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Are You a Jew by Choice? We Welcome You!
I've stopped counting.
I've just lost count of how many synagogue presidents I have worked with who are Jews by choice.
No, not everyone who converts to Judaism takes on the extraordinary responsibility of leading a congregation. But it is remarkable the degree to which the Jewish community, and Jewish life in its entirety, has been strengthened by those who chose to cast their lot with the Jewish people.
It might be said that, in our open society, all Jews are Jews by choice. That is, any Jew is a Jew because s/he wants to be. It didn't use to be that way. Social boundaries were rigid, and Jews were often regarded as "other," whether they wanted to be or not.
It is a blessing that we do not live in that kind of world any more. Yet, the choice of hundreds of thousands of people to choose to be Jewish is something that centuries of Jews could never have imagined.
Indeed, one or two generations ago, converts to Judaism were relatively rare. They certainly did not get the kind of welcome and acceptance that the Jewish community should have extended to them. Jewish tradition honors those who convert to Judaism, and considers them as fully Jewish as one born into the faith. But that doesn't mean that we always behaved that way.
Thankfully, things have changed. Maybe not everywhere, and not among all Jews. But the reality is impossible to deny. Where would we be if not for those who chose to be Jewish? They are our leaders, our partners in life, our readers of Torah and our teachers. They transmit Judaism to the next generation as their own precious heritage.
Judaism has an irreconcilable tension with regard to recognizing the convert. One is prohibited from reminding the convert that s/he once wasn't a Jew. At the same time, we are taught to honor converts. The Midrash teaches: "Dearer to God is the convert who has come of his/her own accord than all the crowds of Israelites who stood before Mount Sinai." A Jew by choice is given the honorary lineage of ben/bat Avraham v'Sarah, the son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah. You can't get more authentic than that.
No one should imagine that the journey into Judaism is easy. I realize that the challenges can appear unannounced and at awkward moments.
As a congregation, though, it is incumbent upon us to say the same words as every Jew by choice: Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.