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Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

So I did my TV show yesterday. I used to drag cameras out to events and film them so I could show those instead of my awkward self, but my self has gotten a lot less awkward in front of the camera and I’ve changed how I do things. The last few shows, I’ve just gathered people in studio and had a discussion on some topic or another.

The obvious topic this time was funding of religious schools. My guests were like the start of a bad joke – a Jew,  a Christian and a Muslim walk into a TV station … But they were great – articulate, well-informed and smart. I particularly liked the Muslim woman. She’s a very outspoken and involved woman and I was surprised, when I met her, to see that she was a tiny and very young-looking. (I wonder how many men underestimate her based on that?) Anyway, she brought her outrageously cute young son and I brought my three, and we abandoned them in the Green room with construction paper, markers and orders to behave. I wasn’t really worried – Maya is very responsible. Turns out they were all having so much fun that the little guy didn’t want to leave at the end since mine were staying while I taped my introduction.

I brought up the various arguments against funding religious schools. These were the responses:

1. It will take money away from public school.

Schools are funded based on how many students are enrolled. Just because another school is now also getting money doesn’t mean that first school will receive any less. No money will leave the system. Yes, they will have to put more money into the school system to pay for the extra students, but since we are talking about only an extra 53,000 kids (this is a very, very small percentage of Ontario students), it isn’t going to break the bank. And, as one guest pointed out, if all the parents sending their kids to religious day schools suddenly decided to pull them and put them in public school, as is their right, the government would have to find the money, and would.

2. Religious day schools are against Ontario’s values of multi-culturalism and those students will grow up less tolerant of others.

This one is just silly. The Muslim guest was a former principal of an Islamic school and pointed out that her students graduated with a strong sense of their own identity and self-esteem, and were more likely to comfortably integrate into society (which they’ve obviously been doing all along, with soccer, and neighbours, and inter-school tournaments). Providing a child with a strong sense of who he or she is does not make them less likely to be an involved citizen.

3. Tons of kids would leave the public system for religious schools, taking even more money out and segregating kids more.

Other provinces that already fund religious schools (Newfoundland, Quebec) have not found this to be the case. The numbers don’t change much. And my Christian guest pointed out what a sad argument this is – basically ‘the public system sucks so much that if you give people any option, they’ll leave.’

4. The Muslim schools will become terrorist breeding grounds funded by public money. Again, my Muslim guest answered this well. Firstly, she pointed out that the schools already exist and no one has a problem with how they are teaching their students, so why would that change with public funding? And secondly, as it stands, the schools have standards enforced by the parents, who expect a good education for their children, but they do not have to keep up to provincial standards – and with lack of funds, some of the smaller schools struggle to do so. By providing provincial funding, all these schools will be brought under the government umbrella and forced to keep to provincial standards. The extra scrutiny means the chances of anyone teaching hate or intolerance is less likely, not more.

So, it was a good, in-depth discussion. Too bad more people won’t see it.

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Okay, I don’t have all the answers, but this is a column I wrote for the Jewish newspaper, for which I did journalisty things like research and interview people, so it is my take on things. The most difficult part of it was keeping my own experiences out of it, so maybe I’ll write those up tomorrow (or the next day …)

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In some ways, it is difficult to discern how the broader Jewish community views those who have converted to Judaism. Of course, there is the ‘official’ line, but finding out what people really think can be more difficult. It seems that the best way to find that out is to ask the Jews by choice themselves how they feel they have been welcomed in their chosen religion.

Both the Torah and Talmud instruct that once someone has converted, they are as Jewish as any other, to the point that their conversions are considered irrelevant and not to be referred to. They are not ‘converts,’ but merely ‘Jews.’ But Jewish experiences in the diaspora before the last few decades made Jews very suspicious of those wanting to join them, and there is some evidence that the suspicion hasn’t completely disappeared.

It doesn’t help that Judaism is more than just a religion, but a culture, even an ethnicity. Some – both those converting and born Jewish – question the possibility of successfully joining someone else’s culture.

Add to that the controversy over who does the conversion, that the Orthodox movement does not accept conversions performed by those of other movements, and the question of acceptance is of real concern.

Every Jew by choice interviewed for this article remembers facing negative comments about those who have converted. Ironically, these almost always came from people who did not realize that they were speaking to a convert. Many Jews by choice find it easy to dismiss such remarks, and the people who make them.

