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Influential Orthodox Rabbi — And JW Columnist — Comes Out As Convert

Influential Orthodox Rabbi — And JW Columnist — Comes Out As Convert

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz urges Judaism to embrace the 'other.'

Hannah Dreyfus is a former staff writer at the New York Jewish Week.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, popular Orthodox rabbi and columnist for the Jewish Week, revealed in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece that he is a convert.

The article, entitled "Judaism Must Embrace the Convert," was written in response to the recent scandal in Washington, D.C., in which Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with planting video cameras in the community mikvah. In the article, Yanklowitz writes that Judaism, in shunning proselytizing practices, has come to “embrace an ethos of exclusion” that makes Orthodox conversion ripe for exploitation. Many of Freundel’s victims were female converts.

“The fact that anyone with the drive and perspicacity to convert is allowed to do so is one of the most important checks on the Jewish conception of chosenness; being Jewish is not a genetic condition, but a complex hierarchy of identity and choice,” writes Yanklowitz.

He later shares that while his father is Jewish, his mother is Christian. He underwent two conversions, a "liberal" one as an adolescent and an Orthodox conversion as an adult.

“I chose not to share my journey previously because I am now an Orthodox rabbi and, unfortunately, Jews by choice are sometimes perceived as being less authentic or authoritative than those who are Jewish from birth,” he writes. “Many feel shame and choose not to reveal that they are converts out of fear of having their, and their descendants’, status and credentials questioned.”

Yanklowitz, ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization. He is also the executive director of Valley Beit Midrash, an adult education and leadership development program. In both 2012 and 2013, he was ranked among Newsweek’s most influential American rabbis.

In his Jewish Week column, Street Torah, Yanklowitz writes about social justice, activism and tikkun olam.

“Why is it that, at a typical American Jewish social justice event, no one invokes one of God’s names? When our movement openly accepts the role of the Divine in social change and in moral development, we embrace the most powerful part of our tradition,” Yanklowitz wrote in a one popular Jewish Week post entitled "The Role of the Divine in Social Change: Where is God in Tikkun Olam?"

"Embracing the humility to acknowledge a power beyond us demands social protest not Divine submission," he writes. "Together, as servants, we serve God by healing the world."

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