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Tribulations of Becoming Jewish

198-bill-1 An event at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, the congregation Bill joined
Bill with Dudi and Galilah, friends from Yokneam, at his barmitzvah party
Bill Stubbe with his kibbutz sister Naama,and Nadav, one of her brother's triplets, in Bill’s adopted family

A Jewish friend tried to console me by saying, "You know you're finally really a Jew when you want to join the country club and they won't let you in." In this case, said club was Eretz Israel, the place that had become a second home in my heart. Who knew that becoming a Jew, and an Israeli, would be so fraught with tsuris, but luckily I was blessed with more patience and tenacity than a minyan of Israeli bureaucrats.

A "chance" visit landed me in Israel in 1975 when I was twenty years old during my travels from Europe to India. From the moment I stepped off the Egged bus at the kibbutz bus stop, I felt oddly at home: the communal life, well-tended gardens, vibrant people, the cycle of holidays through the seasons. In time, I absorbed Jewish traditions, the brash Israeli culture, and struggled with guttural chets and reshes until I was relatively fluent in Hebrew. As I daily interacted with Holocaust survivors, I grappled with the theological implications of that horror, something that had strangely haunted my utterly goyische Palo Alto childhood. That I, a Catholic-raised, barefoot hippie, born-again Christian, latent homosexual should fall in love with a socialist, atheist, family-oriented kibbutz in Israel for three years... well, go figure! Baruch HaShem, Who works in strange ways.

In the succeeding thirty-five years after I left, I'd made twenty visits to Israel, and then once, when visiting during Pesach and walking on a kibbutz path, the idea struck me (actually a voice in my head!) – Convert to Judaism, move to Israel! I replied, "What, are you crazy!" Though after discussions and meetings, my kibbutz voted unanimously in my favor, creating a special status for me since I was "too old" to become a chaver.

Back in California when I told friends, many whom I'd known for decades, that I was converting, most asked, "To what?" They'd assumed that I was Jewish. I joined a Jewish Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev (I fondly referred to it as the Buddhist, Queer, Hippie vegan, gluten-free Jew congregation), studied for a year, underwent a hatazat dam, aced my Beit Din, dunked in the mikvah, completed the paperwork required by Nefesh b'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, and a year later was good to go.

A month before my intended departure, I received a terse, one-sentence email from the Jewish Agency that my "Aleph Conversion" was not recognized. Clueless, online I looked up Aleph, the umbrella organization for Jewish Renewal congregations. Apparently, someone in Israel—the Rabbinate of Israel—had determined I was not Jew enough. Of course, I had not embarked on a two-year fool's journey of conversion without first discussing it with the Jewish Agency representative in San Francisco. My rabbi also had a conversation; she recalls having used the phrase "non-Orthodox conversion" that the Jewish Agency assured her was fine. Though having long mastered the distinctions between my knaidels, kugels and kreplechs, as a novice to the Byzantine world of religious Judaism, how could I know that my splendid, spiritual, Shekhinah-filled Jewish Renewal congregation was not merely some Berkeley variant of Reform? What a shanda fur de yids that Jews get away with discriminating each other.

Israeli authorities contended that my rabbi should have known that her congregation was not kosher for Israel. Yet, I countered that the Jewish Agency, after decades of wooing Left-Coast Bay Area Jews, was sorely negligent in not asking what branch of Judaism my congregation was affiliated with. That one simple question would have prevented all this tzuris.

After the initial shock, I cycled through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief: Stage 1, Denial: There must be a mistake; fellow Jews couldn't do this to me! Stage 2, Anger: Suffice it to say, I was royally peeved. Stage 3, Bargaining: Surely there's an appeal process, protekziastrings to pull....nada! Stage 4, Depression: I sulked and boohooed a bit, noshed a lot, and binged on two seasons of Breaking Bad. I briefly flirted with Stage 5, Acceptance, then went full-tilt into Stage 6, Kvetch. Ever since I was a little goy, I've been an activist—anti-war, anti-nuke, gay and AIDS, environmental issues, you name it; now I had a new cause to sink my teeth into. They had irked the wrong Jew.

