Dr. Netanel Fisher

The Becoming Jewish exchange, part 1: Is a global conversion phenomenon changing the Jewish people?

Dr. Netanel Fisher is a visiting scholar at the Kohelet Forum and at the  Israel’s Open University. Dr. Fisher holds a PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has served as  an adjunct scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hebrew University and as an Associate Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
This exchange focuses on Becoming Jewish, a new book edited by Dr. Fisher and Professor Tudor Parfitt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). In the next installments we will also be speaking to Professor Parfitt.


Dear Dr. Fisher,

Let’s start with the opening paragraph of the introduction to the book:

Over the last fifty years or so we have witnessed the global phenomenon of a vast number of individuals and groups choosing to become part of the Jewish people, either through marriage, conversion or self-identification as Jews. In many cases this development is being played out through the creation of new religious movements of a Judaic or partially Judaic nature. This overall phenomenon constitutes a dramatic turning point in Jewish history, since traditionally non-Jews had little or no interest in joining the Jewish people. This new reality has many implications, as it is beginning to change the face of Jewish communities and at the same time sharpen the debate over the boundaries of the Jewish collectivity. However it is also creating new opportunities and possibilities both in terms of increasing and reinforcing the world’s Jewish population.

We have two introductory questions:

  1. Define “vast” – is this really a global movement?
  2. Define “join” – is marrying a Jewish person in the same category as conversion? You seem to imply that any connection with a Jewish person amounts to joining the Jewish people – is that what you think?




Dear Shmuel,

I’ll start with the first question –

The phenomenon we describe in Becoming Jewish is indeed a vast global movement in both quantity and quality. Quantitatively, we are talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. All across Asia and Africa, groups – such as Benei Menashe and Benei Ephraim, Ibo and the Lemba – see themselves as the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. In South America, Spain, Portugal and south Italy, thousands who carry Crypto-Jewish family traditions are seeking their way back to Judaism. In the US and other western countries there are members of interfaith families who adopt the Jewish lifestyle of their Jewish family members (and many others without Jewish background just choose to be Jewish). In post-communist countries, people of Jewish descent are returning to their Jewish roots, which were hidden since World War II; in Germany, hundreds have converted since the Holocaust. In Israel, the case I know the best, non-Jewish immigrants are joining Israeli society, mostly without going through formal conversion, and gradually becoming Israeli Jews. If we put all these cases together, it brings us to great, unprecedented numbers.

Qualitatively too, this is a vast movement. Beyond the numbers, all around the world people want to join the Jewish nation. They identify as Jews and adopt rituals and Jewish lifecycle practices and customs. Does this mean they are Jewish? Do these people see themselves as solely Jewish? That’s a different question I will address shortly. However, the phenomenon is qualitatively different from all other precedents in Jewish history. Throughout most of Jewish history, non-Jews had no interest in joining the Jewish people. Since the period of emancipation, when legal barriers started falling, the main trend was outward, as hundreds of thousands of Jews – a marginalized ethno-faith community – tried to assimilate in the non-Jewish majority groups of their different countries. In the recent past, there has been no other such trend of joining the Jewish people in terms of scope, intensity and dramatic implications on the Jewish people.

This is why we define the phenomenon as a vast global one. However, I’m sure it is also a very familiar phenomenon to your readers. In the current Jewish world, each one of us, regardless of were we live, know someone who fits this “new Jew” character. Someone who fully or partially sees himself as Jewish although traditionally he is not. So we are talking exactly about these people.

Your second question touches the heart of the classical issue of who is a Jew. In recent decades, this question has been discussed from many perspectives (rabbinical, juristic, philosophical, etc.). Our claim is that for many people the question is not as relevant as it was before.

Let me explain this in short: According to Jewish tradition, one who wants to join the Jewish people must go through a formal rite of passage, namely conversion (and for the purpose of our discussion it doesn’t matter which type of conversion). This is exactly what’s changing as many individuals join the Jewish people without any formal action. For them, our discussion is irrelevant. Let’s take congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as an example. She is affiliated with a Reform synagogue, identified herself solely with Judaism, although (only) her father is Jewish. It is true that the Reform movement declared a new definition (in the 80s) according to which a person is also Jewish if his or her father Jewish. However, this decision indicated the new trend: people don’t need to follow the traditional ways of joining. New ways are coming into existence in theory and in practice.

Moreover: those who join the Jewish people no longer wait for rabbis or other Jewish leaders or movements (including the liberal ones) to decide whether they are Jews or not. Our discussion doesn’t mean too much for them. They join the Jewish people and declare themselves as Jews without asking any “gatekeepers” for permission. They have decided that they are Jewish, period. We need to carefully pay attention to this new reality: joining the Jewish people has become a vague and fluid action. This phenomenon marks a new step in Jewish history, as individuals independently declare themselves as Jews in one way or another and thus join the extended Jewish family.

Is the phenomenon described in Becoming Jewish creating a modern way of joining the Jewish people? Probably. Will it turn out to be an improvement upon the tradition?  It doesn’t seem so, but who knows? Does it mean a new type of Judaism or syncretism? I hope not. However, we need to seriously think about it and put our collective attention towards it. We are, no doubt, in the midst of a new stage in Jewish history.


Netanel Fisher

RCA must stand behind the conversions performed by its members

Let us begin with the facts: Converts whose conversions were conducted according to halachah, or Jewish law, are 100 percent Jewish.

In the eyes of God and Torah, they are full Jews, just as Jewish as any born Jews. Their Jewishness is not contingent on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate or anyone else. Halachic converts are Jewish, their children are Jewish, they are obligated to fulfill the mitzvot like all other Jews.

Anyone who casts aspersions on the Jewish status of these converts is in violation of one of the most important laws in the Torah: not to oppress the convert.

