Who are some famous Jewish converts

Conversion to JudaismWhen Martin becomes Moshe

Anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish. This is what the Halacha, the Jewish religious law, says. But the law also says that you can become Jewish - by converting to Judaism, a so-called Gijur.

Even the rabbis of antiquity knew the phenomenon that members of other religions wanted to become Jews. Around 1500 years ago they laid down how to deal with it - in the Talmud, one of the most important written works of Judaism.

"When a potential convert comes to a Jewish court, a Bejt Din, and wants to convert, we say to him: 'What did you recognize that caused you to convert to Judaism? Don't you know that the Jewish people are tormented, being depressed and harassed? ' If he replies, "I know and I am not worthy of joining them," then we admit him immediately and we teach him some easy and some difficult commandments, we circumcise him, and when he recovers from his circumcision then we submerge him in the mikveh, the ritual bath. And when he is completely submerged and comes out of the mikveh, he will be treated like a Jew in every way. "

Judaism does not proselytize

No one is accepted immediately, as recommended in the Talmud, today. The admission criteria are extremely strict. Those who want to transgress must undergo a thorough examination before a three-person rabbinical court. Before that, the candidate must study for years. He has to adapt his own life to the Jewish tradition, observe the dietary laws and keep the Shabbat. And he has to learn at least enough Hebrew to be able to follow the prayer.

Several thousand people around the world convert to Judaism every year. They do it of their own free will, because Judaism does not proselytize. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Judaism is not looking for converts. Everyone should decide for themselves, says Rabbi Avichai Apel. The native Israeli officiates in Dortmund and has been on the board of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference in Germany for many years.

"There is the possibility of converting to Judaism. But it is not our wish to go to someone, to say: Come be a Jew! If I was born a Jew, then I have the duty to live as a Jew, Judaism and to live according to Judaism. If I was not born a Jew, I have the free will to decide how I want to organize my life. If I am baptized or am born a Muslim, I can stay wherever I was born. "

Nevertheless, people have wanted to become Jews for thousands of years. They are leaving their people and their religion. The Bible already knows the conversion: Jitro, the father-in-law of Moses, does it. Or the Moabite Ruth, to whom the Bible has dedicated an entire book. Ruth came from a people who were not well respected by the Israelites. But after the death of her Israelite husband, she leaves her home to go to the Land of Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi.

First to the psychologist

It is difficult to leave the spiritual home into which one was born and to settle into a foreign religion and culture, yes, into a foreign people. That requires stamina - and psychological stability. With the change of religion comes a comprehensive change of the whole personality. Not everyone can endure something like this. Some rabbis therefore require a medical certificate before the conversion process begins.

"My duty as a rabbi is to first reject the person who converts and to say: No, you don't need that! Also personally, when I meet someone who wants to convert to Judaism, I first send them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist and ask him: Bring me a certificate of your stability, of your soul! "

"More Freedom in Judaism"

What prompts people to take the difficult road to Judaism? What are the reasons they want to convert? Most of them take this step out of the firm conviction that Judaism is the right path for them, however difficult it may be. They are people who in their previous religion - or in atheism - have not found any answers to their questions about life and what comes afterwards. Some find their way to conversion through studying. Just like Noa Lerner.

She grew up near Düsseldorf in the 1970s and was raised Catholic. Today she is 50 and lives in Berlin as a Jew. Fifteen years ago, she says, she converted to Judaism for theological reasons.

"Well, my motivation was actually, really, theological in the broadest sense. In my studies I learned a lot about Judaism, and that fascinated me very much. And at a certain point I grew more fond of it than my Catholic socialization I have the feeling that I find more spiritual and intellectual freedom in Judaism. And that convinced me, that attracted me, that attracted me. "

Many converts are looking for a new beginning

Not all convert for religious reasons. Some want to convert because they have a Jewish father but no Jewish mother and are therefore not recognized as Jews in the communities. Also, there are people who want to convert because they have a Jewish partner.

The Potsdam historian Barbara Steiner has dealt with the subject of "conversion" for years. She sees yet another reason why people are approaching Judaism. A reason that, in her opinion, is often underestimated.

