s
Yet, every beth din today insists on a
Hebrew side. I will need translation but
rigorous educational process through Our beth din generally insists on
not transliteration.
which the candidate studies Jewish the candidate learning at least basic
theology and practice in considerable Hebrew reading. While this is not Those of us who were born Jewish

Special Symposium • Shavuot 5777

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
would do well to reflect on the struggles and triumphs of the Jewish community is probably the single
idea that knowledge is a key to people worldwide and historically. most important element in the
commitment. The better we can In a more focused sense, this means conversion process to help ensure that
understand a Jewish experience — a that a conversion candidate needs the convert will remain committed to
holiday, a lifecycle event, or even to integrate into a specific Orthodox a life of Torah and mitzvot in the long
a simple halachic practice — the community before we can consider term.
more committed we will feel to that finalizing the conversion. This
experience and the joy will truly be is often a complicated prospect. Doing What is Right
immeasurable. Full integration into an Orthodox
community means living within A non-Jewish woman in her twenties
Community Really Matters comfortable walking distance of a met a Jewish man who, like his
functional Orthodox synagogue, parents, was nominally Orthodox
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l sees something that can be challenging for but not fully observant. The family
the declaration of Ruth (1:16) — many candidates. insisted that the woman undergo
“Your nation is my nation; your G-d And yet — integration into a Orthodox conversion before any
is my G-d” — as reflecting a dual community is essential to the possibility of marriage would be
aspect of conversion. The convert not conversion process. Anecdotal considered. As the woman began
only commits himself or herself to the evidence suggests that even born to study with an Orthodox tutor,
Jewish religion. He or she commits to Orthodox Jews often drift from she gradually began incorporating
become part of the Jewish people. observance when they do not feel Orthodox practice into her life and
part of the community. I would say was disappointed to see that her
In a broad sense, this means
that successful integration into a boyfriend was maintaining his non-
developing a sense of kinship with the



Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
observant lifestyle. She truly came to forcing her to move back to her family, decisions seemed, superficially, to
love Orthodox Judaism and sincerely who lived quite a distance from any backfire — should inspire us to “keep
wanted to lead her future life as a Orthodox resources. This was a cruel at it” and do what we know is right,
fully Orthodox Jew. Ultimately, she irony; her very devotion to Orthodoxy even when we seem to be hurt by
presented her boyfriend with an had set her back, in a very real sense, doing so in the short run.
ultimatum: If you will not become in her pursuit of conversion!
fully Orthodox yourself, we can no We are Fortunate to be
The beth din continued to provide
longer be in a relationship. both pastoral support to this idealistic Chosen
The couple chose to end the woman, as well as connecting her to
relationship, and the woman apartment possibilities in Orthodox A man in his twenties became
continued to pursue conversion. But neighborhoods which would be attracted to Judaism through reading.
there was a catch: The boyfriend’s within her price range. After a number During the course of his exploration
parents had been advised that the beth of disappointments, the woman was of Judaism, he suffered an accident
din would only convert a candidate able to find an apartment she could which left him temporarily bedridden
who was living in an Orthodox afford in a vibrant Orthodox area. and depressed. By that time, he had
community. They had therefore rented We completed her conversion not already purchased a Hebrew-English
an apartment for the woman in an long thereafter. Today, she is studying siddur. He randomly opened up the
Orthodox neighborhood. When the Torah full-time and has begun siddur, looking for some comfort
relationship ended, the boyfriend’s applying for Aliyah. during the difficult period he was
parents no longer felt a vested interest experiencing. The siddur opened
I think this story speaks for itself. The to Aleinu. The man read Aleinu for
in the woman’s conversion process, tenacity this woman displayed —
and they stopped paying her rent, the first time and found its message
keeping to her goals, even when her