Yet there are those who raise doubts about halachic converts. With a heavy heart, we note that modern Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America is doing just that. (The RCA is a national organization that includes in its ranks several hundred synagogue rabbis.) Indeed, new information that has come before us leads us to believe that Jews who were converted by RCA rabbis prior to its institution of a centralized conversion system in 2008 known as GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) should beware – their conversions are now being questioned by the RCA itself. This affects not only them but their progeny as well.

Let us explain:

Prior to GPS, members of the RCA routinely convened a beth din, or Jewish court, and performed conversions. Converts who desired to marry in Israel would turn to the Chief Rabbinate there, through which all Israeli marriages are performed. To assure that an RCA rabbi’s conversion was valid, the Israeli Rabbinate would consult the RCA leadership to ascertain the conversion’s validity. The leadership of the RCA would pro forma verify that the RCA rabbis who performed the conversions were members in good standing, knowledgeable and reliable.

This would be good enough for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In America, too, when leaders of synagogues and day schools were unfamiliar with the converting rabbi, they would seek similar confirmation from the RCA.

As rabbis of large synagogues for many decades, scores of our conversions were approved over the years by RCA leadership. We know firsthand that there are countless other rabbis whose conversions were similarly approved.

This longstanding process was shattered when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate proclaimed in 2006 that even if an RCA rabbi’s conversion was confirmed by the RCA leadership, it would not be sufficient.

A few of us urged the RCA to challenge this decision. We urged the RCA to uphold the honor and integrity of its members and, more importantly, affirm the validity of their conversions. Regrettably, the RCA chose to “make peace” with the Chief Rabbinate by establishing the GPS system of centralized rabbinical courts in 2008. No longer would the RCA vouch for conversions performed by its members. Only those conducted by rabbis from the newly formed courts would be approved by the RCA.

In an article we wrote here in March 2008, we argued that the new system would raise questions concerning conversions done prior to GPS. It read: “What is most troubling is that conversions, done years ago with the informal backing of the RCA, are now being scrutinized. This, we believe, strikes at the very ethical fabric of halachah. Over the years, thousands of people have been halachically converted, and now they and their children, and for that matter their marriages, will all be questioned. The pain that this will cause the convert, a person whom the Torah commands to love, will be unbearable.”

The RCA, clearly stung by this criticism, responded a day later, dismissing our concerns.

“Public written statements over the last few days have raised questions regarding the status of conversions performed by RCA rabbis in the past, and whether all such converts would be subject to special re-evaluation or scrutiny by the RCA or by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” the organization wrote in a statement. “There is nothing in the RCA/GPS protocol for conversions that implies or states such a thing, and there was and is no intention to review or scrutinize, much less nullify, previous conversions. All conversions performed by RCA member rabbis that were considered valid in the past will continue to be considered valid in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

Rabbis Marc Angel, left, and Avi Weiss are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Photo courtesy of the IRF

Therefore, it was with deep pain that we read a statement issued recently by the current chairman of the GPS conversion program responding to media reports that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel had rejected several conversions done by leading Orthodox rabbis associated with the RCA beth din. The chairman explained that the RCA had an understanding with the Chief Rabbinate that all GPS conversions were valid. The conversions in question were performed prior to the creation of the GPS system, concerning which the Beth Din of America issued a ishur, a legal attestation, confirming their validity.

The statement went on to say that the RCA was taking “affirmative steps … in consultation with the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to provide greater assurances to those who converted outside of the GPS network of Batei Din and received ishurim from the Beth Din of America.”

Summing up the RCA position, the chairman wrote: “The Rabbinical Council of America stands behind every GPS conversion as well as every ishur issued to converts by the Beth Din of America, and recognizes all such converts and their children to be an integral part of the Jewish people, no less than every other Jewish person, including the community of RCA Rabbis and our families.”

This statement makes the position of the RCA clear: It will not stand behind the conversions performed by its members prior to the establishment of the GPS system unless those conversions receive an ishur by the heads of the Beth Din of America.

This is a major deflection from the RCA’s prior promise. Conversions done prior to the GPS system never involved the RCA Beth Din. Now an ishur from the Beth Din of America is required. For the RCA, this ishur will not only be necessary to prove the bona fides of conversions for the Israeli Rabbinate, but for Orthodox synagogues and schools in America, as well.

One wonders what the Beth Din of America will require from the rabbi to issue the ishur. Will it investigate the religious bona fides — as they now define them — of every converting rabbi? How far will the court go back and how deep will it dig? There were RCA rabbis in the 1950s whose synagogues hosted mixed dances. There were rabbis who were sent by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the era’s revered leader of modern Orthodoxy, to mixed-seating congregations in the ’60s and ’70s. Will all of these conversions be invalidated?

And how about the convert? Will non-observance nullify the conversion retroactively? Suppose the convert seeking the ishur is no longer observant. Or suppose the convert’s grandson or granddaughter who is not observant is seeking the ishur. The RCA has a responsibility to be fully transparent and answer these questions.

Unfortunately, the concerns we expressed in 2008 were entirely valid. Any pre-GPS convert will not be pro forma accepted as a valid convert. If the Beth Din of America feels the convert does not meet its standards, for whatever reason, the ishur will not be issued.

With this development, many thousands of people who were converted by RCA rabbis and are fully halachic Jews are now having their status as Jews thrown into doubt. This is a great travesty. Converts with whom we have had contact feel betrayed.

Even RCA rabbis who support the GPS system should stand up with courage and vigorously demand that those who converted with RCA rabbis prior to the GPS system be recognized as the halachic Jews that they are – without an ishur from the beth din. Applying GPS standards to pre-GPS conversions that had previously been accepted is immoral. Members of the RCA must let their leadership know how disappointed and outraged they are by the RCA’s change of policy.

It must also be added that not only is the RCA casting doubt on conversions done prior to GPS, it is also sending a message that conversions done today by modern Orthodox rabbis outside of GPS are questionable. This is precisely what happened in the recent case of the highly respected Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York, when a conversion he performed outside of GPS was turned down by the Israeli Rabbinate, resulting in grave anguish not only to one of the great modern Orthodox rabbis of our time, but to the convert herself.

