What I Learned as a Member of a Beit Din
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to serve on a beit din, a panel of two Jewishly knowledgeable witnesses and a rabbi tasked with overseeing the conversion of a person in our congregation. Our task was to determine if the person had undertaken adequate preparation to become a Jew, was doing so of her own free will and desire, and if she knew what to expect living as a Jew.
Although the beit din is a formal panel – with mandatory questions to ask and signatures to affix – it is also an opportunity to question and hear from the person who is converting.
The experience was a learning opportunity for me in two ways.
First, I found it refreshing to listen to the viewpoint and opinions of this new Jew-by-choice about why she wanted to become Jewish: not because her spouse was Jewish, or because she wanted the in-laws to like her, but because of her love of Jewish history and Jewish living. It was enlightening to hear of someone’s desire to be Jewish for all the ways it would add to life and the opportunities it would provide. The education flowed both ways that day, and I left the conversion on a spiritual high.
My second learning opportunity came during the drive home from the mikveh (ritual bath used for conversion and other occasions) with Rabbi Batsheva Meiri, as we discussed celebrating a conversion publically. Is it a mitzvah, we wondered, to share the occasion, or is it something to keep private? A Conservative rabbi once taught me that doing anything to remind converts of their non-Jewish beginnings embarrasses them in front of other Jews (Bava Metzia 58b), so not mentioning the conversion protects them from persecution.
Having heard ill-informed people make comments such as “Jews-by-choice are not as Jewish as Jews-by-birth,” that explanation always made sense to me. But would keeping one’s conversion secret be any different than hiding one's faith because of the fear of persecution by non-Jews? Wouldn’t we aspire to stand up with pride – as individuals and as a community – and declare our faith without fear? And, by not mentioning it, or failing to celebrate it, aren’t we depriving new Jews the privilege of sharing their pride and enthusiasm at one of the most important moments in their lives?
The rabbi explained to me that it’s not unusual to hold a ceremony in the sanctuary in which a Jew-by-choice is given a Hebrew name and symbolically receives the Torah. In addition to positive recognition for Jews-by-choice within the community, it’s inspiring for Jews-by-birth to see people fall in love with and freely take on their heritage and tradition.
Three distinct thoughts will stay with me as a result of this experience:
- I am glad that those who wish to express publicly their pride in becoming Jewish, or the thought process behind the process, are able to celebrate their simcha (joyous occasion) in this way.
- I am grateful for the choices Reform Judaism affords us, and for liberal and open minded thinking regarding Jewish practice.
- I am reminded that a Jew is a Jew, and whether by birth or conversion, there is no difference between the two. As a proud Jew, I am puzzled that people who have chosen Judaism should ever feel embarrassed about acknowledging – among Jews or non-Jews – the amazing and important decision they have made.
Lorne Basskin, a member of Congregation Beth HaTephila in Asheville, NC, is the congregation’s ritual chair.