By Choice or By Birth

Jewish communities in various places and times have been shaped by the historical circumstances of their existence. The ancient community of Babylonia was influenced by the context of the Zoroastrian and later Muslim empire in which it was situated. Our community in America owes its character to the Protestant democracy where we reside. The societies where Jews live affect us in countless ways we are not even aware of.

In Germany today, a controversy has been brewing that reveals its unique place in world Jewry. This month a cantor in Berlin named Avitall Gerstetter was fired from her synagogue for publishing an opinion piece in the newspaper Die Welt arguing that those who convert to Judaism are a problem for the German Jewish community. Unlike in America where Jews by choice make up a small minority, in some German synagogues they represent up to 80% of the members.

For Gerstetter the problem is two-fold. To her, those who did not grow up in a Jewish milieu approach Judaism as a rational intellectual pursuit which she finds soulless and abstract. She believes that these converts do not feel Judaism in their kishkes, in their hearts and in their very being. They did not grow up around the Shabbat table imbibing the feel and texture of Jewish tradition. Instead, Judaism for them is something to read about in a book or learn in a class.

The second problem for Gerstetter is that many of these Jews by choice obtained what she calls an “indulgence conversion”. In their guilt over German complicity in the Holocaust, these people sought a way to assuage their conscience by converting to Judaism. Rather than having to live life as a descendant of the perpetrators, they can live in the community of the victims.

These concerns of Gerstetter are unique to Germany. I am not aware of another Jewish community where Jews by choice make up such a high percentage of the population. Even in the Abayudaya communities of Uganda, most of the members consider themselves Jews from birth even though rabbis from the American Conservative movement performed large scale conversions a generation ago.

While Gerstetter brings up interesting points, her own community, led by a rabbi who had converted and no doubt populated by many Jews by choice, did not react kindly to her commentary. There is no doubt that a synagogue where a significant majority of members have converted would have a distinct character, but I do not agree that this negative. Some of my colleagues in rabbinical school had converted, and I remember having a conversation with one woman who remarked that she never had the experience of hating Hebrew school. My response was that this was a good thing since she was not burdened with some of the baggage experienced by Jews by birth.

Gerstetter’s opinions on “indulgence conversions” are difficult for me to comment on since I have not spent any significant time in the German Jewish community. If she is correct in the motivation of some converts, is the implication that they will subvert Judaism from the inside because their intentions are problematic? Does it really matter why someone joins the Jewish people as long as they contribute positively and find meaning in the tradition? In America a generation ago, many looked negatively on those who chose to convert to Judaism for marriage, but one doesn’t hear that criticism much today. We have come to accept that motivations are complicated, but the Jewish population is small. We need as many people as we can to join us.

One respondent pointed out that Gerstetter’s concerns may be overblown. After all, the Jewish world has always been diverse. The German Jewish community today consists of a few different groups: the largest are Jews from the former Soviet Union, followed by a smaller group of pre-World War II German Jews of Polish origin, along with the Jews by choice. Each of these populations has their own history, needs, and concerns and there is no reason they cannot get along even if they mostly keep to themselves. It’s been the Jewish way for millennia.

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