When the first edition of Anita Diamant’s groundbreaking book on conversion, Choosing a Jewish Life, came out 18 years ago, conversion was rarely openly spoken of within the Jewish community, let alone embraced and celebrated as a positive life choice. Diamant’s fiancé’s decision to convert inspired her to write a book providing practical and spiritual advice about the conversion process. Since the book’s original release in 1997, there has been a sea change both in the overall number of converts and in attitudes about conversion. As conversion has become increasingly common, converts are playing central roles in all aspects of modern Jewish life. Diamant has updated the second edition of her book to reflect these changes and to provide creative and innovative guidance to those seeking to convert. Diamant recently spoke with Moment Culture Editor Marilyn Cooper about the transitions in conversion since 1997 and reflected on how traditional rituals such as the mikvah have transformed to meet the needs of today’s American Jewish community.
How have attitudes about conversion within the American Jewish community shifted in the 18 years since the first edition of Choosing a Jewish Life?
Many Jewish communities are now very welcoming of couples in which one of the pair is not legally Jewish. That’s been a significant factor in transforming conversion because in situations of intermarriage, there is less pressure to convert. There was never supposed to be pressure, but there was. The community is more open about people who convert, more welcoming, and it is all more public. It’s normative. Twenty-five years ago, when I asked an audience of liberal Jews, “Who in your family converted to Judaism?” only a few people would raise their hands. Now, if you ask that question, it’s almost unanimous; at the very least, someone in their extended family will have converted. It’s part of who we currently are as a community.
How many converts are there currently in the American Jewish community?
There are no specific numbers because no one has really studied this; perhaps as much as 20 percent of the liberal Jewish community are converts. We only know the impact of conversion anecdotally. For instance, in most congregations, people will tell you that the synagogue leadership includes a lot of people who were not born Jewish. This shift in numbers accounts for much of the shift in attitudes. When you know a significant number of people who are Jewish by choice, it become normative. It is no longer whispered about; it is celebrated. To me, growth in conversion has been a real positive for the Jewish community. Converts bring new energy into the community, but no baggage.
In an ultra-Orthodox shul, as opposed to a Conservative or Reform one, would you see the same shift in attitudes?
I can’t speak to the ultra-Orthodox experience. That is not who I wrote this book for. This book is for people who consider themselves to be liberal Jews, which includes people who view themselves as very traditional. The ultra-Orthodox community is not my world and I have no expertise on it. Even within the non-Orthodox world, there is tremendous variation in attitudes from one community to the next. It depends upon lay leadership, the rabbi and the overall culture of the congregation. Some places are more welcoming than other places.
Initially, what led you to create new rituals around conversion, particularly around the use of the mikvah?
As a result of working on this book 20 years ago, I got involved with the Boston-area Jewish community to create a mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim) that was truly open and accessible to everyone. I had gone to different mikvaot many times with rabbis of various denominations and felt they uniformly did not adequately welcome individuals who were choosing to become Jewish. The mikvaot were only open a few hours a week for women observing the Laws of Niddah. They were not built as a welcoming space for family and friends or for the Beit Din. I felt that we, as a community, should provide the kind of welcoming space we ourselves would want if we were choosing to convert. That overall desire is where both this book and the concept for the Mayyim Hayyim mikvah came from.
Have you been surprised by the impact of these efforts?
I believed there was a need for these changes and that has proven to be true. The mikvah has become a space that is available to all kinds of Jews for all sorts of reasons. In the first edition of the book, the mikvah chapter was nothing like it is in this edition. The original version warned that you might not find the mikvah to be welcoming and that you might even have trouble finding one at all. In this iteration, I was trying to build a positive expectation of what the mikvah can be, like including that individuals should expect the mikvah to be warm and welcoming. That’s a big change in 18 years. In 1997, when the book was published, there was no alternative mikvah movement.
What was your reaction to the scandal surrounding Rabbi Barry Freundel and the mikvah at Kesher Israel in Washington, DC?
It presented an odd opportunity for us at Mayyim Hayyim to articulate what mikvah is, can be and should be as a truly a community institution. The dangers of such a scandal occurring are minuscule in an organization where you have lots of eyes on the mikvah and an entire community involved with the mikvah. That horrible abuse of power resulted from one person having too much authority. We had women from Kesher Israel come to Mayyim Hayyim to heal from what had happened. They felt that this was a safe space where they could reclaim their experience of mikvah and make themselves whole again. I can’t say enough about how horrible the scandal was, but it provided a chance to say what the mikvah ought to be and to explore what could be done to prevent that from ever happening again.
What are the lasting lessons from the Freundel scandal?
People who use the mikvah should be deeply involved with how it is run. In an Orthodox mikvah that is used almost exclusively by women for taharat hamishpachah (family purity), women themselves should be the ones who are supervising the mikvah.
Beyond just the sections on mikvah, much of the book focuses on creating new rituals around conversion. Why is that?
Historically, rabbis did not learn much in seminary about conversion to Judaism. As conversion became more normative, they had to invent things. With the growth in conversion, there have been new opportunities to create rituals and brachot (blessings) around modern Jewish experiences where, traditionally, there had been nothing. To me, this is about making Judaism as authentic as it can be. It’s about responding to real life with great kavanah (intention) and seriousness. People sometimes say that we are watering down the tradition by opening it up in these ways, but I don’t see that. The more you can sanctify Jewish life, that’s a mitzvah, that’s a good thing. More is more.
What’s driving the resistance to these changes from parts of the Jewish community?
Some people are trying to build a fence around the Torah. They want to protect a certain kind of traditional Judaism from the encroachments of modern life. People have been predicting the demise of the Jewish people for centuries. When couples started choosing their own mates, that was the end of Judaism. We are the ever-dying people. There is a lot of fear. We are a people who have been under pressure and under attack for centuries. Resistance to change and new rituals reflects that fear. For North American Jews, however, that attitude doesn’t work. That’s not the world we live in. In a time and place where Jews are truly effective, integrated and powerful, fully embracing our power as human beings is a good thing. This allows for more creativity, scholarship and holiness. It strengthens and enhances the Jewish community.