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Uncategorized November 17, 2014

In Defense of Conversion Rabbis

by Amy Newman Smith 

“And then the rabbis come in,” my friend explained.

“WHAT?!?” I shrieked. I had asked her, a recent convert with the same beis din (rabbinic court) that was handling my conversion, to walk me step by step through the process.

The rabbis come in? To the mikveh? My thoughts were rapid and panicked. I had met and married a fellow Conservative movement convert. Together we had grown in a different direction and were on the threshold of finalizing our Orthodox conversions after 18 months of learning and living Orthodox Judaism. We had upended our lives in more ways than I can count, lost friends who thought we had lost our minds, moved from an apartment we loved to one we hated in order to be within walking distance of the synagogue. And now, my panicked brain thought, I’m going to have to call it all off. I had learned the laws of mikveh, the ritual bath, and knew nothing could be between my body and the water. I had gotten rid of my pants, raised my necklines, started covering my hair. And now I was supposed to be naked in front of three rabbis? Oh no. That was not going to happen.

My friend, seeing the horror on my face, rushed to clarify. What I had imagined wasn’t real. It was all going to be okay. And so, on the day of my conversion, I met with the three rabbis who made up my beis din. According to the rules of the Rabbinical Council of California, our sponsoring rabbi – the rabbi who for the last year and a half had mentored us, tutored us, and inspired us through the process of becoming Jews – could not be one of the rabbis, but I had met the head rabbi as part of being accepted as a candidate for conversion, and again when we met halfway through our learning to assess our progress. After some probing questions to gauge whether I had the knowledge to keep core commandments and establish that I had no ties to other religions, no ulterior motives, and had not asked to be converted under the promise of reward or any threat, we separated to meet again at the mikveh.

In the past weeks, since the revelations that Rabbi Barry Freundel allegedly watched women in the mikveh preparation rooms via hidden video cameras – not conversion candidates, but married Jewish women preparing to use the mikveh as part of a monthly ritual – the cries have come that men have to get out of the mikveh business. Blogs, public letters, op-ed pieces. One man’s alleged criminal acts opened a floodgate of criticism. It only got louder when it was revealed that Freundel had been reported for requiring conversion candidates to work for him for free and to make donations to organizations he headed.

“There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period,” wrote Jennie Rosenfeld on The Jerusalem Post website. In a recent Times of Israel blog post, Shoshanna Jaskoll insisted that the same rabbis who required modesty of dress and behavior in Orthodox women could not take part in female conversions without being hypocrites and were likely having “indecent thoughts” about the conversion candidate. Jaskoll quoted unnamed rabbis, and took snippets from an open letter from the one rabbi she named – Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – that served her ends. The entire letter, if one takes the time to read it, tells a vastly different story.

At the mikveh, a gentle and genteel mikveh lady kindly went over step by step what would take place. Then she gave me a full-length robe, so thick that it would not be see through even when fully wet, to put on and left me alone to change. When I indicated I was ready, she walked me into the mikveh room and waited until I was in the mikveh, giving me time to make sure I had the robe adjusted so that I was comfortable and covered. The three rabbis summoned from the room where they were waiting stepped only close enough to the mikveh to see my face, to ensure I was the same Amy Newman Smith who had sat in their office earlier that day. No Leah for Rachel, as it were. 

Then they stepped back, able only to see the top of my head. They were close enough only to see my head go under, to hear the blessings a convert says, and hear the mikveh lady say “kosher” as I immersed each time, ensuring that every part of my body was covered by the waters of the mikveh. Then they left the room, closing the door before I emerged to dress in private, a newly minted Jew. The only other moment I have ever felt so much holiness surround me was the day my son was circumcised, entering the covenant of Abraham. At both of those moments, I felt a cord that tied me back to Sarah and forward into eternity. I did not feel abused, violated, mistreated, or vulnerable. To the contrary, everything had been handled in a way that was designed to make the process both b’tznius (modest) and b’simcha (joyful). 


