Saturday, September 15, 2012

Big Differences: Ba'alei Teshuva and Converts

I recently received the following email from a blog reader.
...More than once people have drawn the comparison between being a convert and being a BT. I find myself having a hard time explaining the difference to people who cannot relate. My question to you is what is your thoughts on this and if you can help me figure out something smart to say about what makes converts different than BTs.
So for starters, BT stands for ba'alei teshuvah, also known as someone who is born Jewish and either isn't religious and then becomes religious, or is religious, strays, and returns to the religion. 

This is a conversation I have more frequently than I'd like, and it's also one that very rarely has a clean resolve. BTs often feel like they've gone through what a convert has, while converts are often left feeling like BTs and even FFB (frum-from-birth) Jews just "don't get it." In fact, I find it personally frustrating when BTs say that they're also "Jews by Choice." A Jew by birth didn't choose the birthright, it was inherited. A convert chooses to answer the call of the small, still neshamah within. 

So my conversation ender is usually something along the lines of this: 
A born Jew can eat pork one day and have an aliyah the next day. They'll always be Jewish, no matter how far they stray from the path. A convert who has a halachic conversion is held to a "higher standard" that requires a strict adherence to the path. If he or she strays, the entire conversion becomes one big question mark. 
This is something I had cause to deal with earlier this year, as you all know. And I'm sure there are still people who would think twice about having me at their Shabbos table, let alone setting me up with a sibling or cousin. 

I want to emphasize that I'm not saying that BTs or converts are better, holier, or have a more difficult experience than the other. I'm saying they're different. The experiences are different. The outcomes are different. And the struggles are different. 

Whereas a BT might have to deal with a long-secular family thinking they've gone nuts or joined the "dark side," a convert might have an incredibly supportive non-Jewish family that doesn't get it but is willing to support them. On the other hand, a BT might mess up and eat meat and milk together and people will chock it up to the learning curve while a convert might be told that they clearly had a poor education and aren't committed to the law. It's different. Apples and oranges, folks. 

So what do you think? Is there a magic bullet that separates the BT from the convert? A conversation stopper that says there are differences?