תלמוד בבלי כתובות דף יא עמוד א
אמר רב הונא גר קטן מטבילין אותו על דעת בית דין. מאי קמ"ל? דזכות הוא לו
Rav Huna said: "A young child [whose father had died and] who is converting may be immersed in the mikveh by order of the Bet Din." Why did he teach this? Because [becoming Jewish] is a benefit...
How many Jews-by-choice do you know? (Perhaps you are one, or you are dating or married to one.) How many converts to Judaism do you know socially? How many do you pray with during the week and on Shabbat? I’ll bet the number is somewhere in the region of “quite a few, actually.” I know that’s the number I came up with - and that’s not counting all those Jews who I may know but of whose origins I am simply unaware. We are fortunate to live in an era when nearly all of us are blessed to have converts as part of our communities.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact a hundred years ago or so, the question would be different: How many Jewish converts to Christianity do you know? If you lived in Europe in the nineteenth century, or in America in the early twentieth, chances are you’d know – or be related – to several Jews who converted out.
According to data compiled by Christian missionaries, about 200,000 Jews converted to Christianity during the nineteenth century (but beware, they probably had reason to inflate these numbers). Some 15,000 Polish Jews converted, the majority to Catholicism (here, p 245). Hayyim Zelig Slonimski (d.1904) is a personal hero of mine. He founded the Hebrew-language journal of science, Hazefirah (The Herald), in Warsaw in 1862. His life exemplified how a traditionally observant Jew could combine his interest in scientific matters with his faith. But his son Leonid wasn’t convinced, and converted. Slonimski was by no means the only prominent educator or rabbinic leader whose children left Judaism for Christianity.
“Especially well known in Jewish circles in the modern era are the tragedies that affected such prominent figures as Mendele Mokher Sforim (Yaakov Shalom Abramowitz) whose beloved son converted to Christianity; Shimon Dubnow, Ahad ha-Am and Mordeckai Ben-Hillel HaKohen, whose daughters married into Russian Orthodox families; and Rabbi Eliyahu Klatskin of Lublin, whose son Yaakov, a renowned philosopher and ardent Zionist, abandoned Judaism and married the daughter of a Protestant minister,” (ibid., 31–32.)
Oh, and don’t forget Moshe, son of the founder of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Shneyur Zalman of Lyady. He converted to Christianity in 1820.
The Pew Study
In 2013 the Pew Research Center delivered its Portrait of Jewish Americans. It found that 2% of its 3,475 respondents had undergone some "formal conversion", (though be careful of drawing any big conclusions from this – the margin of error is +/- 3%). We are proud of that. But it also reported that 22% were Jews of no religion. That’s a sizeable net loss.
In today’s daf, we are reminded how to view our heritage – a heritage we may carry either by a deliberate choice or by an accident of birth. Rav Huna tells us that being Jewish is a זכות– a benefit, a privilege, and an honor. If only more of us felt that way.