"They have experienced a biographical crisis, in this crisis they come into contact with Judaism. This form of conversion as required by Judaism, this complete realignment of life, a reinterpretation of biography, to really break away from everything old - that is something that is very interesting for people in a crisis. They can then start over, it's like a clear cut. "

Steiner criticizes that rabbis do not pay enough attention to this point. Steiner says that anyone who has discovered Judaism as the solution to their problems knows exactly what to tell the rabbi in order to be allowed to convert.

"So of course the rabbis prefer converts who call on them for religious reasons and say, I want to become a Jew, because I want to be a monotheist, because I think the Halacha is great, because I want to keep more mitzvot, i.e. Jewish commandments, which I, as a non-Jew, cannot take into account. There are some things that could justify a conversion from a religious perspective. I believe that what is actually behind the desire to convert is overlooked. "

Steiner noticed that in the 1950s to 1970s a number of Germans converted to Judaism whose parents were National Socialists. By converting, these people tried to distance themselves from their parents' home. It bothered them to live in this culpable context. And so they saw in converting to Judaism a possibility to step out of this environment, even entanglement. Steiner believes that some people in Germany still convert to Judaism for a similar reason - even if their parents and grandparents were not Nazis themselves.

"And of course, when you deal with Judaism and a more or less pronounced philo-Semitic attitude, at some point you will want to convert."

The American psychologist William James pointed out more than 100 years ago that there is a connection between crisis, psychological stress and religious conversion. James then sees the transition as a possible strategy for overcoming this crisis.

"Rebirth, religious experience, attainment of certainty: These are various expressions used to describe the gradual or sudden process by which a previously divided and feeling bad, inferior and unhappy self attains its wholeness and now, based more strongly on religious realities, becomes good feels superior and happy. "

When Germans convert - the conflict on Holocaust Remembrance Day

But it is tricky when Germans convert to Judaism because they believe that they will be able to cope with the past. There are days in the year when many converts feel thrown back on their German, non-Jewish past. Especially when one commemorates the victims of the Holocaust in Jewish communities, the murdered relatives - yes, especially then those converts who did not become Jews for religious reasons, but because they wanted to exonerate themselves have a hard time. Some then feel painfully that it is obviously not possible to leave the German past behind.

"On the Holocaust Remembrance Day they have a very difficult confrontation with themselves. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Purim - all Jewish holidays are clear and precise, everything is okay. because they want to forget the past, converted to Judaism, and they should sit with all of us now, and we talk about our families, about grandpas, grandmas, great-grandparents, great-grandmas who have been murdered. And we talk about the perpetrators. We talk about the Germans. The Nazis. And we're trying to learn a lesson. And someone like that is sitting there. I notice immediately how he torments himself. Either to justify himself immediately and say: I don't belong anymore, I am Become a Jew. Or how it hurts him when he thinks: What did my ancestors do? "

Rabbi Avichai Apel recommends converts to understand that they are joining a community that has been marked by suffering and persecution. A community in which the Shoah, the Holocaust, is present and for many an important part of their identity. Conversion is a very emotional issue in the Jewish communities.

The distance between born Jews and converts

Some parishioners who were born Jews encounter converts with a certain distance. For some converts, this is difficult to bear. It then happens that they hide or even hide their non-Jewish origins. They pretend to be Jews from birth. Noa Lerner, the Berlin convert, thinks this is a bad idea.

"First of all, I think: That doesn't work. And as much as I am annoyed by 'You are not allowed to say anything, because you are only 42 or 10 or 15 years Jewish', I also find it legitimate that born Jews have a tiny one The remainder of the distance to us converts. And I always try to put myself in the shoes of these people, and I can understand that very well. I can very well understand that this remainder of the distance remains - although I see it as a mistrust very rude find."

