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?
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.