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YU Parents
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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
incredibly inspiring. At that point — decision, and the fact that he or she observant. One such member pulled
he later related to the beth din — he need not feel obligated to undertake me aside during the spirited simcha
became convinced that he was on the these extra mitzvot. At the same dancing and commented to me with
right path and went on to seek out time, we certainly view the system of great passion, “You know, if Marty
a more formal structure in which to mitzvot as a privilege, not a burden. If can become a shomer Shabbos, what
study Judaism, ultimately leading to we are surprised that someone would excuse do the rest of us have?”
his conversion. voluntarily choose to be an Orthodox
I don’t know whether that member
I find this story striking on several Jew, perhaps we need to do a better
ultimately became shomer Shabbos.
levels. Unfortunately, Aleinu is a job affirming to ourselves our sense of
I do know that Marty went on to
prayer that is often recited without pride and privilege in being bearers of
become extremely active in that
feeling even by those who attempt the Torah. Perhaps we really do need
synagogue, spearheading a successful
to invest their prayers with meaning. to say Aleinu with a little more feeling!
campaign to build an eruv locally and
Aleinu has the “misfortune” of being organize a daily minyan. He certainly
placed at the end of our davening, We Can Powerfully Influence exerted a powerful influence on his
a time when even the more devout Those Around Us surroundings.
among us often have “one foot out
the door.” The idea that Aleinu could Our beth din worked with “Marty,”
a man in his sixties who had been Questions Can be our Lifeline
clinch someone’s decision to convert to Faith
should certainly give us pause the next married to a non-observant Jewish
time we recite Aleinu mechanically. woman for many years. Along the
Many of the converts we have worked
way, he developed an interest in
What is even more striking, though, with were raised as Catholics. I often
Orthodox Judaism. He and his wife
is that Aleinu’s content often causes hear from them something along the
began attending services and classes
us a degree of discomfort. Aleinu following lines: “I went to Catholic
at an Orthodox synagogue located
proclaims that we are fortunate school, where we were taught that
about fifteen minutes’ drive from their
to have been chosen to be Jewish, questions were bad, that we should
home. As their observance intensified,
privileged to be able to worship G-d, just have faith and not ask questions.
the couple ultimately acquired
and grateful that the Jewish role in I find Judaism to be so refreshing,
a “Shabbat apartment” near the
the world is distinct from that of a because it validates and encourages
synagogue where they spent Shabbat,
non-Jew. Many of us chafe at that asking questions.”
now fully observant. The journey
unabashed expression of pride in toward conversion culminated with One such conversion candidate
the Jewish mission. In fact, I have the man undergoing circumcision was a woman in her twenties. She
frequently heard born Orthodox and immersion in a mikveh; a few had forged a learning relationship
Jews express amazement that anyone hours after the mikveh immersion, with a wonderful Orthodox woman
would want to convert. Why, they the couple gathered in the Orthodox who was quite pious and scholarly.
ask, would anyone voluntarily take synagogue where they were married But there was a problem: when the
upon themselves a whole host of extra according to Halacha, surrounded by candidate would question certain
obligations? all the members of their newfound aspects of Judaism, in a sincere
Our discomfort should be disturbing supportive community. attempt to try to achieve a better
to us. It is true that halacha mandates understanding, the Orthodox mentor
Although the synagogue was
impressing upon a prospective impressed upon her the importance
Orthodox, many of the members
convert the gravity of his or her of accepting things on faith and
of the synagogue were not strictly

Find more shiurim and articles from Rabbi Zvi Romm at

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
limiting one’s questions. In a different practices and viewpoints on faith, cannot let it go.
context, this might have been good might we not generate disillusionment His sentiment beautifully captures
advice, but it was devastating for with Judaism? Engaging a sincere the attitude toward Torah that is
this candidate. “This is exactly why questioner can often lead to a championed by Chazal (cited in Rashi
I left Catholicism!” she complained. deepened faith and commitment, to Shemot 19:1): “Let the words of
The beth din connected her with a rather than a lackluster one. Torah be eternally new to you.”
different mentor who encouraged
questions. The woman’s intellectual This attitude of wonder and freshness,
Never Old, Never Stale
curiosity was satisfied. She went on expressed by so many converts, is the
to convert with our beth din and A young man who converted with our greatest source of inspiration. It can be
today is living a life of commitment beth din about two years ago recently easy to allow one’s Torah learning and
to Torah and mitzvot. wrote me the following: mitzvah observance to become rote
and ossified. One of the “perks” in my
I have often thought about this case I have been told by a fellow convert that role as administrator of the beth din
when contemplating our collective the conversion is over, and that I am a is my constant exposure to men and
efforts to educate our own Orthodox full Jew. The problem I have with that women who are proud to “never let
youth. The candidate in question left statement is that the actual moment go” of the awe-inspiring experience of
Catholicism because she felt that she that I became Jewish followed by the accepting a life of mitzvot, allowing it
was not allowed to raise questions. experience of my neshama coming into to be an ongoing source of inspiration.
If we discourage questioning and my body is something that I think about
tell our youth — or, for that matter, and relive every day of my life. It was
the adults we seek to educate — that such a positive moment that I really
they should simply accept our Torah

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777