By invalidating halachic conversions, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate continues on the path of alienating the masses of Jews in Israel. In linking itself to the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA undermines its credibility as an honest broker relative to conversions, placing power politics ahead of its responsibility to the Jewish people.

Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Angel is rabbi emeritus of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is also a past president of the RCA. Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.

Conversion marked an important step on his pioneering path

Technically, Claudio Estrada Jr. became a Jew on March 9, 2015, but “spiritually inside,” he said, “I was a Jew a long time ago.”

Between rounds of Jewish geography, Estrada shared his journey into Jewish life with the Jewish Journal in a Google hangout interview from his office at the PUC Community Charter Middle School in Lake View Terrace, Calif., where — at the relatively young age of 30 — he is the principal for sixth through eighth grades. 

In the background behind him, a massive wall calendar charted the year ahead for the school. The walls were marked with the school’s approved colors — red, blue, orange and white — and bore framed dictionary pages with larger messages written on them, one reading “You got this” and another “Let there be light.” A poster featuring an Oscar statue read, “We all dream in gold.” A program from “The Lion King” was a prominent cultural artifact — Estrada has seen the theatrical production nine times in three languages. A signed Seattle Seahawks jersey — Derrick Coleman, No. 40 — is also framed; and inspirational books and digital photo frames mark some personal touches. And most of this is not even for Estrada, who is trying to make his office “as inviting as possible.”

“The principal’s office used to mean, ‘You’re in trouble,’ but we just have a lot of conversations here. We are doing something different here,” he said, referring to the social emotional education approach that his school uses in the classroom. 

“We haven’t had any fights,” he said, noting that the most common violation is cyber-bullying or being verbally disrespectful. “We do a good job laying down the law; back-to-school assemblies let them know what not to do this coming year.”

He said, noting how little time he spends in that office, “I’m like Moses, I like being with the people. … He is the one who has the vision, sees the bigger picture, can get everyone together and move forward.” 

It’s not the first or last time in the conversation that he expresses a kinship with one of the most famous Jewish leaders of all time, and as he revealed the steps on his journey, it’s easy to see why: This self-described “first-generation Jewish Mexican-American” has been blazing his own path — and inspiring others to lead — since way before his conversion was finalized. 

Estrada’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1950s; he describes his home as “somewhat Catholic,” but at school he was surrounded by Jewish families, and absorbed Jewish holiday customs and culture. At college, he found himself “needing something higher than myself to feel proud of,” and began exploring Judaism. 

College itself was a diversion from the family path; he was the only one of four siblings who had a chance to go to UCSD and study abroad. His family’s reaction —“Why are you going away? Why aren’t you staying here? Isn’t it/aren’t we good enough? Why break the mold?” — provided a flavor of the response that news of his conversion would provoke.

After college, Estrada joined Teach for America; in 2012, he connected with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s (CLSFF) REALITY program, an Israel trip for fledgling educators, whom he described as “brothers and sisters wrestling in the same work.” 

“It was the perfect backdrop for a unique experience of self-discovery through the lens of tikkun olam.”

Philanthropist and CLSFF founder Lynn Schusterman connected him to ROI leaders in Mexico; about a year later, he joined a group of young professional Latin American Jews — “Jews that I thought never existed,” he said — in Mexico City, to talk about their Jewish communities’ social issues and to build homes for two local families in a remote part of the city.

Next on Estrada’s Jewish journey was a program run by Rabbi Shira Stutman from the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. After that, he found the American Jewish University’s Miller Intro to Judaism Program. 

“Since my first class, it was magic,” he said of meeting Rabbi Adam Greenwald, the director of the Miller Program. “I immediately connected with him. He’s also young and is able to relate, and make narratives more captivating. His style and pearls of wisdom are so profound and rich in Jewish values; he is a gem.”

While many individuals studying for conversion do so with a Jewish partner or friend, Estrada says his own five-year process of exploration and ultimately, conversion, was “my own choice and decision, and it’s been a blessing ever since.” 

He was particularly drawn to Judaism’s belief in one God, and, as an educator, felt connected to Holocaust works such as “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”

“Judaism is very poetic and, depending on the day, any portion of the Torah can have a different meaning depending where you are in your life. In Catholicism, there’s this arbitrary idea of planning for something after life. But what I admire about being Jewish is that we’re focused on being active in the present, sharing positive energy, leaving our world much better than where we found it.”

One family, the Alperts — whom he met when he was 18 and working as a part-time schoolyard assistant — has become what he still calls his “Jewish family.” 

His own family reacted to news of his Jewish identity with some denial, but for Estrada, his mother’s opinion mattered most. Finally, she said, “If that’s what makes you happy, then do it, enjoy it and make it your own,” Estrada recalled. “That was a huge step forward.” 

His mother has since studied with her son and attended seders with him. Estrada got her a mezuzah, and next to her Christmas tree she has a menorah. His siblings have also accepted Estrada’s faith with curiosity.

When he lost his father — “a traumatic life experience,” he said — in July 2010, Estrada felt supported by the Jewish community and found the Jewish prayers to be deep and profound. His family did Catholic Mass in his father’s memory; Estrada lit a yahrzeit candle. (The conversation with the Journal happened the day after his father’s sixth yahrzeit.) 

Estrada now brings his Jewish passions to work with him. Since 2014, Greenwald has come to Estrada’s school to offer students a chance to ask questions about Chanukah; he also brought a Holocaust survivor to Estrada’s school for a conversation with students. 

While Shabbat observance and kashrut continue to challenge him, he feels there’s “something cosmic” about prayer. Since he doesn’t understand much of the Hebrew, he connects through the music, and is grateful for the annual opportunity to engage in personal reflection in advance of the High Holy Days.

“I enjoy the series of traditions that allows me to better explore myself, align my moral compass with God, ask for forgiveness and forgive others, and start fresh with a new lens and outlook to life,” he said.