Michael Walsh, a Jew by choice whose volunteer work in development in the Jewish community brings him in contact with a wide variety of people, says he has always felt completely welcomed and accepted. He has heard the occasionally disparaging remark, he admits, but says, “The key is to not be sensitive to stupid comments. They don’t represent the wider community.”

He also points out: “It is a glass-half-full kind of thing. You will find what you are looking for.” He explains that he believes those expecting acceptance are more likely to find it.

Another Jew by choice, Wayne Moore, said something similar. He feels you get out of life what you put in, and someone who converts with sincerity and immerses themselves in the community will be fully welcomed.

About the occasional unpleasant comment, Moore says, “No one else’s reactions really matter. I did this for myself. I have a supportive wife and extended family and they are the ones who matter.” That being said, he feels completely accepted by the Ottawa Jewish community. “I have always found it very warm and welcoming.”

While Walsh and Moore haven’t found that their decisions to convert for their Jewish families has made their acceptance any more complicated, Christine Kessler admits she sometimes feels judged by those who think she converted to marry her husband, Gary, a born Jew. She finds this a bit frustrating, especially as she had decided to convert whether she married Gary or not.

The mere fact that Kessler and some others who converted before marriage feel the need to point out that they would have ended up Jewish anyway demonstrates that there is still some stigma around converting ‘just to get married.’ Another Jew by choice, who we’ll call Sara, as she declined to be named for this article, describes her deep frustration and hurt at being asked a number of times if she’d stay Jewish should her husband leave her or die.

“It shows they don’t consider me really Jewish,” she said, “Like I’m just playing at it for my husband.”

Sara was not the only convert who not willing to be named. Their opinion was that while they weren’t ashamed of it and would tell people if they asked, it just isn’t anyone’s business and they see no reason to advertise it.

Sara says the worst comments are the unintentional ones, such as when she told a good friend a Jewish joke. “It was self-deprecating, as they tend to be, the sort that might be considered anti-Semitic if someone Jewish wasn’t saying it, and he said that it made him uncomfortable to hear it from me, since I hadn’t always been Jewish. It made me realize that even though I sometimes even forget I haven’t been born Jewish no one else does, and that really hurt.”

It is possible that those who convert for faith alone rather than to marry someone Jewish manage to avoid some of these feelings of being judged. David M. is a good example. He says he has never felt any negative judgment about having converted, although he does admit that, upon finding out he did it just on his own, people do tend to ask, “What, are you nuts?”

“They are always joking, though,” he adds. “I do think that not converting for marriage does add to the perception of my sincerity, since I came to it completely on my own. Which is not a fair judgment about people who convert to marry, of course.”

Interestingly, the most obvious source of potential rejection – converting under a non-Orthodox rabbi – had little effect on the non-Orthodox Jews by choice who were interviewed for this article. While some kept within their own smaller Reform community, others are fully involved in the wider community and have found the rabbis of Ottawa to be completely welcoming.

While obviously Orthodox rabbis do not consider these Jews by choice to be Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), and would not perform a marriage or bris for them, when not in that sort of situation no one spoken to has ever been treated as anything less than a full member of the community.

Clearly, acceptance into the Jewish community is an issue fraught with emotion for many people who have converted. But despite the fact that prejudices and problems still do exist for those who have chosen to be Jewish, everyone interviewed has found Ottawa to be a welcoming and largely non-judgmental Jewish community.

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Here’s the column I posted for a day once before, then realized it hadn’t actually been published and took down. Now it has been published, so I’m putting it back up. I am doing a three-part feature for our local Jewish newspaper on conversion. This first piece is a basic overview. The second one was a lot more fun, looking at why people convert. I got to ask people all kinds of personal questions. But as that one hasn’t been published yet, I have to wait to post it.

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Conversion to Judaism is as old as the religion itself, but beyond the Biblical period, it has only recently had any impact on Jewish life. That being said, in the past few decades, the impact of conversion has been significant. Opinions on it range from viewing conversion as a realistic way to help save the Jewish people from extinction to the belief that it is actually one of the primary threats to the continued survival of the religion. As with most contentious issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

In biblical times, conversion was common and easy. All it required was joining a Jewish household (through marriage or as a servant) or merely deciding to be Jewish. Nothing special had to be done. The convert simply had to start behaving as a Jew and following Jewish law.

Talmudic times saw the establishment of a conversion process and ceremony. Author Lawrence J. Epstein writes in his book Conversion to Judaism that most comments in the Talmud on conversion are positive, none more so than one made by Rabbi Johanan, who said that God exiled Jews from Israel for the express purpose of increasing the number of converts. While this seems to be absurdly extreme, Epstein points out the converts must have been viewed as very valuable, to have someone use their increase as a justification for Jewish exile.

