I’m a rabbi. And I’m a convert. And I don’t help people convert to Judaism.
Here’s the story. Please read it before making comments.
After I converted to Judaism, I pretty quickly started doing this PunkTorah stuff. It was a way for myself and others to vent about Jewish spirituality in a way that was relevant to us. And soon after that, I woke up to discover that PunkTorah was not a blog, but a non-profit and my full time job. Then all of a sudden…oops…I had just graduated from rabbinical school. I wasn’t the disgruntled touring musician who blogged about Judaism as a hobby…I was the retired musician who became a rabbi.
I figured life would be same as usual, albeit a little busier. Boy, was I wrong.
It all started to bite me on the you-know-what, because I was receiving emails from people who wanted me to help them convert to Judaism.
I was used to this, in a certain kind of way. The emails we have been getting since early 2009 were from people who wanted to convert, and were grateful that a convert with tattoos was talking about Judaism “like a rabbi or something” and that our online community included the Jew-Curious online synagogue OneShul.org.
It was obvious to many folks that I would start doing conversions. I’m the convert rabbi, for goodness sakes! For all the time I spent griping in the early days about how I felt like an outsider, the least I could do is push aside the gatekeepers of Judaism and start making people’s dreams a reality.
But I don’t. And it makes me feel like a stooge, because I get at least twenty emails a week from people who want my help, and I simply don’t give it to them.
The reasons are as follows:
I am a post-denominational rabbi. I graduated from two programs that are outside of mainstream progressive and Orthodox Judaism. Now, this doesn’t bother me or anyone else in my community, but it certainly bothers some rabbis. Their concerns are not intentionally misplaced: there is a belief among some people that if you are outside of the Big Three Movements that you are a threat, not to the “establishment”, but to the Jewish community. The fear of rabbis who didn’t go the traditional academic route is that we don’t know what we are doing, and that we can become cult like figures who lead vulnerable people astray. Now, I’m pretty sure I’m none of those things, but if I was to do a conversion for someone and they got flack from a movemental rabbi over it, I’d be heartbroken. The only exception are a core of rabbis here in Atlanta that I know incredibly well and have said otherwise.
People float in and out of Jewish communities. There are plenty of folks who start their Jewish journey with PunkTorah, then wind up somewhere else. That’s OK. People do that all the time. But if I do a conversion for someone who is convinced they’ll never leave the OneShul bubble, only to apply for membership to a Conservative synagogue six months later and be told “you need to convert first”, then I have put that person in a terrible position.
Another huge issue is cost. If I perform a traditional conversion according to a minimum standard of halacha, then I need a mohel or urologist to perform a circumcision/hatafat bam brit. I also need a mikvah and a bet din, meaning I have to find two other people, ideally rabbis, who want to sit on that bet din. Rabbis and doctors are incredibly busy people, and at least in the case of a doctor, he/she costs money. Then there’s the issue of distance. I’m honored to help someone across the country convert to Judaism, but who pays for the plane ticket? And do we really want to get into the business of having to charge people to convert to a religion?
And lastly, helping people through the process of conversion takes a lot of time. That’s time away from fundraising, working on our websites, publishing ebooks, doing speaking engagements to raise awareness of our community, and all the other things that go into being the director of PunkTorah. How do I balance that? What are you, as a community, willing to give up in order for me to help others? And what are you willing to do that I am doing now, so that I can add that to our workload?
I don’t perform conversions, but I do the next best thing: I try to encourage people to visit rabbis who do online conversions.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not doing my job. I’d love to know your thoughts.
EDITED NOTE: I have been a rabbi for 90 days, so in no way is this a long standing policy. My goal is to have more of a dialogue about what you as the PunkTorah/OneShul community want…not for me to “tell you” how it’s gonna be. I work for you. You’re the boss.
SECOND EDITED NOTE: I’m about to get off the computer to go to shul, but I wanna point out something interesting. As of 530PM EDT, there are 14 comments, and every one of them deals with “validity” in conversion. You know what no one has talked about? The financial aspect….my reason #3. Thoughts?????
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