This year, he’ll be celebrating in Vietnam, at the wedding of his Jewish best friend from college. He already knows they’re having a Shabbat program for out-of-towners, and his friend’s mother will help him connect to local High Holy Days services. 

“It’s a time to be visually and spiritually connected with something bigger than yourself,” he said in contemplating the centrality of the coming holidays, “a time to publically say, ‘I’m a Jew,’ in my personal and professional life.” 

Shalom, Amar’e Stoudemire: Goodbye to the NBA’s Jewish star

For those obsessed with the search for Jewish big-time athletes, Amar’e Stoudemire, 33, was an unexpected dream and predictable heartbreaker — in short, the perfect punchline for a Jewish jocks joke.

Finally, here was a bona fide NBA superstar who publicly identified with the Tribe — one of the most explosive, fiercest dunkers no less — and he suddenly turned into one of the zeydes shooting around at the Jewish Y.

Bad knees. Aching back. Eye problems.

Stoudemire’s up-and-down NBA career came to an end this week with his retirement announcement on Tuesday.

A first-round pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Stoudemire — who was extremely athletic for his 6-10 frame — teamed with Steve Nash to turn the Phoenix Suns into the league’s most electrifying offense.

He missed virtually the entire 2005-06 season after undergoing knee surgery, but returned to peak form for several more campaigns. Stoudemire then signed a $99.7 million, five-year contract with the New York Knicks in 2010.

Soon after joining the Knicks, he excited the passions of Jewish sports fans when he told the New York Post that he had become “spiritually and culturally Jewish.” The All-Star said he was keeping kosher and would celebrate the High Holidays. (In 2013, he told JTA that he considered both of his parents “Hebrew.”)

Stoudemire delivered in his inaugural season as a Knick, leading the team to the playoffs for the first time in years and bringing the cool back to Madison Square Garden. But his final three seasons in New York were characterized by a slew of chronic injuries that often prevented him from playing and sapped the juice that had made him one of the best.

He would bounce to the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Stoudemire announced his retirement as a Knick, signing a symbolic contract with the club.

Reb Amar’e deserved better for exciting and embracing those who longed for a Jewish basketball star. But to be clear, this is not a takedown — it’s a lament.

We’re hoping those rumors about Stoudemire signing to play in Israel are for real. While we wait, let’s celebrate our favorite stories about him over the years.

Is the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire Jewish? (2010)

Stoudemire went to Israel on a spiritual quest. In a TV interview with an Israeli sports network, he sported a large white yarmulke, spoke a few words of Hebrew and conditionally committed to fasting on Yom Kippur and avoiding chametz on Passover.

Knicks’ Stoudemire says he is practicing Jew (2010)

In addition to telling the Post that he is a Jew “spiritually and culturally,” he said his trip to Israel was inspired by his finding that his mother was ancestrally Jewish.

Stoudemire staying in U.S. after mulling Israel move (2011)

Amar’e considered playing for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team during the NBA lockout.

Is Amar’e Stoudemire opening a Hebrew school? (2011)

The New York Daily News reported that Stoudemire was interested in opening a Hebrew school that would “focus on teaching the language and Jewish history.”

King of the Hebrew: Shaq or Amar’e? (2012)

JTA compared the Hebrew speaking skills of Amar’e and fellow NBA great Shaquille O’Neal, who dropped some Jewish phrases on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

Amar’e Stoudemire ties the knot in yarmulke, tallit (2012)

The star was married, Jewish style, on the roof of his Manhattan apartment.

Knicks’ Stoudemire becomes part owner of Jerusalem basketball team (2013)

Stoudemire purchased a stake in the Hapoel Jerusalem team. ESPN reported Tuesday that he could potentially play for the team after retiring from the NBA.

Amar’e Stoudemire scoring for United Hatzalah (2014)

Stoudemire set up a campaign that helped children donate a certain amount of money to the volunteer Jewish ambulance service for each point he scored for the Knicks during the 2014-15 season.

Rabbi Lookstein withdraws from GOP convention

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, known as Ivanka Trump’s rabbi, has withdrawn from delivering the invocation at the Republican National Convention’s kickoff event next week amid a backlash by members of his modern Orthodox community in New York.

Lookstein’s appearance was made public on Wednesday as a list of slated speakers at the convention in Cleveland was leaked to the media by the Trump campaign.

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The defense of (converting for) marriage act

Last July, I converted to Judaism after five years of studying and undergoing major lifestyle changes: I moved to a Jewish neighborhood, started keeping kosher, took off for Shabbat and the holidays, joined an Orthodox synagogue and learned with a chavrusa

Today, my observance has grown, and I keep taking on more and more mitzvot. I feel closer to Hashem than ever. 

None of that has stopped the outside world, however, from questioning just how legitimate my conversion actually was. At times throughout the process, and even after, I’ve been asked, “Did you convert for your husband?” and then was told — yes, told — that I only converted because I was in love. 

As if that’s a bad thing. 

As a writer, I’ve covered conversion a lot, profiling the spiritual journeys of others and offering my own personal essays. I know how tough it can be to go through the process, and I want to show support to my fellow gerim. When I’ve told my own story, though, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative feedback, which ranged from passive-aggressive to downright venomous. 

On a recent piece I published, one of the comments posted online read, “So you fell in love with some guy and decided to start living your life by his club’s rules and regs. Not exactly a shocker. Lots of women do this.” Another lovely commenter stated, “I would’ve appreciated this more if she had just admitted that she was doing it pretty much entirely for her husband.”

Internet trolling aside, there is a huge stigma in Jewish culture and society at large surrounding the concept of converting for love. But, given the right circumstances and right person, I think it’s entirely OK.

With Shavuot approaching, I found myself thinking about the story of Ruth, perhaps the Torah’s most famous Jew by choice. She converted to Judaism after following her widowed, impoverished mother-in-law, Naomi, to a strange new land — Bethlehem. 

According to Dina Coopersmith, a writer for

The everyday deity

I was not a Jew; now I am. 