Unfortunately, Rabbi Freundel’s circle of victims only continues to widen with the calls of those who say his individual misdeeds demand an overhaul of the entire conversion system. (Why is it only the rabbis who need overhauling? What about male doctors? What about auto mechanics – mostly male? Where is the outrage when they mistreat, defraud or abuse female clients/customers, demanding only women fix women’s cars and heal women’s bodies?)  More importantly, do the shouters for change realize the grave injustice they do when they say “no man belongs in a women’s mikveh”? On the basis of one man’s bad actions of misusing his power over converts and breaking the law by covertly observing them – for which he has been arrested and will go through a trial and sentencing unless he decides to accept a plea deal – every rabbi is being painted as a potential villain.

Rabbi Pruzanksy said it best in his explanation of why he was resigning from his position as the head of the Orthodox conversion court for Bergen County: “Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague [Freundel] for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din . . . I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.”

Is Rabbi Freundel one of a kind? Almost certainly not. But is he the norm? The majority? Anything even close to being something other than an outlier? For this, the accusers bring no evidence. They besmirch the names of righteous, modest, caring men without evidence for their own ends. And that is an outrage. The hoped-for ends do not justify the means being used.

Let us think critically about what the hoped-for ends of these writers are. All the hoped-for ends. Only the deeply naive would believe that Jennie Rosenfeld, who is studying in a program for dayanot (female religious judges) and who calls for a system in which women would be able to oversee conversions, divorces, and other matters of Jewish law pertaining to women doesn’t have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate. If the status quo remains in place, her investment of time and money will have been for naught. Other writers have also previously laid out their objections to the current system of Orthodox conversions long before Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, and the disclosures that followed merely provided them with an all-too-convenient cudgel with which to attack a system they had already rejected.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Rosenfeld and her ilk seem not to understand that by saying the entire conversion system must be overhauled, she also implies that my conversion, that my friend’s conversion, that indeed the conversions of all women that have taken place under the current system are flawed. My conversion, the bloggers and pontificators say, is tainted. It is broken. It is in need of fixing. And to that I say, “How dare you?”

Fight for what you think is good and true. Write, write, and write some more. That is certainly your right. I am not asking for these voices to be silenced, nor am I debating that having men present in the conversion mikveh process makes some women uncomfortable, no matter how discreetly it is handled. (Mikveh with a female attendant is often uncomfortable, as well.) But I hope they remember that their stated goal is helping converts. And as a convert, I tell you honestly that their words – and the false suspicions they have put in the minds of many of those who have read them – imply that I, and women like me, entered the Jewish people within an abusive and immodest context. It is hard enough to be a convert without people who claim to be acting on converts’ behalf spreading the idea that converts have undergone something shameful or perverted. 

These articles (and this article you are reading now) are unlikely to change how Orthodox batei dinim (Jewish courts) handle conversions going forward. But they do stigmatize converts and future converts by spreading the mistaken belief that female converts have been party to something terrible rather than something transcendent. 

Writer’s Note: I have chosen to use my name on this piece because I feel it is unfair to criticize others by name without naming myself and also because I have done nothing that needs hiding. Please remember that the Torah is very clear on the prohibition of mentioning a convert’s former status, of reminding them of it, and certainly of asking intrusive questions about their past of their journey to Judaism. 

Links:Rabbi Pruzansky piece: Rosenfeld piece:
Shoshanna Jaskoll piece:

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized March 2, 2014

Convert Stories

When I used to teach tenth grade girls in our local Jewish day school, a not-uncommon question asked was, “Of course I know there is a God, but how do I know Judaism is the right religion?  Just because I was born Jewish?  So what?”

I have never, ever heard a non-Orthodox Jew ask this question.

A more common question in the non-Orthodox world is, “How do we really know there is a God in the world, who created this world and cares what we do?”  Implicit in this question, and I’ve heard it expressed explicitly too, is “of course if I were to be religious it would be Judaism.” Non-Orthodox Jews typically do not wish for the religious observances of other religions.  They KNOW they’re Jewish, they just don’t know where God fits in.

Orthodox Jews typically KNOW where God fits in.  They’re just wondering: why Jewish?

Enter convert stories.

