This piece is dedicated to memory of those who lost their lives and to the comforting of their loved ones following the church massacre in Charleston, SC.
Last week, newspaper headlines erupted with articles about Rachel Dolezal, the presumably African-American President of the NAACP of Spokane, Washington, after allegations arose from her alleged parents claiming she was, in fact, not African-American whatsoever. While some of the details of this supposed double-life are still fuzzy, the assumption is now that she self-assigned African-American culture as part of her own race. One of the points of frustration about this story for many is that a caucasian woman took on a race for herself in which she does not belong and she does not share their struggle. A second story on Dolezal revealed that she had once sued Howard University for discriminating against her because she was, as she claims, caucasian. Recently, I was reading some comments on this case and one commenter wrote, “Taking on all of the supposed benefits of a race while disavowing that race’s struggle only perpetuates her white privilege.”
In a recent instance of tragedy, a young caucasian man entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire — killing 9 parishioners. The act is thought to be race-motivated and the alleged assailant is now in custody.
I don’t exactly know why, but these two events seemed to slightly meld in my mind. Part of it began when I read about the Dolezal story. Part of me identified with her story. I am a Jew, but I wasn’t always a Jew. The years leading up to my conversion, most people that came across my path probably assumed that I was a Jew. I looked the part and I certainly acted the part. Still, what separated me from this story is that when someone would ask me, point blank, “Are you a Jew?” I couldn’t claim such. Why? I had not made my vow to throw in my lot with the Jewish people come what may.
I have no idea what would have happened if Rachel Dolezal had happened to be in that church in South Carolina when the murderer walked through the door. I can’t begin to make the assumption that she would suddenly claim not to be African-American to save her own life or not. I can’t speak for her and I will not attempt to, but it did make me think about my own fate in such a situation. Say I was in prayer or study at my neighborhood synagogue and an armed assailant came through the door, walking around, asking people if they were Jews, and martyring those whom answered “yes.” I am not biologically Jewish. I cannot name a single Jewish ancestor. I didn’t enter a synagogue until I was already in my 20s. Still, if that hate-filled individual asked me that question under those circumstances, I would now have to answer “yes” as though I could trace my ancestry back to Mount Sinai.
Many people ask me why Jewish tradition makes it so seemingly difficult to convert. There are a few different answers to that question, some more easily answered than others. The first is that the Torah itself says that one does not need to be Jewish in order to have a relationship with God or even a place in Olam Haba – the World to Come. Another answer is a bit more heavy. When you become a Jew, you’re not simply taking on a new religion, but you’re becoming a part of a specific nation. You’re entering into an ancient covenant and given all of the same rights, privileges and responsibilities of someone who could, in fact, trace their genealogy all the way back to Mount Sinai. Not only this, but according to Torah, once you’re a Jew, you’re always a Jew. Even if you then became a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist, or deny God altogether, you’re still a Jew representing the Jewish people.
When my wife and I converted to Judaism and went before the Beit Din (the House of Judgement, the Jewish judges panel), one of the questions we were asked is if we agreed to throw our own lot in with the Jewish people, whatever that meant. Like waves crashing, what flooded my mind were such events as the Crusades, the Russian pogroms and the Shoa (Holocaust). In all of these instances, converts to Judaism were, for the most part, treated as native-born Jews. In some instances in Nazi Germany, converts to Judaism were even more detested as they were seen as betrayers of their race. I had certainly thought about this before this moment, but when you have a white bearded rabbi staring deep into your eyes, awaiting your response, I felt the entire weight of the question settle on my heart like something was physically pulling it down, but my soul pushed my breath and shaped my vocal cords and lips into saying “I do.”
I still understand that this is much different than a race, but it is still a people. When I fill out official paperwork and it asks me my race, I don’t write down, “Jewish.” But taking on the identity of a people needs to be one of respect and acceptance. It requires that group’s permission, that group’s blessing, and that group’s struggle. This is nothing to ever be taken lightly and I pray no one in such a transition ever does.