I did not believe in God; now I do.

In 2009, I was an atheist. By 2013, I was a theist and a Jew. Today, my beliefs live among the other things that, while miraculous, are routine. When I need to breathe, there is air. When it’s time to walk or lie down, I have gravity. Food grows from the earth. There’s God. I’m a Jew.

We read about the Israelites at Mount Sinai seeing God as smoke and hearing God as thunder. I relate to that mountain vision. While looking at the ocean makes me wonder about planet Earth and tremble at its power, when I look out from my car at the 405, God shines at me from the broad hillsides of the Sepulveda Pass. Maybe what I see there is something like God’s immanence at Sinai. 

I never used to see that. 

Telling this story is tricky. Talking about belief in God can be difficult even among co-religionists. There’s an awkward feeling that the person giving such testimony may be a nitwit, or an evangelist, or a demagogue. It’s also easy to get into trouble. Many of us carry wounds that were inflicted by someone who invoked God. 

My story is not one of white lights, or miraculous coincidences, or disaster averted. 

I’ve told parts of the story, but never the whole thing.

In 2009, I stopped drinking and found recovery from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous. I hit no obvious bottom — I emailed a sober friend, he told me to try not drinking and to start going to meetings, and I did.

A few months later, someone asked me what had gotten me to stop drinking. My reflexive answer was that it was random. Very shortly thereafter, I realized that this answer was not intellectually satisfying to me. I am an alcoholic, more than a habitual drinker. I’m an addict. I don’t just randomly stop.

It was something beyond me that lent me the ability to stop drinking. 

It was God.

This realization did not come from some extreme moment. Rather, God’s existence presented itself to me as the only satisfying answer to the question, “Why and how did I stop drinking?” In this way, at the age of 40, God became a part of my understanding of the world.

Two years later. I arrived early to Yom Kippur services. Not a Jew. I went because my wife is Jewish, and we are raising our son as a Jew. Yom Kippur was the one day a year I went to shul. This had been the arrangement for 10 years. I sat close to some observant Jews wrapped in tallit and davening. As in previous years, I stayed at services all day and had a terrible time.

Over the next few days, I thought about those daveners. Two years of not drinking had, predictably, given me a sober mind. While I am an introvert and a misanthrope, I also knew I wanted community. I wanted a life that, even if I did not pray, included space for prayer. Then I thought about my family. My wife, a Jew. My son, a Jew. Me, wanting community and prayer. I can also be a Jew.

I started attending Shabbat morning services almost every week. A year later, I decided to pursue a formal conversion process. This time, I knew that randomness was not at play. 

God helped me find my place among the Jews.

I mentioned earlier that describing my new belief in God would be tricky, and here’s the trick. Getting sober and finding my way to Judaism are amazing experiences I had, and I just credited God with providing them. And that is how I understood it at the time. It’s difficult to explain finding God without describing some substantial experience that can be credited to God. But I honestly don’t think that God is much concerned with whether I drink, or whether I’m a Jew. I don’t think God truly intervened in my life to make those moments happen. 

God’s existence has been manifested to me in the form of other people’s actions. The sober friend who got me to meetings. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, most important, the Jews who have welcomed and supported every aspect of my conversion and participation in the Jewish community. Without these human actors, I could not have become a Jew, and God would never have become so apparent to me.

I converted three years ago and I pray every Shabbat morning. My prayer is very simple. I stand, with tallit on and eyes closed, rocking this way and that. I get to be the same person I am every other time of the week, but I get to be this person among my fellow Jews.

John Crooks converted to Judaism in 2013 through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Originally from Boston, he worked as a bassist in New York City and Los Angeles for many years. Now he is a software developer and multimedia designer primarily in the field of motion picture music and sound design.

I lost my mom but found a family

In 2003, I was 20 and living on the South Side of Chicago, in a dirty 10,000-square-foot warehouse with six roommates and four cats. There was a mysterious fungus, shaped like a human ear, growing in the corner of my room, and I did nothing about it. A typical day consisted of waking up around noon and smoking weed until I went to sleep. On the weekends, we’d throw raves in the warehouse. The place had a huge empty room, and we’d smash fluorescent lights against the walls and shatter them for fun. Life was going great.

When the phone rang on the morning of May 6, I was sound asleep. It was from Michigan, and it was the police. The cop on the phone was cold and gruff.  He said my mother, Nancy, had gotten into a car accident, that she was dead and I had to get to the morgue immediately to identify her body. 

I hung up the phone and screamed — a guttural howl that ran through my entire body. I thought people would come running, but none of my roommates heard me, because we lived in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. I had to walk into my best friend Jeff’s room and continue screaming. We got into his car and drove the four hours from Chicago to Grosse Pointe, Mich., the town where I grew up. I was in complete shock — sobbing and staring out the window, hoping we could either get there faster or never get there at all. It didn’t seem real. I felt bad because my mother was gone, but also for so many other reasons. I had taken her for granted. After all, at 20, I had my own super-fun, selfish life to worry about.

I felt bad that it was about to be Mother’s Day, and I could never give her the gift I’d been planning to give her. I felt bad that she’d died on the side of the I-94 freeway on a rainy night and I was miles away.

My parents divorced when I was 5, and my relationship with my father at the time of my mother’s death was strained. When I arrived and walked into my childhood home, my mother’s sister was sitting in the living room, Dewar’s in hand, with several of her girlfriends, discussing the memorial service. They kept talking about how the ceremony would be held at The Little Club, a private tennis club none of us could afford, because they had “great little sandwiches.” 

“Little sandwiches?!” I screamed. “Who gives a s—? What the hell are you talking about?!” 

I was furious that they were smoking in the house, too. I felt like they were erasing my mom’s smell.