When speakers travel the circuit and tell their “personal journey stories” (why I became religious, why I converted to Judaism) I’ve noticed a similar dynamic.  Convert stories are like gospel (oops) to Orthodox Jews.  It basically confirms and supports what they wondered: why be Jewish?  Because here is a person who was choosing a religion, and chose… Judaism.  Without being born to it.  Orthodox Jews LOVE convert stories.  They are inspired and motivated in their born faith by hearing the struggles and journey of a person who chose religious Judaism of their own volition.

Non-Orthodox Jews, less so.  They want to know things like: okay, I see why you left the religion of your youth, but why Judaism, specifically?  Without trying to be rude, they want to know: was it circumstantial?  If another religion would have found you at the crucial moment, would the conversion have been to that religion?  If another religion comes along that resonates more, would you consider it?

Another disconnect:

A lot of converts are converting from one fundamental religious lifestyle to another.  This unnerves non-Orthodox Jews.  They can’t relate to the fundamentalism in the first place, so there’s barely any point of connection in the story.  For a non-Orthodox Jew to become religious, a huge obstacle of faith-in-the-first place must be surmounted, and this particular type of convert doesn’t address it.  Faith is in their bloodstream from their earliest memories.  In fact, when I read blogs or books by religious members of other faiths, I feel a strong kinship and support.

It took a lot of thinking for me to figure out why convert-stories that left me feeling so inspired and moved, left my fellow non-Orthodox friends feeling somewhat flat and underwhelmed.  So that’s my theory.

Your thoughts?

Interviews, Uncategorized February 17, 2014

Interview with Chaim Shalom, OOTOB’s first male Orthodox Jew

I’ve noticed that this blog seems to be somewhat woman-centric, which is interesting, because other than the fact that I, the author, am female, nothing here is specifically feminine.  So I put out there on Facebook that I am looking for a male Orthodox Jew to interview, and a friend-of-a-friend volunteered Chaim Shalom ben Avraham – who is a very interesting person besides being male and Orthodox.  Tell me what you think.
Uncategorized April 25, 2013

Meet my Friend, the Convert: Diplogeek

 Regular readers here are more than familiar with Diplogeek, a woman living abroad in the Foreign Service who is a convert to Judaism.  Diplogeek always has something interesting to say, usually in her signature passionate style.  The life and experience of a convert is a subject that has come up every now and then here, and I asked Diplogeek to share her thoughts, which she graciously has done.  Below, for your edification:
1. How old are you and where are you from?

I’m thirty years old (yikes – that crept up on me) and from small-town New England.

2. What was your religious upbringing?

was brought up Episcopalian (some people are more familiar with
Episcopalianism as Anglicanism or the Church of England, depending on
where you’re from). Episcopalianism is a mainline, Protestant
denomination that was established as the Church of England by Henry VIII
after he had a bit of a falling out with the Pope over a divorce. There
is gradiation in terms of how conservative Anglican/Episcopal churches
are, but most Episcopal churches in the United States, at least, are
quite socially (and often theologically) liberal. My own, by Episcopal
standards, was fairly conservative; our priest identified as a
born-again Christian and was fairly socially conservative. My mother
actually wanted to leave for a more liberal church, but my brother and I
were familiar with our priest and had friends in the congregation and
didn’t want to switch, so we stayed. In retrospect, I think this
conservative streak in our church contributed to my questioning of
Christianity at a relatively early age.

mother is fairly religious; church most weeks, and as kids, my brother
and I were expected to attend. My father, by contrast, was largely
secular and only went to church on Christmas, Easter and occasionally
Sundays where something special was going on (Girl Scout Sunday,
Children’s Sunday, stuff like that). His family was pretty areligious,
though his mother once told me that he came home as a teenager and told
his parents that he wanted to be baptised, which I found interesting. I
was an acolyte (an altar girl) for quite a while, and I was confirmed
despite my own doubts both because I didn’t know at the time that one
could convert (I was ten, which was on the young side for confirmation),
and because I was under the impression that confirmation was just what
was expected of me, and I was a kid who usually tried to check the
proverbial boxes. Clearly, it didn’t take. I did like the liturgical
aspect of worship, and the “smells and bells.” As a kid, I was a
voracious reader, and I was fascinated by religions generally- still am,
to a certain extent.

