'Make sure they are welcomed'

Embracing those who convert to Judaism

The last eight months have been a painful reminder to all of us about the enormous challenges that face the Jewish people.

New RCNSW president, Rabbi Shua Solomon.
New RCNSW president, Rabbi Shua Solomon.

The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh Deah 268:2) that when a non-Jew comes before a rabbi and requests to convert, the rabbi must say to him: “Why do you want to convert? Don’t you realise how much the Jewish people suffer in this world? Are you not aware that antisemites persecute us and try to destroy us?”

I remember just a few years ago, at a Shavuot panel quoting this part of Jewish law and suggesting that it was hard to understand. After all, I said, in the 21st century, with a powerful and successful Jewish state, and so many Jews living in security and prosperity across the world, did we really have to talk about Jewish suffering and antisemitism in the present tense?

Just a few years later, and very sadly, I have realised how wrong I was. While we continue to look towards the future with positivity and a genuine sense of hope, the last eight months have been a painful reminder to all of us about the enormous challenges that face the Jewish people.

It is in this spirit, and with the holiday of Shavuot almost upon us, where we read from the book of Ruth, the first recognised convert to our faith, that I would like to acknowledge the enormous journey that those who were not born into our faith go through, to become part of the Jewish people.

For many it means leaving behind many of their cultural ties and becoming accustomed to not just a new set of laws and customs, but a completely new environment. It has been inspiring for me to see people take this upon themselves in a sincere and genuine way, and the way that they have so clearly identified themselves as part of Am Yisrael.

I have occasionally chosen to give a shiur (lecture) on conversion in Judaism to different audiences. Most often the questions and comments I receive centre around the requirements for conversion and what exactly Jewish law says about it.

While this is a topic that certainly merits discussion, there is another conversation that I think ought to be had, and that is the concept of appreciating those who have made an active choice to become part of the Jewish people and making sure they are welcomed with open arms into our community.

A few years ago, an organisation in Israel launched a special Shabbat called “Shabbat Ve’ahavtem”. Named after the special mitzvah to love those that have converted and become part of our community, the Shabbat aims to promote awareness of those that have made an active choice to become part of the Jewish people.

Last year, for the first time, it was promoted by communities in the United States and this year, for the first time, it is being promoted among Australian communities too.

Shabbat Ve’ahavtem is the Shabbat before Shavuot (this year June 8-9). One of the themes of Shavuot is the story of Ruth, the first Jewish convert who, despite the many challenges she faced, was determined to join Am Yisrael. It also celebrates the time when the Jewish people as a whole received the gift of the Torah, just like those who convert who discover and accept the Torah as they finish their conversion journey.

In Australia, Shabbat Ve’ahavtem has been initiated by SAJE (Sydney Academy of Jewish Education). SAJE is an organisation that supports Orthodox conversion candidates through their journey to becoming Jewish. It operates under the auspices of the Sydney Beit Din.

SAJE launched as an educational body last October. It is committed to helping guide its students through the process of conversion, with group classes, inspiring educators and mentors, and a modular structured course of learning. Its visionary and benefactor, Harry Triguboff AO, was inspired to help create SAJE to keep people connected to the community. There are already 70 participants in the first cohort of classes that began towards the end of last year and at the start of this year.

Shules have been encouraged to speak about this important mitzvah over the Shabbat and encourage someone who has made the choice to go through the process to share their experiences with the community.

As our nation is still mourning the events of October 7, we are facing unprecedented waves of global antisemitism. Now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves to embrace those who have made the choice to join our people.

Rabbi Shua Solomon is rabbi of Bondi Mizrachi Synagogue and the president of the Rabbinical Council of NSW.

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