When I think back to that time, it seems like one long day, but it must have been at least a week or more. The memorial service took place as planned at The Little Club. All of my aunt’s friends were there. It basically felt like a homecoming party for my aunt. Open bar. Nothing my mother would have ever wanted. People kept saying, “This is so fun! We have to do this again! I mean … without the funeral part.” I read a eulogy I’d written, and several people came up to me after and told me that I’d made them cry, as if to say, “How dare you spoil the party with your bummer speech.”

For the longest time, I convinced myself that my mom was in Florida. The last time I saw her alive, I was dropping her off at the airport. She was on her way to Fort Lauderdale to see my aunt and grandmother. She wasn’t dead, she was just in Florida and I wouldn’t see her for a while. I mean, to be honest, death and being in Florida kind of seem like the same thing, anyway, but that’s me. I was in denial. I was lost. I had no guidance from anything or anyone in my life, and I didn’t know how to mourn. I hadn’t grown up religious at all, so I also had no spiritual handbook. In fact, it was a running joke that my parents had taken me to get baptized, but when they found out that they’d have to take a class in order to do it, they bailed. So I was alone and didn’t cope well. 

I quit smoking weed because my mother had always hated it, but then just compensated by binge drinking. At one point, I was buying a fifth of Maker’s Mark each night. I would draw a line on the bottle, in an attempt to police my drinking. “Do not cross the line.” But I’d always end up crossing the line, literally and figuratively. On the outside, I appeared to bounce right back. Laughing hard and making jokes, even the day after she died. But inside, there was turmoil. This continued for almost 10 years. Ten years of increasing isolation, quitting school, getting angry, getting sober, falling off the wagon, and being in a deep depression. 

Basically, not living.

Putting everything on pause and not being part of the world. And there was no one to lean on, either. My mother’s death had made an already-small family practically microscopic. I swallowed the mistreatment from my dad and aunt because I desperately wanted family, but I was empty.

In 2005, I moved to New York. I started to pursue a dream of performing and writing comedy.  It was there that I met my husband, Gil. 

We met at a show called “The Dirtiest Sketch Show,” where people would perform horribly obscene sketches. It was great. Our eyes first met over a nude man doing something wrong with a turkey baster. It was the perfect place for love to blossom.

A couple of weeks into dating, though, we were eating at a sushi restaurant, and Gil told me he wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was devastated. And then, right after he dropped that bomb, three men walked up to our table and sang “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears out of shock. One of the waiters patted Gil on the back and said, “Wow, she had a great reaction!” assuming I was crying tears of joy.

A few months later, Gil took me to meet his parents for the first time — at Passover! It’s pretty intense to meet your boyfriend’s parents, but meeting them at a seder, when you’re not Jewish, is a whole other experience. I felt extremely awkward. Do they all hate me?

Do they think I’m stupid? What the hell are bitter herbs? I felt completely ignorant for not even knowing the most basic Bible stories. Gil seemed to know everything, though now I know he’s usually just talking confidently and has no idea what he’s saying. 

But once I got out of my own head, I realized this was a unique experience. My very limited exposure to religion had left the impression that questioning it in the slightest was wrong, but here was a large table of people doing just that. Questioning and analyzing everything. Having heated debates and praising one another for their theories and interpretations. There was a level of comfort in Gil’s family that I’d never experienced. He was close with his great uncle, they were friends, whereas, in my family, I avoided my elders because I was never pushed to be close to them. 

It was the first time I thought about converting. I found the idea of how Shabbat and the holidays unite a family incredibly appealing. 

There was only one thing that gave me pause, and that was giving up Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite holiday, and by letting it go, I felt as though I’d be losing a huge piece of her. In retrospect, I realize, I clung to Christmas because it was the only tradition my family had — the one time my house felt warm, bright and full of love.

I started conversion classes in 2014. In the first session, I felt like the dumbest person there, but every class got better and better, and they led to deep conversations between Gil and me, as well. Long talks about God, tradition, religion and things we might not discuss otherwise. Quite fittingly, the class that affected me most was about Jewish customs and rituals dealing with death. We learned about sitting shivah, walking around the block and re-entering the world no longer a mourner. We talked about shloshim and the unveiling. I realized that Jews had the guideline that I had looked for when my mother passed: a plan for mourning. 

At first, I was distraught. I was upset that I couldn’t go back in time and do all these things for my mom. That I couldn’t go back and help myself. But that regret eventually turned into relief because I also learned that there were other traditions that would connect me to her.

I finished my conversion that April, right before we went to Israel to meet Gil’s extended family. As they say, “I couldn’t go a shiksa, so I hit the mikveh.” I chose the Hebrew name Hanna for myself in tribute to my mother, as Hanna is a root for Nancy. I’d also always wanted a sister and there, sitting in the mikveh room as I dunked, was my beautiful, amazing, soon-to-be sister-in-law, Alexandra. 

I was pronounced a Jew and was left alone in the mikveh to reflect.

Without thinking, I began talking aloud to my mom. Laughing and crying about how life takes you to the craziest places. I don’t doubt for a second that my mom was in that room with me. It seems ironic now that I ended up “taking the class” that my parents never took in order to dunk myself and become a Jew. 

Upon landing in Israel, my small family became enormous. Gil’s Israeli family is huge. More than 150 cousins, uncles and aunts joined us at an engagement party we held there. Gil’s family is Yemenite, so we celebrated a very special ceremony they have called a Henne. We dressed in traditional garb; I wore a 3-foot-tall headpiece. My costume weighed more than 70 pounds. I sat with Gil as a procession of his tiny, adorable aunts approached and kissed me a million times, blessing me and telling me they loved me in Hebrew. “Todah,”  (thank you) I responded, like a clueless idiot. I was mystified by how quickly these people whom I couldn’t even communicate with accepted me with open arms. They seemed to see me as a good, loving, genuine person. That may sound strange to say about myself, but it’s something I have a hard time seeing. Especially after feeling selfish for so many years. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it, but I had been praying for this family for a long time, and I got what I’d wished for in the most unexpected, overwhelming way.