3. What kinds of schools did you attend?

public schools. We lived in England for a bit when I was a kid, in
London, which was my first experience having a truly diverse peer group.
I had classmates that were Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, all different
races, and that was a huge eye-opener for me. My teachers were generally
good, and my classes were usually relatively challenging. I was a
fairly good student, I think. I went to a good state university for
college and later attended graduate school in the U.K.

4. What was your impression or experience with Jewish people growing up?

had virtually no direct experience – there were a couple of Jewish kids
in my grade, and I remember one boy having a bar mitzvah, but we weren’t
close friends at all. I knew that Judaism itself fascinated me, and my
associations with it were positive, but I didn’t have any significant
amount of interaction with Jews (aside from one aunt by marriage, who is
secular) until I went off to college. Heck, I had never set foot in a
shul before college.

5. What was the first time you felt you might have a Jewish connection?

this day, I really can’t explain it. I didn’t grow up in an area with
many Jews at all – I think there were maybe two in my grade in school,
and I wasn’t BFFs with them or anything. I have a crystal clear memory
of reading a book about the Shoah, of all things, while riding home on
the school bus at eight years old, and I just had this flash of… I
don’t know what. “Revelation” would seem to be overstating it a bit, so
I’ll just say that it was a sudden understanding that I wanted to be
Jewish. I couldn’t have articulated the conversion part then, because at
that age, I had no idea that converting was something you could do – I
just assumed that if you had the good fortune to have Jewish parents,
great, but if your parents were Christian or Hindu or whatever, that’s
what you were, so you had to bloom where you were planted. I found out
about conversion at age thirteen or so, when I had been growing
increasingly frustrated with Christianity. The more I read about
Judaism, the more I found myself saying, “Wait, I’ve always believed
that! And I’ve always believed this other thing, too!” and I knew that
conversion was what I wanted to do, but both my mother’s initial, very
negative reaction and life circumstances got in the way for a long time.

6. What was your family’s reaction to this?

I alluded to above, my mother was… less than thrilled. At first, she
chalked it up to “a phase,” which was probably reasonable when you’re
talking about a teenager but infuriated me at the time. I’d object to
going to church, and she’d accuse me of not giving it a fair shake,
saying I should really try taking it seriously, so I’d double down for a
few weeks and really attempt to buy in, which didn’t work. So we’d go
back and forth that way, at least as long as I lived at home. Once I
left for college, the dynamic changed somewhat. I had signed up to study
Hebrew, and I ended up with a bunch of Jewish friends (more
coincidentally than anything else), and I started going to services at
Hillel every week pretty early on in my Freshman year. The first time I
fasted for Yom Kippur was during my Sophomore year. I still visited my
family for holidays and stuff, but it was becomming more apparent to
them that my religous level was growing, and that this was not a phase.

mother’s issues didn’t really stem from an idea that I was somehow
throwing my salvation away, because most Episcopalians don’t believe
that kind of thing. She saw my rejection of her religion as a rejection
of her and of my family’s culture. That wasn’t what
it was about, of course, but it took some conversations (and a bit of
yelling) for her to fully believe that. My extended family, by contrast,
were very cool about it – my aunt, who is also my Godmother, joked that
she feels like she’s still covered, since I still believe in God. Heh.
My brother, grandmother and other family have all been generally
supportive of me. They’re all a bit bemused, I think, but cool with it.
And Mom has come around a lot in the last few years, for which I give
her much credit.

