Shavuot 5771

How the story of Ruth brings us closer together

by Rabbi Tzvi Graetz

"I grew up in an abusive family" said Rebecca in her conversion interview that I attended last week in the USA. When going to her priest and telling him about her parents beating and abusing her, he replied, "Christ was also abused." That answer turned Rebecca away from God for a period that she thought would be the rest of her life.

But when she met David though, things changed. They started dating and it became serious. He took Rebecca to meet his Conservative/Masorti Jewish family, and even though she didn't necessarily connect with God, she did connect to the Jewish traditions and the warmth of the family celebrations. She was touched by the joy around the Shabbat table, and moved by conversations in which David's family expressed their care for Jews all over the world, and continued concern over the situation in Israel, the Jewish State.


I learned about Rebecca's storyDownload this message last week when I was privileged to sit on a Bet Din (rabbinic court for converts) in one of our North American movement's synagogues. This Bet Din was poignantly timed just before Shavuot when we learn about the story of Ruth, and how she joined the Jewish people, later vowing to remain with Naomi her mother-in-law, telling her:

אֶל־אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי׃

Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I shall stay; your people are my people; your God is my God.

Megillat Ruth, or the Book of Ruth, is one of the five megillot that we read throughout the year. Taking place during the time of a famine in the 'Judges' period, it tells the story of Ruth the Moabite who marries into a Jewish family. When her husband dies and her mother-in-law returns to the land of Israel, Ruth is faced with the challenge of affirming her commitment to Judaism.

Back at the Bet Din, after each of the converts had said the brachot (blessings) in the mikvah (ritual bath), they all affirmed to join the Jewish religion by reciting a declaration which ends with the verse from Ruth mentioned above.

On my way to the airport to fly back to Israel I checked my email, and was again reminded of the harsh reality of religious pluralism in Israel, specifically regarding conversions carried out by Masorti/Conservative Rabbis like the one I had just attended. The email related to a convert from the USA who had made aliyah and moved to Israel, but is now facing an un-ending bureaucratic nightmare and ongoing struggles with the Israeli authorities and the courts in order to get her conversion recognized, for her to be registered as Jewish, and be granted the Israeli right of return which the law provides for all Jews.

Download this messageWhen we think of the Chag of Shavuot, we often focus on the major theme of the holiday which is Kabbalat Torah (the receiving of the Torah), which, according to tradition, occurred 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt. When the people of Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai their excitement kept them awake all night. In the same way, our custom today is to attend a Tikkun Leyl - a whole night of learning and receiving the Torah in the way that our forefathers did more than 3,000 years ago. The second, often less emphasized theme of Shavuot is the story of Ruth which talks about her joining the people of Israel. When Naomi, Ruth's mother-in-law decides to return to Bethlehem she tells the two "non-Jewish brides" of her dead sons to stay in Moab. One of them does as she asks, but the second, our hero Ruth, tells Naomi that she will go with her regardless. The story concludes when Ruth gets married (for the second time) to Boaz, a prominent Jewish leader in the land of Israel. Their great-grandson goes on to become King David.
Our deep and magnificent tradition tells us that converts can bring the best out of the Jewish people. They renew us, they reflect on our own Judaism, and teach us how to relate to it in a holy way. Just like a resident of Jerusalem takes its wonders for granted, a visitor can bring a renewed sense of excitement, passion and meaning to the holy city.

Thus, the two themes of Shavuot match perfectly because Torah also renews us, gives us life and brings holiness into our day to day experience through its study.

It's important for me to emphasize that the Masorti/Conservative movement conducts hundreds, if not thousands, of full and complete halachic conversions each year, emphasizing our belief that Judaism is not a closed religion. It is not a closed club that one can only be a part of if born with a certain blood. On the contrary, we have an open approach to Judaism which meets the needs of people, in their own reality, bringing them closer to Judaism in a welcoming and tolerant way.

The story of Ruth teaches us about integrity and inclusiveness, and the Masorti/Conservative movement reflects both of these values in the way we relate to Judaism and to converts. We know it takes great courage to change ones religion, or take on a religion from having none. We also know that great trust is put in the person once they have started the process of conversion. However, just like Naomi and Ruth, the Masorti/Conservative movement welcomes those who wish to join the Jewish people in a serious, open and loving way.

Worldwide our movement engages with many conversions each year in Europe, Latin America, North America and of course Israel, and we salute all those who work in this challenging endeavor.

Download this messageAs we welcome in the Shavuot holiday, may we open our hearts to the growth of the Jewish people and the study of Torah.


Chag Shavuot Sameach

Rabbi Tzvi Graetz lays a wreath

Just before Shavuot, there is another celebration in the Jewish-Zionist calendar, namely Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) marking the reunification of the city of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967. This Yom Yerushalayim, the State of Israel highlighted the story of the arrival to Israel of Jews from Ethiopia.


These Jews were disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people for over 2,500 years, but never let go of their yearning to come back to Jerusalem. In the 1980s, when they heard about the remote possibility of realizing their dream, thousands of Ethiopian Jews started walking. They did not know how they would make it to Jerusalem, but stayed together and remembered the words of Ruth, "Where you walk, I shall walk."  Rabbi Tzvi Graetz (pictured right) was privileged last week to represent the Masorti/Conservative movement and the World Zionist Organization when laying a wreath at the Yom Yerushalayim ceremony.

The ceremony took place at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and paid tribute to those Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives during the journey, and never made it back to Jerusalem.  


For the last 30 years, the Ethiopian community in Israel has suffered tremendous harassment from the Orthodox establishment, who questioned their Judaism and demanded that they undergo a conversion process. The Masorti/Conservative movement has always believed that the Ethiopian Jews maintained their Judaism and needed no conversion.


To view a gallery of pictures from this ceremony, click here.  

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