Reminding a convert of his non-Jewish origin is expressly forbidden. One should not offend or oppress him, wrote the ancient rabbis. That they have had to emphasize it over and over again over the centuries suggests that the exhortation was necessary. Apparently, quite a number of born Jews did not adhere to it before. Rabbi Mosche ben Maimon, the Rambam, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, wrote in the 12th century:

"Anyone who loves a convert fulfills two commandments: On the one hand, the Torah expressly emphasizes: 'Love the converts!' On the other hand, the commandment to love converts is similar to the commandment to love God, because it says in the Torah: 'Love the Eternal, your God!' And it says: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, loves the convert.' "

Significant converts

Many converts have enriched Judaism throughout history. Quite a few well-known rabbis or their ancestors were converts themselves. The father of Rabbi Akiba, for example, one of the most important representatives of rabbinic Judaism from the first century of our era. Or the famous Torah translator Ónkelos, the prophet Ovádja or Rabbi Me’ir, one of the authors of the Mishnah, the first larger version of the oral Torah. Tradition-loyal Jews pray every day that God may also be merciful to the converts:

"On the pious and consecrated and the ancients of your people, the house of Israel, and on the strangers who turn to you out of piety, and on us may your mercy be stirred, Eternal, our God!"

How can you make meat out of fish?

Nevertheless, converts in the Jewish communities are not always welcomed with open arms, even if acceptance has increased somewhat in recent years. Most of the community members in Germany are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There, Judaism was more a question of ethnic than religious affiliation. Some immigrants therefore find it difficult to even consider converts as Jews. You are wondering: How can you make meat out of fish?

Another problem that concerns many converts is the fact that Orthodox rabbis do not recognize as Jews those who convert before a liberal rabbinical court. Sometimes, according to the allegation, it is their own fault if they did not feel accepted in the congregations. Because many converts know better about the Jewish religion than most born Jews. To convert, they had to study for years. Because they made a conscious choice to become Jewish, they are often more committed than born Jews. Overzealousness or know-it-alls sometimes lead to conflicts in the communities.

"I try to hold back on certain questions. When liturgical matters are discussed, I believe I have never commented on them. I have tried to get involved, as far as I wanted, as far as it was allowed. I tried in places To make contributions, but keep in mind again and again: How does it affect someone with a different family history? "

Questions in the circle of friends and in the family

It is not only in the congregations that converts encounter acceptance problems. When Martin suddenly becomes a mosque, it also raises questions among friends and family of origin. Everything depends on which attitudes towards Judaism dominate in the family, says the historian Steiner.

"But if they actually come from a fundamentally Christian family or a family that is somehow rather hostile to Judaism, then of course things get tight. Then there are conflicts. It is not easy to endure that. And it is not easy for the families either to negotiate and then find a way to integrate the family member who wants to reorient themselves as a Jew. "

Noa Lerner was lucky. Her parents reacted sympathetically to the decision to convert to Judaism. To this day she is grateful to them for that.

"They asked me why I was doing this, at the beginning. I had long conversations with them about it. And then they said: Fine, if it's your decision. It's not our way. But if you think you can should do - okay, do! "

Committed converts

Today converts are an indispensable part of the Jewish communities in Germany. Many are very committed, and some have even made it to the top of the community. The fact that a convert takes on a leading role is not without controversy among born Jews. Many would like it if those who had converted would hold back a little in the communities - at least in the first few years. Avichai Apel, the Orthodox rabbi, also advocates this.

"A person who has converted, who has managed this process, often has strong qualities. He has achieved something that other people have not. Sometimes this person wants to join the government immediately, to be the board of directors. We say: With patience! First you have to experience Judaism. First you have to experience the mentality. You cannot start from the top right away. But I have to say one thing: there are those who have converted who have taken over the office of government in the community - there are also rabbis who converted - and who brought a lot of good to Judaism. "

Reform rabbi Leo Baeck also believed that converts bring good to Judaism. In 1949, four years after the Holocaust, when Judaism was in ruins, he said at a meeting of the World Association of Progressive Judaism in London:

"Shouldn't we start all over again? Shouldn't we send missionaries to Asia, the Far East and other countries to meet the people who are waiting for us? We need this increase - for our own sake."

Leo Baeck, the big old man from Berlin who had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp, was almost the only one who spoke impartially of the Jewish mission. His appeal faded. Judaism still sees itself as a religion that does not proselytize and does not seek converts.