7. At any point, did you wonder if pursuing conversion was simply not worth it?

think everyone wonders that at one time or another. I definitely did –
usually when I was reading stuf about all of the denominational fighting
over whose conversion was valid and whose weren’t. The idea of going
through all of the work of converting, marrying Jewish, having a Jewish
baby and then have him or her summarily dismissed as “just a goy,” as
I’ve seen it expressed in some places online, really, really bothered me
(still does), and in between bouts of agonizing over denominational
questions, I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easer to be a
Unitarian or a secular humanist or whatever. But every time I tried to
put Judaism aside, I came back to it like a homing pigeon. And while I
read about other religions, I never found one that struck me the way
Judaism had. This, “Will she? Won’t she?” thing went on for nearly ten
years – it’s also one of the biggest reasons that I find the whole,
“Well, just be a Noachide!” argument to be completely non-viable, at
least for me.

think what finally pushed me to pull the trigger, already, beyond
understanding that I couldn’t just keep doing the semi-Noachide, living
in limbo thing anymore, was when I got into the Foreign Service. This
was right around the time several Consulate employees were murdered in
Ciudad Juarez, and I remember reading about their deaths and thinking,
“You know, I could be sent anywhere. I could go somewhere and die. And
if my time is up, and I’m going out like that, I’m at least going out
Jewish.” I was e-mailing rabbis before I even went to D.C. for training.
The incident in Benghazi and the recent death of Anne Smedinghoff have
reinforced a certain sense of relief that whatever frustrations I may
have on occasion with trying to live Jewishly in China or with the
Conversion Issue™ or denominational infighting or the like, I know I’m
Jewish, Hashem knows I’m Jewish, and if something awful happens (G-d
forbid), that’s really what matters. Although admittedly, it’s easier to
keep that in mind at some times than at others.

8. Can you describe your encounters with Rabbis or other Jewish families that were instrumental in your journey?

been fortunate to have had a lot of great rabbis and fellow Jews around
to help me along the way. My two best friends from college are Jewish,
and they’ve always been supportive of my decision to convert; I actually
went to them with possible Hebrew names when I was getting ready for
the mikvah. The Chabad rabbi I had in college who let me come to Shabbos
dinner every week knowing that I wasn’t yet Jewish (and probably
wouldn’t be a Chabadnik when I was) and showed me nothing but
hospitality. My friend that I met through a teaching program in Japan
who’s Orthodox, himself, but thinks nothing of having a conversation
with me about the vagaries of tefillin. The married couple in my D.C.
shul who took me in for Seders and Shabbos dinner during my conversion
process. And, of course, my converting rabbi, who, aside from being a
great speaker and smart and all of that, knew what buttons to push to
make me a better Jew and knew where I needed to be prodded out of my
comfort zone… and who didn’t bat an eye when I asked him to show me how
to lay tefillin properly.

9. How is your life different as a Jew?

I spend much more time thinking about logistical things like what holidays are coming up and what I need to do to prepare. For
example, I mapped out the dates for High Holy Days last year right
after Pesach and started looking for tickets, because I knew I was going
to leave the country for the holidays and wanted to be sure I was
squared away. Most people aren’t having these kinds of issues over
Christmas. It’s a lot easier to just go with the flow if you’re
Christian, even nominally, because your holidays are almost always the
default for society at large. Especially living in China, I always feel
under pressure to either make sure I can do something here or get out of
town for major holidays. It’s tough, and it can be lonely and a bit
exhausting, but I’ve met some brilliant people as a result, so it has
its benefits, as well.

10. Is there anything you miss about life before Judaism?

miss how easy everything was. Who cares who I marry?
Who cares what I eat? Why not work on Saturday? Now, I have to give a
lot more thought to the personal decisions I make, both in terms of what
will best set me up for success in my Jewish practices, but also
because if I’m the only Jew someone ever meets, I don’t want them
thinking we’re all jerks or something. So in that sense, I do think that
I feel a certain level of pressure to behave in such a way as to be a
positive reflection on other Jews (I don’t claim to always measure up to
that goal, but I do my best). Still, the whole “wrestling with G-d”
thing is right there in the name, so it’s not as if I didn’t know what I
was getting into, and I wouldn’t change my decision to convert.
Also, BLTs and unagi
(eel) sushi. Those are the only two pork/shellfish type things I
really, really miss, although I suppose I could swap turkey bacon for
the pork bacon on the BLT.

11.  What is the best part about life as a Jew?

for lack of a better description, like my inside matches my outside
now.  I feel like I’m finally able
to identify with the community of my choosing and that I’ve claimed
this identity that I instinctively knew was supposed to be mine. There
are very few times in life, I think, where one is privileged to have
that feeling, so I hold it very dear.

