At next week’s Shavuot services, the moving words from the Book of Ruth, expressing the biblical convert’s pledge of fidelity to Judaism, will be read in synagogues around the world.
Echoes of the story of the Moabite woman, stemming from a people cursed in Deuteronomy but whose seed bore King David, could be heard at Valley Beth Shalom two weeks ago.
There, taking their turns on the bimah, eight spiritual descendants of Ruth told their fellow congregants what it means, in 1997, to become and be a Jew-by-choice.
The context was outlined by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, the Conservative congregation’s eloquent spiritual leader, whose advocacy of Jewish outreach to unchurched and seeking Christians has been met with both support and controversy.
Taking as his exemplars, Ruth and the patriarch Abraham, the first convert to Judaism, Schulweis addressed himself to those who look on the Jewish people as a closed ethnic club.
“Judaism defines a Jew not on the basis of blood or race or ethnicity or tribe,” he said. “Judaism accepts, with love, the ger, the proselyte, on the basis of their free choice, their decision to enter into the covenant with God and with people.
“A Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. A Jew is a Jew by heart, mind and soul. This is the glory of Judaism. This is its genuine universalism, and this must not be lost.”
The attitude underlying such crude expressions as “a Jew is a Jew and a non-Jew remains a non-Jew” is “a corruption of Judaism and tramples on the moral sensibility and meaning of Judaism itself,” said Schulweis.
Giving living voice to the rabbi’s strictures were Valley Beth Shalom members, mostly youngish, who shared their path to Judaism with joy, humor and, above all, a profound sense of dedication.
They were introduced by Schulweis, who said, “Tonight, we embrace with enthusiasm and love the courageous men and women who have entered our lives, who have become flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood, part of our mishpacha.”
Returning the embrace was Martha Rainey, an investment executive, who traced the beginning of her journey to a visit to Israel.
In Jerusalem, standing before the eternal flame at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, “I came face to face with the stark reality and human cost of man’s inhumanity to Jews, and I was overcome,” said Rainey. “I felt compelled to discover what it was that inspired Jews to remain faithful to their God in the face of evil incarnate and the threat of death.”
To Cricket Campbell, Judaism is expressed through perpetually unfolding emotions. “I love the sound of Hebrew; it speaks to my heart,” she said. “The way I praise God. The way I experience God…. The way I think that nothing could be more wonderful than to light Shabbat candles every Friday night in my home.”
Software engineer Joe Borsody felt dissatisfied with his faith after 12 years of Catholic schooling and a stint as Marine officer.
Like many other converts, he “shopped around” at other Christian denominations, then took an 18-week course at the University of Judaism, and became a Jew-by-choice last October.
Describing the experience, Borsody said, “I felt like a bar mitzvah boy, with my whole life ahead of me.” He related three of the most common questions asked him by born Jews, followed by his answers.
1) “How did your parents feel about your conversion?”
“They didn’t like it, but we’ve agreed to disagree.”
2) “Why would you want to join a people often persecuted and subjected to anti-Semitism?”
“I would rather be with the oppressed than the oppressors.”
3) “Do you date non-Jewish women?”
David Pardess, a foreign-language professor at Los Angeles Mission College, was attracted to Judaism as an “intelligent” faith, which did not threaten him with “hellfire and damnation.”
The road to his new religion led him from matzo ball soup at Canter’s Deli, through membership in UCLA Hillel, to three years of Hebrew and one year of Yiddish studies at UCLA. Last Friday, his daughter, Rebecca, celebrated her bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom.
When Brian Link married a Jewish woman, he initially did not want to convert. “It seemed too quick, too coercive at the time,” he said.
Assured that he could convert whenever he felt ready, Link eventually became a Jew-by-choice. One motive, frequently cited by other converts, was that “I would rather be counted among the persecuted than the persecutors.”
It took Ron Freson 15 years of persistence, occasional rebuffs and intensive study to make the transition from “a Lutheran guy in Kentucky to a Jew in the San Fernando Valley.”
The final push came with a five-month course at the University of Judaism, questioning by the beit din (rabbinical court), symbolic circumcision and immersion in a mikvah.
In the United States, there are approximately 5,000 new converts to Judaism each year, and 165,000 converts in a total American Jewish population of 5.5 million.
These figures come from Dr. Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, and are based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.
Judging by the response to his outreach, there is a growing interest by non-Jews in Judaism, said Schulweis. The motivations differ from person to person, he said, but most are affected by two current phenomena in American life — a wide freedom of choice and a great spiritual hunger.