The most profound part of our trip to Israel coincided with Yom HaZikaron, which happened to fall on May 5 that year, the 11th anniversary of my mother’s death, to the day. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Israel for Yom HaZikaron, but at some point during the day, they blast loud air horns for a minute straight in memory of soldiers that have died. Everyone in the entire country stops what they’re doing and takes a moment of silence to remember the fallen.

Even those driving on the road pull to the side, exit their cars and hang their heads to remember. We happened to be on the freeway on our way to Jerusalem when the horns blasted. We, along with all the cars around us, pulled to the shoulder of the freeway and got out of our car. The side of a freeway, exactly like where my mom had passed away 11 years earlier. It was incredibly eerie, and meaningful and special. It felt a little too coincidental that I would be there, forced to face the reality of what had happened to my mom. I cried uncontrollably, but it was cathartic, and I felt more supported than ever before — strangely, it felt, by the entire country of Israel. United by loss. After the horns stopped sounding, we got back into the car and finished our drive to Jerusalem. There my new aunt, Zehavah, would be waiting with a yahrzeit candle, which we’d light together. That night we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, partying in the streets, and in a way I was finally re-entering the world, no longer a mourner.

I now light a yahrzeit candle every year on May 5. We’ve also added to that tradition by playing my mom’s favorite game, Yahtzee, looking at photos of her and listening to music that she loved. I didn’t realize how much Judaism would help me to finally make peace with my mother’s death. For those 10 lost years, I wanted to do something to honor her, but I built up so much pressure about it that I ended up doing nothing. Judaism kind of forces you, in a helpful way, to deal with things you might otherwise avoid. It’s a guideline. The yahrzeit candle, the Mourner’s Kaddish, reflecting on how you’re doing and what you’d like to change at Yom Kippur. All these things have allowed me to heal. 

Last month was the 13th anniversary of my mom’s death. I usually refer to May 5 as “Stinko De Cryo,” but this year, for the first time, I felt good. Sure, I cried, but I also had a great time with my family. The traditions we’ve established help me to be proactive in a time when I want to avoid thinking altogether. At this point, my mother has been dead for more than half of the time I actually got to spend with her alive. It’s hard to remember what she was like, especially when you push it out of your mind to protect yourself. But this annual check-in reminds me of my mother’s joyous spirit. 

Judaism gave me a prescription to grieve my mom and the blessing of a family to help me do it with, and her memory will be passed down to my kids through those beautiful traditions. 

Emily Strachan has been performing and writing comedy since 2005. She’s written for such TV shows as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Filthy Preppy Teen$.” She was also a staff writer for “Funny or Die.” She has been a house team member at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and can be seen performing in various shows around Los Angeles.

Palestinian conversion requests rejected automatically, Israeli official says

Israel’s authority handling conversions to Judaism rejects Palestinian applicants without review because of their ethnic origin, its head said.

Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, director of the Israeli government’s Conversion Authority, spoke about his organization’s handling of requests by Palestinians to convert on Tuesday during a discussion on conversions at the State Control Committee of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the news site nrg reported.

To initiate an officially recognized conversion to Judaism in Israel, foreigners need to apply to the special cases panel of the Conversion Authority

“The threshold requirements” to be considered by the special cases panel, he said, “are that applicants be sincere and that they are not foreign workers; infiltrators; Palestinian or illegally in the country.” In 2014, he added, the special cases committee received 400 applications. “Half of the applicants were accepted, the rest were rejected as foreign workers, infiltrators, illegal stayers and Palestinians,” he said.

Conversions to Judaism by Palestinians are rare in Israel.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which is the legal basis for the country’s basic laws  — a set often referred to the equivalent of Israel’s constitution — ensures “absolute social and political equality to all its citizens regardless of faith, race and gender.”

Jenna Jameson on her new spiritual journey to Judaism

In a cozy apartment near The Grove, in the heart of Los Angeles, lives an unlikely couple. He is Lior Bitton, 41, an immigrant from Israel and a diamond broker. She is perhaps the world’s most famous porn star, Jenna Jameson.

Since her June announcement that she is converting to Judaism, Jameson has embraced the religion with gusto, reading all the material about it she can find and shopping at kosher markets. The proof is all over Twitter and Instagram (of course):

“Finished with my grocery list for my latest menu for Shabbat,” one tweet says.

“Made Challah again last night (love trying new recipes), turned out fantastic,” says another. An Instagram post from mid-June shows a photo of a Shabbat table with homemade challah and candles with the caption, “Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” She has even tweeted a couple of times in Hebrew.

Bitton and Jameson, also 41, moved in together a few months ago. On a recent Thursday evening, the dining table in their apartment was already set for Shabbat dinner. The scent of challah baking in the oven filled the air as a barefoot Jameson opened the door, dressed in a long, sleeveless dress revealing her fully tattooed arms. Her long, blond hair was tied back in a ponytail; numerous earrings adorned her earlobes. 

“I love cooking,” Jameson said as she opened the oven to introduce two perfect challahs. “I’m Italian, and we love to cook and feed others.”

Since she got engaged to her Israeli fiancé, she has learned to cook many Israeli dishes, including cholent — which Bitton is proud to say is exactly how his grandma used to make it — and Moroccan dishes such as chraimeh (spicy Moroccan fish). 

Bitton said he never asked Jameson to convert. 

“It was her decision completely,” he said.

“I was raised Catholic by my father, who was always on a religious journey. He was a very devout Catholic and he instilled that in me — not necessarily being Catholic, but the faith.” Jameson said. “However, from a very young age, I doubted this religion and had many questions [for] my father. He told me, ‘What you need to do is study all religions and see what talks to you and your heart.’ … I loved the spiritual aspect of Judaism. Therefore, I started studying and researching Judaism by myself and decided to convert. I didn’t even tell Lior about it until I made up my mind a few months ago.

“I love every aspect of Judaism,” she continued. “It goes hand in hand with bettering myself and my spiritual growth. I had a very rough four years, and I finally found my path. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for me.” 