12.  What is your experience with the Orthodox Jewish community?

broad, I think, certainly for someone who didn’t grow up in a Jewish
community at all. I was a regular attendee at Chabad in college, and I
went to a Chabad syagogue in Japan when I lived there after college. I
have a handful of frum friends, though most are
Modern Orthodox as opposed to Yeshivish or non-Chabad Hasidic. My
experiences with the Orthodox community, both online and in real life,
have been all over the map in terms of whether they were positive or
negative. In real life, I would say they skew more positive, while
online, they tend to be far more negative. Not entirely surprising,
considering how most people (Jewish or otherwise) tend to behave when
they have both anonymity and a consequence-free environment.
do think that the so-called “slide to the right” and what can look to
an outsider like increasing reliance on dozens of chumrot and the most machmir
interpretation of halacha possible is ultimately a negative development,
but it’s not my community, so it’s not really for me to say. That being
said, I do find myself resentful, on occasion, of the dismissive
attitude that some segments of the Orthodox community have towards their
heterodox brethren, and there are a number of things about the Orthodox
conversion system (in as much as it can be called a system, to be fair,
as it’s not always monolithic) that make me angry. The latter
contributed significantly to my decision to convert under Conservative
auspices, actually.
also worry sometimes about what would happen to me if I had the
misfortune to die somewhere where my remains couldn’t be repatriated in a
timely fashion, as if there’s a Jewish cemetary at all, the vast
majority of those are Orthodox-run and would likely refuse me burial as a
result of who was on my beit din. Then again, I would hope that I’ll
have better things to occupy myself once I’ve shuffled off this mortal
coil than people bickering over how to dispose of my corpse!

13. What message would you like born-Jews to hear about a convert’s experience?

all of us converted because we were dating, engaged or married to a
Jewish guy (or girl), for one. I’ve actually never
dated a Jewish guy (not for lack of trying, for the record, so much as a
severe case of bad timing). If I never get that question again, it
would be too soon.
I know a lot of converts, and I don’t know a single one that just
picked a denomination at random or converted heterodox because they
didn’t care about Torah or “didn’t understand what Orthodoxy is about”
or any of those kinds of things. Most converts I know agonized over
which denomination to choose, and virtually all would prefer that the
question of denomination was a non-issue. I can say that personally, I
did not choose Conservative Judaism because I’m afraid to keep the
mitzvot or don’t care about them or don’t consider them binding, but
because I could not reconcile my views on the halacha of egalitarianism
with the reality that, in all likelihood, if I pursued an Orthodox
conversion, it would be very difficult for me to affiliate with more
left-wing elements of the Orthodox community (i.e. women’s prayer groups
and/or partnership minyanim) where I would find the most spiritual
resonance and remain reasonably sure that my conversion would continue
to be widely-accepted and that I wouldn’t potentially endanger the
validity of my rabbi’s other conversions.
best piece of advice I can give regarding converts – all converts – is that you should never assume. Don’t
assume that you know why we converted or what our background was before
we were Jewish or why we chose the denomination we did. In fact, don’t
assume that that Jewish person sitting next to you was born that way,
because there’s every possibility that no matter how “FFB” or born
Jewish they seem, they’re actually a ger (or their
parent was). Also, don’t ask people about their status or start grilling
them about who converted them or where or who was on their beit din.
It’s super tacky, for one, none of your business, for another (unless
you’re marrying them, of course) and totally against halacha. Most of us
are happy to talk about our experiences, but on our own terms, not
because some stranger is giving us the third degree at the oneg.
14. What is your favorite and least favorite part of this blog?
favorite part is the openness with which people are generally allowed
to converse here. Anyone who reads my comments regularly knows that I’m
not afraid to be at odds with Ruchi or various parts of the
commentariat, and I’ve never felt censored or anything like that.
least favorite part is a product of the openness that I mentioned
above, which is that I’ve often read things in the comments that strike
me as hurtful, ill-informed, uncharitable or simply ignorant. This has
come out moreso on some topics than others, and I view it as the price
we pay for having an open forum for discussing these issues. I have no
doubt that there are other commenters that view my own comments as any
or all of the above, so it cuts both ways. It does bother me very much
when I read blanket statements about non-Jews (or heterodox Jews) and
what they think, believe or how they behave, for instance, from people
who I suspect have relatively minimal day to day interaction with the
non-Jewish (or heterodox) world.
15. Can you describe your unique profession and how that impacts or interfaces with your Jewish identity?