However, with the rise of Christianity and anti-Semitism (from Christians and Muslims), the Jewish view of conversion became less positive. Proselytizing and forced conversions were fundamentally un-Jewish and cast a negative light on conversion in general.

Further, with the rise of anti-Semitism, conversion to Judaism became increasingly dangerous, both to converts and the community accepting them. Those expressing a desire to convert were understandably viewed by rabbis with great suspicion.

Given that anyone converting to Judaism would have to give up their family completely and live in relative isolation with a persecuted community, and risking death to do so, it isn’t surprising that Jewish conversions were few and far between in this period.

This essentially remained the status quo until after the second World War, when Jews began to really integrate into mainstream society. With integration, we see the beginnings of the significant tread of conversion to marry someone Jewish, but also greater conversions of gentiles who were otherwise unconnected to the religion.

That’s when things got complicated.

The problem stems from the question: who is a Jew? The process of conversion itself isn’t really that difficult. The prospective converts must go in front of a beit din – a court made up of three judges. If male, he must be circumcised (and if he is already circumcised, a ritual drop of blood must be drawn). Converts must be informed of the mitzvot, and accept and agree to abide by Jewish law. Finally, they must be immersed in the mikvah.

Those are the basics. Of course, most hopeful converts are put through a course of study that varies depending on who is converting them, and must demonstrate to the beit din a satisfactory understanding and knowledge of Jewish life, holidays and traditions.

The difficulty arises between the differing branches of Judaism and how they interpret these fundamental requirements.

For the Orthodox, Jewish law and practice have remained unchanged and cannot be changed. These are the words of God and it is not the job of humans to second-guess them. Therefore, someone wishing to convert must accept the laws and do their best to follow all of them.

The other large Jewish streams – Reform, Conservatives and Reconstruction – are more liberal to differing degrees, as they all consider Jewish law (halacha) to be more flexible that the Orthodox do. From the Orthodox point-of-view, anyone converting in these movements has not been instructed properly and has not truly accepted God’s law. The conversion isn’t valid.

Of course, to further complicate the issue, the different streams of within Orthodoxy don’t necessarily agree with each other’s interpretation of halacha and won’t always accept each other’s conversions. The most extreme case of this involves the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which currently accepts no conversion done in North America as legitimate, including those performed by Orthodox rabbis. (In contrast, the Israeli government grants all Jews by choice the right of return.)

So, who is a Jew? That entirely depends on who you ask.

The truth is, it wouldn’t really matter so much if it weren’t for the problem – many call it a crisis – of a dwindling number of Jews, primarily through intermarriage. The latest statistics show that when a Jew marries a non-Jew, only about 30 percent of their children consider themselves Jewish.

While everyone’s preferred response to this would be to have Jews simply chose to marry other Jews, that is not a realistic solution in today’s world. The liberal response is outreach. By welcoming the non-Jewish partner into synagogue life, they hope to encourage the non-Jewish partner towards conversion, or at least that any children will be raised in a more actively Jewish home.

For the Orthodox, of course, this is an invalid response, and there are some Orthodox rabbis who won’t even convert someone for the sake of marriage, as it casts doubt upon the potential convert’s sincerity.

Marriage is still the primary reason for conversion, but as we will explore in next month’s issue, there are many other motivations for choosing to becoming Jewish. And readers might be surprised to discover that even when people convert for marriage, many believe that Judaism was always their destiny and meeting the Jewish partner just made their path a little smoother.

In November’s Bulletin, we will take a look at the community response to conversion. The Torah instructs us to “love the stranger (‘ger’ – also the word for convert), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19) But there are still those who have not quite shaken off the legacy of hundreds of years of suspicions about a gentile’s desire to join the Jewish people. How welcoming is our community towards those who chose to be Jewish?

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I got the 1000-word piece in Friday morning, at 1007 words. That’s pretty good. Okay, there’s more to writing than coming in right on the word limit (or almost right on). It is often required that the writing also not suck. We’ll wait and see about that one. J thinks we’ll get flack because conversion in Judaism is a wee bit of a contentious subject and I am no expert, except that I actually did convert. I pointed out that journalists are rarely experts. We just do some research and then throw the article together with a 2-day deadline. But no doubt we’ll still piss someone off. I look forward to seeing who.

(I removed the rest of the post. See above.)

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