Court Seeks to Ease Way for Conversions

When Susanne Shier first heard about the mikvah, the ritual immersion bath that’s part of the conversion process, she was a bit leery.

“I got nervous about it,” she told The Journal before her immersion in March.

But she relaxed when she toured the blue-tiled, vanilla-scented warm immersion room at the University of Judaism (UJ) that seemed more spa than scary.

Shier, an elementary school teacher in her 40s, was converting through the Conservative movement, but her conversion certification is from the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, a pluralistic religious court in Los Angeles created to standardize the conversion process and build greater community between denominations.

Founded in 2002, the religious court was named for Sandra Caplan, a convert to Judaism who, before her death, asked her husband George to promise he would support the conversion process. Ongoing efforts to start a cross-denominational beit din had stalled, so George Caplan pushed to see the project through, while also providing financial support. In the last four years, the Bet Din has performed close to 65 conversions for people from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. (The Orthodox have their own conversion courts.)

This resource was needed because different denominations were not necessarily recognizing each other’s conversions, said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, who is rector at the UJ.

That became a problem, say, if a Reform convert wanted to marry a Conservative Jew and the officiating rabbi didn’t think the Reform conversion was sufficient.

“What we wanted was some kind of communal standard for conversion,” said Dorff, speaking to rabbis who’d gathered to discuss the subject at a UJ-sponsored conference earlier this year.

The standards (see page 14) include an insistence on mikvah immersion and ritual circumcision — or a ceremonial one for men circumcised at birth — and an approved curriculum for both the convert and the convert’s “sponsoring” rabbi.

The sponsoring rabbi — a rabbi of the convert’s own choosing — is a unique element of the pluralistic beit din, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, the av beit din, or the head of the religious court, and the leader of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“We want to make sure the candidate feels embraced. That’s why unlike the other batei din, we emphasize the sponsoring rabbi; [the convert] has to be a participating member of an active community,” he said.

In terms of standards, the pluralistic Bet Din is situated somewhere between Reform and Conservative: On the one hand, it requires immersion and circumcision (not all Reform conversions do) but on the other hand, it teaches about the mitzvot rather than requiring an advance commitment to observing them, such as in the Conservative movement.

Shevitz said the biggest challenge is making people aware of the Bet Din and getting them used to using it.

“For the time being, it’s an alternative. If it’s successful, then I think it may very well become the only or the primary community portal,” he said. There aren’t many ritual activities different Jewish denominations can do together, he added, “but the things we can do together we must do together.”

The process is not so rigid that it precludes different approaches to working with initiates.

“I don’t set an amount of time,” said Reconstructionist Rabbi Sheryl Stewart of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

She has a 30-week interactive seminar experience to help potential converts feel comfortable in a synagogue group and with Jewish rituals, then another course for those who want to continue on to conversion. It’s a process that can take a year or two.

“I usually let them tell me when they’re ready,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghiah of Temple Israel of Hollywood meets with her prospective converts once a month for a year: “My goal during that year is to really absorb [them] and [help them] be absorbed into the congregation.”

She has them read books on Jewish subjects and discuss theology, and then they write an essay (“Tell us about how you grew up religiously,” is one of the questions. “What attracts you to Judaism? What do you have difficulty with in Judaism?”)

For Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, the process of working with a ger (an aspiring convert) can take three to four years. He has his students learn Hebrew fluently and study about the community, Torah and God.

“I want the ger to feel something special is happening here,” Kieffer said. “It’s not just teatime.”

Not everyone is on board with the new beit din. The Orthodox don’t recognize it at all. But another nonparticipant is Reform Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Temple Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica. He questions why so much more is required of converts than the rest of his congregants. He considers that to be an unfair double standard, as well as substituting the essence of ethical Judaism for ritual practice. Comess-Daniels cited the story of Hillel, the Talmudic sage who was approached by a man who sarcastically asked to be taught all of Torah while balancing on one foot. Hillel told him: Do not do onto others what you would not want to be done onto you.

“The most wonderful thing about Hillel is that before he does the explanation, he accepts the convert first, and not the other way around, and that is our paradigm” Comess-Daniels said.

Ultimately, the convert must sign the beit din’s Declaration of Jewish Commitment, which includes accepting the Torah, renouncing the worship of “any one or any thing other than the God of Israel,” repudiating allegiances to all other religious faiths and practices and establishing a Jewish home, including raising future children as Jewish. “I pray I may be worthy to walk in God’s ways and to delight in God’s testimonies. In the words of the Torah, I affirm the unity of God,” the convert says, and recites the “Shema.” (“Hear o Israel….”)

That’s the prayer Shier recited in the mikvah, including the Shecheyanu blessing for new things and a special blessing for immersion.

After her immersion, Shier said she felt vulnerable but at peace.

“You feel like you’re a little child again, like you’re fresh and you can start life over,” she said. “I felt like I was at a turning point, like I was making a clear division in my life…. Now I’m Jewish.”