evidenced by the name, I’m a diplomat, although I pretty much never
refer to myself that way- if someone asks me what I do, I tell them that
I’m a Foreign Service Officer, which is both less insufferable-sounding
and more accurate, since I think “diplomat” conjures up images of
Secretary Clinton brokering international peace treaties, which isn’t
something I do (at least, not this week). I’m a Consular Officer,
meaning that on a day to day basis, I do visa work (adjudicating visas
for people who want to visit or immigrate to the United States) or
American Citizen Services (assisting Americans abroad, either with basic
stuff like lost or replacement passports or more scary stuff like
people who have been arrested or convicted or repatriating the remains
of citizens who have died abroad). I’m currently posted in China, but
will be returning to the U.S. for a while very soon, which is exciting,
since I haven’t been back in two years (!).
Jewish identity has had a huge impact on my life as an FSO – more so than
I expected, actually. The most obvious way is when it comes to bidding.
In the Foreign Service, you “bid” on your job, meaning that you express
preferences about where you would like to go and what kind of work you
would like to do, and people higher up the foodchain than you look at
your preferences (along with everyone else’s) and decide where you’re
headed next. When I bid on my next post, I was adamant that it would be
somewhere with a reasonably-sized Jewish community. I expect that that
will always guide my bidding strategy and, subsequently, my career.
More subtly, I’ve spent a lot of annual leave days on taking off for
Jewish holidays, which can be difficult sometimes. Before I left the
States, I sat down with my rabbi to talk over the halachic implications
of writing a living will and burial instructions in case anything
happened (since my non-Jewish family wouldn’t know what to do in that
regard). I serve in a country with very, very few Jews (relative to the
population size, anyway), so it’s not unusual for me to be the first Jew
someone has met; I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I can
potentially be viewed as a representative for all of Judaism, even if I
don’t intend to come across that way. I was told by a tour guide that I
had literally doubled the Jewish population of Harbin (once one of the
biggest Jewish communities in Asia) when I went there on a weekend trip
with friends. Being the only Jew (or one of a handful of Jews) at a post
means creating my own Jewish community, often of non-Jews. I’m really
lucky that my colleagues are hugely supportive of that as far as things
like being my treif spotters when we go out to eat,
participating if I throw a party for Chanukah or Purim or, on occasion,
listening to me vent about how difficult it can be to be Jewish here.
the bright side, my Jewish geography is pretty fantastic these days as a
result of traveling so much for the bigger holidays (I usually try to
get out of town and go someplace with a bigger community and, if it’s an
option, an egalitarian synagogue). In the last couple of years, I’ve
spent holidays in five different countries and encountered multiple
people who knew my rabbi back in the States or with whom I had one or
two degrees of separation. You realize how small the world is when you
travel a bit, and that especially applies to the Jewish world.
unexpected about my life as an FSO is that without any effort on my
part, I’ve run into multiple other converts to Judaism- of various
denominations. The ones I know are people that I knew first in the
Foreign Service context, and after some conversation, we realized that
we were both converts. It wasn’t something that I expected at all, and
we’ve speculated occasionally on just how that worked out, particularly
as I’m sure there are more of us geirim out there in
Foreign Service land beyond just my circle of acquaintances. It’s a very
unique situation, being a convert in the Foreign Service, but
apparently not as unique as I thought!
is probably also the appropriate place to say that all of my thoughts
here are my own and not representative of the U.S. Government or a
reflection of U.S. Government policy. Why the USG would have any
position on the question of conversion to Judaism, I have no idea, but
just in case, there’s the obligatory disclaimer.