Ve’Ahavta Et HaGer

Religious advocacy group organizes ‘Love the Convert’ Shabbat in U.S., Israel before Shavuot

More than 100 communities in Israel, 33 in U.S. to focus on mitzvah of loving converts

Religious communities across Israel and the United States will dedicate this coming Shabbat to the mitzvah of loving the ger, or convert, ahead of next week’s Shavuot holiday, which is traditionally associated with the concept of conversion, as part of an annual initiative organized by Israel’s ITIM religious advocacy organization.

While this is the fourth year that ITIM has organized the “Ve’Ahavta Et HaGer” (Love the Convert) Shabbat, this will be the first year that communities outside of Israel will take part, ITIM’s founder and director, Seth Farber, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“It’s a very, very simple idea, and it’s something we want to do every year,” Farber said. “It’s the Shabbat before Shavuot. One dimension of Shavuot is the story of Ruth, who is the prototype, so to speak, of the convert to Judaism. Another is that it’s the holiday of Matan Torah (Reception of the Torah) and part of that is getting access to the Torah [through converting].”

Farber contacted approximately 45 rabbis from Orthodox communities across the United States asking them to join the initiative, and 33 agreed to take part, most from up and down the East Coast, but also in Memphis, Tenn., Dallas and Oakland, Calif.

Within Israel, more than 100 communities will take part in the initiative, according to Farber. 

“A lot of them will have the rabbi speak but some will have a convert speak about the concept of Ve’Ahavta Et HaGer,” he said.

Farber noted that there are mitzvot to love only three things: God, fellow Jews and converts. That latter mitzvah is repeated no less than 36 times in the Torah. “That’s amazing! It shows you the placement of this mitzvah in the context of the Jewish canon. But today people are afraid of converts,” Farber said.

A recent survey conducted by ITIM found that the majority of people who identified as religious Zionist – 59% — said that they would not want their children marrying a convert. (Roughly half of people who identified as secular said they didn’t want their children marrying a convert, and approximately 80% of Haredi Jews said the same.)

“We have to address that fear. The best way to do that is to educate, that’s that point of this shabbat,” Farber said.

One of the American rabbis taking part in the initiative, Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, who leads the Young Israel of Oceanside, N.Y., said he was inspired to participate to both encourage his congregants to be more considerate toward converts and to view them as a source of inspiration.

“‘Love the convert.’ It says that many times in the Torah. But in practice – probably more due to lack of education or awareness – we who aren’t converts may not be sensitive enough to their needs,” Muskat said.

Muskat said while his community, made up of some 220 families, did not have many members who were converts, he nevertheless wanted to discuss the topic to avoid people accidentally falling afoul of the biblical precepts against ona’at devarim, or saying hurtful things. “People who are not experienced speaking with converts may say things that are insensitive,” he said.

However, he stressed that another key aspect of his message is that converts not only require a certain sensitivity but that they are also sources of inspiration. 

“They are not just a vulnerable group, requiring sensitivity. I want to highlight what they stand for. They took a bold step and diverted from their past and found God and want to be part of our community. Instead of considering the mitzvah of Ve’Ahavta Et HaGer as meaning you should love them because they’re a vulnerable group, I would say it’s more than that. They inspire us with their journey,” Muskat said.

ITIM deals with a broad array of religious issues in Israel, through both lobbying, public campaigns and legal action, but it puts particular focus on conversion. The organization runs an initiative known as Giyur K’Halacha, which performs conversions outside of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the government’s Conversion Authority, relying on a more lenient approach than the state-run bodies. It also advocates on behalf of converts, including those who go through the Rabbinate, who sometimes still face obstacles from state religious authorities.

As a result of these activities, ITIM often finds itself at odds with the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services, though Farber stresses that he does not oppose these institutions, just some of their interpretations and policies.

Farber considered this Love the Convert Shabbat initiative as a good way to break across political divisions.

In addition to getting rabbis of Jewish communities on board, Farber also contacted a number of lawmakers to endorse the initiative, including some from parties that typically do not share ITIM’s perspective. Knesset Member Moshe Solomon and Deputy Finance Minister Michal Woldiger of the Religious Zionism party both released videos on social media about the plan, as did MK Boaz Bismuth of the Likud party, whose wife converted to Judaism, and MK Moshe Tur-Paz from the Yesh Atid party.

“We tried to cut across party lines to make a statement that this is something we should all be rallying around,” Farber said. “People understood that this was above and beyond politics and some ideological agenda.”