Overcoming the Secret Handshake: Making certain Men are not left at the Mikveh

handshakeBy Rabbi Charles Simon

For years people have been writing about making certain that newly created Jews are not left at the mikveh. But what does that mean and more importantly what can we do about it? Consider a person who has, for whatever reason, decided to become Jewish. They learned a new language, they studied. They attended classes and religious services. They probably engaged in more different forms of Jewish practice in a normal month than do most people who belong to schuls!

And yet, after they have literally taken the plunge … many of them feel abandoned. I suspect that most of those who experience those feelings are men! The letdown must be tremendous and possibly disastrous. The only experience which might be akin to it was when a person is involved in a theatrical production. They work at it for weeks, months, all leading up to show time and when the show is over, when the last curtain falls, they feel empty.

In an article Stewart Vogel wrote for me in 2003, “Anticipating the Challenges of Integrating Jew-By-Choice,” he states:

“In the years following conversion, Jews-by-choice tend to feel passionate about their Judaism. The first obstacle a Jew-by-Choice faces is that he or she does not feel like a Jew-by-birth. Even though we tell them that they are Jewish like every other Jew, they do not have the lifetime of affective Jewish experiences to validate the new cognitive reality that they are Jewish. With the conclusion of the intensive conversion experience of educational, religious, and spiritual components, the Jew-by-Choice must now create his or her own Jewish experiences.

For the new Jew, the participation with other Jews brings closeness to Judaism. Without these experience the fate of the Jew-by-Choice can be severely challenged. If the post-conversion experiences do not provide validation, the self-doubts and second guessing can discourage some Jewish-by-Choice from leading Jewish lives…”

At the end of his essay Stewart suggests as follow up, a maintenance program consisting of conscious attempts to integrate the new Jew into community life supplemented by supportive follow up meetings with the clergy. Considering what I have learned about synagogues over the past few decades, and about gender differences; I sincerely doubt that most of our clergy have the time or have consciously thought through the process of how this important follow-up is to be performed.

In the early part of 2015 FJMC conducted a brief survey of men and women who had chosen to become Jewish in an effort to learn about their post-mikveh experience. Anecdotal incidents had lead us to wonder if the post mikveh experience in general was different for men than for women. A number of phone interviews took place supplemented by a brief questionnaire. The survey primarily focused on men and women who had converted in the past decade.

Given that a sample survey of forty people does not provide overarching proof, but, it did indicate that a majority of the men who had chosen to become Jewish in the past decade didn’t feel completely connected to other Jewish men or to the congregation in the same manner as their feminine counterparts. To put it simply, they didn’t know the recipe for the secret sauce, the secret handshake.

Several of these men were what we in the FJMC call, “Keruv Consultants.” Keruv consultants are men and women who have been recommended by their rabbi and undergo a weekend of intensive training teaching them how to partner with their rabbi and assist them in transforming the culture of their synagogue into a warmer more open environment.

I challenged these men to describe their feelings during the immediate post conversion period and asked if those feelings ever diminished. In some instances, usually over the course of time, many of them came to accept that their need for a certain type of acceptance wasn’t going to happen; but when the men achieved what they considered near mastery of a specific subject, the feelings of mastery and competence trumped the feelings of inadequacy. The man who felt he owned the Passover Seder or any aspect of Jewish life, felt comfortable enough as a Jew to interact with confidence with other men. He might not have grown up with the secret handshake with all of the nuances of Jewish life but he had attained sufficient mastery of a subject that enabled him to proceed and interact with others with confidence. If those engaged in bringing men and women to the mikveh gave more thought to how we integrate them into our communities post mikveh to quote a phrase, “no (metaphoric) child will be left behind.”

Charles Simon is the Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the male volunteer arm of the Conservative/Masorti Movement.