- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

The day after for converts

Helping them integrate into Israeli life is the big “day after” challenge. “Ohev Ger” is there to help.

Published in The Jerusalem Post [1], June 14, 2024; and Israel Hayom [2], June 16, 2024. Print-friendly copy [3]

Rav Menachem Weinberg, founder of “Ohev Ger” (second from left) with teachers and students at the Nativ conversion college.

Because the biblical Book of Ruth tells a story of kindness and commitment that marks Ruth’s decision to join the Jewish People, and the book is read ritually on Shavuot, every newspaper in this country on the holiday eve tells a few beautiful stories of modern converts to Judaism. Once a year, converts get a few moments of attention.

And then everybody forgets about them for the rest of the year.

Very few people lift a finger to assist converts beyond their day in beit din (i.e., after they are formally converted through a rabbinical court). This column, timed specifically for the “day after” Shavuot, is meant to redress this lacuna.

Understand: Converting to Judaism requires not only a change of lifestyle and belief system, but often entails replacing country, language, livelihood, community, and even family ties. Many individuals who have dedicated themselves to joining the Jewish People find themselves alone. They need and deserve support to meet untold challenges which devolve from their monumental conversion undertaking.

Most of the fine organizations that deal with conversion are focused on the conversion process itself – on teaching Jewish knowledge and testing the converts’ commitment. Some groups advocate for halachic or systemic change to the often impersonal and rigid Rabbinate conversion mechanism.

But care for the individual convert’s personal and communal needs after conversion is often sorely lacking. Due to the centralized conversion system in Israel many converts are not naturally streamed into specific communities. And even when they are, prejudice and suspicion abound, adding to the difficulties commonly experienced by ‘outsiders.’

These difficulties include language and cultural barriers that make it hard to join social circles, tap into communal resources, and create connections (– to benefit from protektzia, which is so important for getting ahead in Israel).

TWO YEARS AGO, a new non-profit organization was founded to care for converts on the “day after” conversion, to promote their success and smooth their integration in Israel. It is called Ohev Ger [4], Love thy Convert.

The agency was established by my esteemed brother, Rabbi (Rav) Menachem Weinberg, who has taught converts from around the world (even from Africa and China) – giving him a unique perspective on the needs of gerim.

Underlying Ohev Ger’s activity is the fundamental understanding that conversion is not the end of a process but rather the is beginning of a new life path, which requires familial and communal anchors to buttress dedication to Jewish life.

Ohev Ger programs include a network of volunteers who help integrate converts into communities and families; social programming for young converts; and professional social worker support for converts, which can include financial aid, rental subsidies, scholarships, employment and housing assistance, advocacy and legal services, and other counselling.

After October 7, the organization established a new program called Magen LaGer to provide convert soldiers and their families with support, emergency rental assistance for evacuees, and guidance on keeping halacha in wartime. It also has partnered with the Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school network to organize and pay for the weddings of converts.

Ohev Ger also has launched an incentive program for marriage matchmakers (shadchanim) to prioritize matchmaking for converts. This is particularly needed because there is stigma, prejudice, and suspicion in all sub-sectors of Israeli society regarding marriage to converts.

The organization is now attempting to establish a lobby in Knesset for promoting integration of converts in Israeli society, and an annual conference honoring converts for their dedication to Judaism and their contributions to Israel.

It also plans to offer scholarships for conversion course graduates to pursue continuing Jewish studies, and to launch a digital platform where converts can obtain swift answers to questions about Jewish life and customs.

Rav Menachem: “Ohev Ger is working with directors and teachers in the conversion colleges, with leaders of the Conversion Authority, with rabbinical court judges, with local community rabbis, and with many converts themselves, to enhance the ability of converts of all backgrounds to live proudly as committed Jews in Israeli society. It is our moral responsibility, historic opportunity, and mitzvah obligation to imitate God – who ‘loves the convert’ (ohev ger) – by supporting these unique individuals and attentively addressing their needs.”

“Mostly, we must fund this ourselves, because the relevant government offices, from social to religious affairs and a half dozen others, have no budgets dedicated to assisting converts – even though caring for converts is a commandment mentioned 36 times in the Torah! Unbelievably, there are government funds for building mikvaot (ritual baths) and eiruvin (Sabbath perimeter fences) but none for assisting geirim (converts).”

‘Mainstream’ Jews and ‘veteran’ Israelis can get involved by volunteering their professional and social services, becoming an Ohev Ger community coordinator, and donating funds to the cause.

I BELIEVE IT a privilege to live in an era with an unprecedented number of sincere converts. Every year, an average of 3,000 amazing gerei tzedek (righteous converts) from all over the world join the Jewish People in Israel through Israeli conversion courts (civilian and military). This amounts to approximately 50,000 converts over the last 15 years! About 40% of these converts are Ethiopian immigrants, 25% are from the former Soviet Union, 15% are Israeli-born, and the rest are from various countries.

Many of these converts have studied towards conversion at Israel’s National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion (now known as the “Nativ” civilian and military conversion programs), an organization that was founded on the basis of the Neeman Committee and is run by the Prime Minister’s Office and Jewish Agency for Israel. The valiant Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha College of Jerusalem spearheaded this center from its opening in 1999 until his very recent retirement.

This is the place to salute Prof. Ish-Shalom for his pioneering vision, wise leadership, and unstinting commitment. For 35 years, he ran the largest Jewish educational venture in the world, navigating carefully through minefields of denominational politics and government bureaucracy, and triumphing over abundant apathy.