Not easily deterred, within weeks I found three other rabbis, this time two Conservative and one Reform, and had wised up to first run their names by the Jewish Agency. Sadly, I received no credit for time already served as a Jew and was required to spend another year "converting," then wait another nine months before making aliyah. (A ger—convert - is required to live for nine months in the country of his/her conversion before applying—in my case reapplying—for aliyah.) Required was a letter from my rabbi, and dang if one of my rabbis hadn't suddenly upped and moved to New York. The other elderly rabbi was in the hospital for months, and frankly I wasn't sure he might have one foot in olam ha'ba and wouldn't recover to write the letter. With that letter finally submitted along with my reapplication, I dreamed that it would be L'shana habaah b'yerushalayim. But, as saying goes: A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht. (Man makes plans; H'Shemlaughs.)

Several months transpired, and still no word. So, when I contacted the Jewish Agency representative—let's just call her Shayna Meidele—in Los Angeles, I was informed that my file must have "slipped between the cracks." Oy gevalt! Exactly what do you get paid for, if not to periodically check on the progress of an aliyah file? Apparently not. Was I some gornisht, that if I hadn't contacted them I'd have remained indefinitely in no-man's land?

More weeks passed by, and when I asked again what's up, Missy Shayna Meidele said I hadn't sent in the requested four forms (All that I had sent the previous year.) I reviewed my past emails; Shayna had never sent the request. Her bad, but she refused to confess to her mistake. Like schlemiel and schlimazel; that's what it felt like. Then, I needed a medical waiver, again, from my doctor, who was ill and another few weeks passed until it could be sent.

Shayna then told me she must see the original copy of my second conversion document. (Nu, so now I'm some gonif forging conversion documents and rabbis signatures?) Rather than having to mail it, Shayna tells me we can Skype and I will hold it up to the computer camera. Like she could tell if I actually held up the original or the copy.

Then, I make the mistake of mentioning that I'm visiting Israel in March. Shayna insists that I cannot, simply cannot, be approved for immigration until after I return in May. Feh! It's sounds to me like utter bubbe meise, so instead of jabbing chopsticks into my eyes, I'm getting a second opinion. I called Jerusalem and am told that provisional approval can be made while there, which I have to convey to Los Angeles; I can't help but wonder, why am I'm doing my Shayna's job for her?

Finally, on a dreary and depressing March day in Israel, the same day that Netanyahu was re-elected and my leftist kibbutz was in a deep funk, I received the cheery email, Congratulations, you have been approved for aliyah. Bad timing, to say the least.

Despite all my kvetching, on a more positive note, my experience with Nefesh b'Nefesh, a non-profit organization that works in close conjunction with the Jewish Agency to complete final and post stages of aliyah, was far more pleasant, professional, and welcoming. Some Haimisher mensches they've got there! Perhaps government bureaucracy just can't help become entangled in their own red tape. I wasn't going to let religious authorities, the immigration office, or low-level bureaucrats with the combined IQs of a standing rib roast, trounce on my dream. Alright, it might be a little mean but, Lign in drerd un bakn beygl!

Despite opinions of some of my leftist-progressive friends, and lingering qualms of my own, Tsum glik, tsum shlimazel on September 1, 2015, four years after my conversion journey commenced, my twice yidl tuchas finally settled itself into a cramped economy seat on an El Al flight to Israel. As I embarked on this new chapter in my life, I wished I had been more excited, but sadly my enthusiasm had waned. Far from smooth or welcoming, the conversion and aliyah experience had been exhausting and tainted with bureaucratic crazy making, misinformation, incompetency, and the annoying hegemony of Orthodox control over civil affairs. Perhaps this tangle helped prepare me for the meshugas of Israel life to come.

My personal saga of Not Jew Enough is just part of the larger injustice of Orthodox hegemony in Israel. What crazy making country grants automatic citizenship for being Jewish, yet at the same time restricts immigration for being Jewish of a different stripe that doesn't fit their narrow version of what is a Jew?



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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