Throughout choosing a Jewish Life, the terms “Jew-by-choice” and “convert” are used interchangeably. Nobody likes either term very much. As one Jew-by-choice put it, “The word ‘convert’ always makes me think of a currency exchange.” And while “Jew-by-choice” implies a more active stance, it’s still a clumsy locution.
In the Bible and in classical Jewish writings, the word for “convert” is ger, a word that can also mean “stranger” or “sojourner.” “Proselyte” comesfrom the Greek translation of ger, and while its derivation is actually quite nice (from the word proselytos, “one who has arrived”), it sounds hopelessly quaint.
Some people object to any term that singles out converts as a separate category of Jews. Certainly, anyone who chooses Judaism is fully a Jew. Rabbinic tradition forbade making an issue or even mention of any convert’s origin for fear that born-Jews would lord it over those who began life as pagans. Today, however, “convert,” “Jew-by-choice,” ger, and “proselyte” are anything but insults.
As a Jew-by-choice, you inherit four thousand years of Jewish history, which is not just an academic or esoteric pursuit but a living presence. Self-conscious echoes of the Jewish past—from ancient Palestine, medieval Spain, and nineteenth-century Poland—suffuse contemporary Jewish prayer, study, and even the rhythm of the year.
The Jewish calendar is studded with holidays that recall and, at Passover especially, reenact the past. The sanctification of history is an ongoing process for Jews, which is why, in 1951, the observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) became a permanent memorial to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
“A people’s memory is its history,” wrote Yiddish author Isaac Leib Peretz, “and like a person without a memory, so a people without a history cannot grow wiser or better.” Finding your place within Jewish history is a way to find roots as a Jew and to imagine yourself into the future of the Jewish people.
All of Jewish history is the heritage of every Jew, but just as Jews from Brooklyn seek out and swap stories from the old neighborhood, just as Jewish physicians are intrigued by the medical career of the twelfth-century physician-philosopher Moses Maimonides, the history of conversion to Judaism is uniquely yours. Everyone who converted before you is, in a sense, your spiritual ancestor.
The continuous presence of converts through Jewish history is not widely known. it is a “counterhistory,” a largely undocumented but essential strand of life, like Jewish women’s history, which rarely surfaces in the official chronicles of exiles and rabbis.
The history of conversion is, however, present in every retelling of the Jewish past. It can be traced through rabbinical writings on how and why proselytes are to be accepted. it is documented in the names of those who are remembered as converts; and it is evident in the physical and racial diversity of the Jewish people.
Actually, Jews-by-choice bear an obvious and an intimate connection to the very beginning of Jewish history in their names. When you become a Jew, you will be asked to choose a Hebrew name, but you will also automatically “inherit” the names of the father and mother of the entire Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah—neither of whom was born to Jewish parents either.
Like virtually all other aspects of Judaism, conversion has changed over the past four thousand years: from simple assimilation into Israelite culture, to a short-lived period of active and successful proselytizing, to centuries when converts posed a mortal danger to Jewish communities and were suspected and even feared. The contemporary welcome for converts represents both a new chapter in Jewish history and a return to the very beginning of Jewishness, to Abraham and Sarah and the souls who accompanied them, leaving the world of their parents to make history.
No one really knows how many people are converting to Judaism today, but the numbers are more significant than they have been for nearly two thousand years. Jews-by-choice are literally changing the face of American Jewry. The Jewish community has been caught by surprise at this infusion of new energy and commitment, and is sometimes unprepared to greet converts with the information and welcome they need and deserve.
Choosing a Jewish Life was written to help fill that gap and to make your experience of conversion as meaningful and joyful as possible by providing information, resources, suggestions, and, above all, welcome.
In the daily worship liturgy, the series of ancient Hebrew prayers called the Amidah prayer asks God to bestow “tender mercies” on the people of Israel.
The Amidah singles out certain groups for God’s special attention: these include the pious, the elders, and righteous proselytes.