Those rough times would refer to her breakup with the father of her twin boys, MMA fighter Tito Ortiz, and the resulting custody battle and financial hardship.

“Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” Jenna Jameson posted on Instagram. Photo from Instagram

Jameson met Bitton about a year ago in an apartment complex in Huntington Beach. It was a year after her split from Ortiz, and Bitton also was in the process of a divorce from the mother of his three young children. They lived across from each other, her balcony overlooking his from across the yard. 

“I was finding myself again, trying to find happiness, being a bit solitary,” Jameson said. “I noticed this cute guy in the balcony across from me. He was also by himself, always with his computer, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we are living parallel lives.’ ” 

Jameson introduced herself, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“For the first month, we talked for hours every single day,” Bitton said. “We were like shrinks to one another. We told each other everything, we spoke of our problems, cried on each other’s shoulder and got to know one another well.”

What Jameson said she found most endearing is the fact that Bitton was not judgmental and seemed a little clueless about her fame as “The Queen of Porn.” 

“He said, ‘I don’t think they know about you in Israel,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, I think they just might,’ ” Jameson recalled, laughing. “Everyone is very judgmental and has misconceptions about who I am and always has something to say, and Lior only goes by what he knows and learns about me, and that’s a beautiful characteristic. I really like it about him.”

Bitton’s three children, who are all under 7, were born in the United States but now reside in Israel with their mother. Jameson’s twins are 6. Together, they hope to have more children.

Jameson’s father died a few years ago, but she believes that he wouldn’t have frowned on her decision to convert. 

“My father served in Vietnam, and he loved the way Israel had always protected herself from her enemies with lots of courage and dignity,” she said. “When I was growing up, I remember that I always had a great appreciation for the State of Israel, thanks to my dad. 

“What I didn’t know,” she continued, “was that the Israeli men are such hunks and that the Israeli women are so beautiful.” 

Her memoir, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” hit the top of The New York Times best-seller list and rocketed Jameson into the mainstream spotlight. Now she is working on the sequel, which will include fewer sexual anecdotes and talk more about her spiritual journey, finding Judaism and the new love in her life.

Her new persona as a Yiddishe mama has been accepted well by her fans. “I’ve been interacting with so many Israelis, and they are all so welcoming and supportive,” she said.

Jameson’s — well, unorthodox — life might seem great material for a blockbuster movie and, indeed, she confirmed that numerous producers have approached her with offers to turn her memoir into a movie. Who would she like to see playing her on the big screen? 

“Scarlett Johansson,” she said without hesitating. “She is a great actress. And she is Jewish.”

Q&A with Jorma Kaukonen on Jefferson Airplane and Judaism

Jorma Kaukonen, who played guitar in classic rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, has just released his first solo album since 2009.

While Kaukonen’s guitar skills are legendary, few people know that he bought his first electric guitar by cashing Israel Bonds he received from his Jewish grandmother. On the eve of Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary, the 74-year-old Kaukonen, who lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife, a Jew-by-choice, talked to JTA about his Jewish family roots, the Torah scroll his great-grandfather worked on and why so many blues guitarists are Jewish. This interview has been condensed and edited.

So you’re half Jewish and you didn’t really have a Jewish upbringing, but I’ve read that if things went differently you could have been Orthodox?

Interestingly enough, my father’s parents came over from Finland in the 1800s and my mother’s came over from Russia. So I’m Jewish on my mother’s side, which of course makes me Jewish. But my grandparents were a really interesting pair of people. My grandmother was a very, very secular Jew, even though she was a lifelong member of Hadassah and all that kind of stuff. And my grandfather, had he not been married to my grandmother, would have been an Orthodox Jew, but that’s not how it played out.

My dad was in the service during the Second World War, so I grew up with my grandparents a lot – and everything in their world was completely Jewish. I just didn’t know much about the religion. They either spoke Hebrew, Yiddish or Russian, especially when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about – which worked really well by the way.

And your great-grandfather was a Torah scribe?

In Ellington, Conn., there’s a shul that one of my great-uncles helped design when he was 15. And my great-grandfather Shmuel actually — I don’t know the correct word for this — but he actually scribed the Torah himself. When I was up there seven or eight years ago, my mom’s last living first cousin was still alive, and she said “Would you like to see the shul?”

Now I just happened to have a yarmulke in my pocket. I put it on and she goes: “You’re such a good boy.” I’ll never forget that. We went in and they had a number of Torahs, and there was a small one that my great-grandfather had done.

You spent so much time on the road with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Was there anything religious or spiritual going on while you were on the road all those years?

I didn’t really discover my Jewish identity in a concrete way until my wife converted about a decade or so ago. Were there spiritual things? Sure, because many people of my generation were questioning things in a way. And interestingly enough, think about how many Jewish guys were blues guitar players — whether they were electric guys like Mike Bloomfield, or guys who did everything like Dave Bromberg? There were so many of us who were of Jewish heritage who fell into that type of music.

When my wife converted, the rabbi suggested that even though I had a bris when I was a kid that I was never really exposed to any of this stuff, largely because, I realize now, of my grandmother’s vocal antipathy. So I went through the whole [conversion] process with my wife. We studied biblical Hebrew and all that kind of stuff. As a result I’ve become very involved in our community, which is organized around what happens in the school [Ohio University].

Interestingly enough, 70 miles away in Huntington, W. Va,there is a large synagogue. So as a result of my wife getting involved in this, I did too, and one time we were invited to come down by Margot Leverett, the great klezmer artist, and my friend Barry Mitterhoff, who plays mandolin with me. We went down and I remember we went to the synagogue — and I’m sure this isn’t the only time it’s happened, but it’s the only time it’s happened to me — this guy came out with a cowboy hat on and boots, and he looked at me, put his hand down and said “Shalom, y’all.” That’s how they do it in West Virginia sometimes.

So with Jefferson Airplane approaching its 50th, are you guys on good terms?

Yeah, we are. Obviously with a big thing like a 50th anniversary, people wonder whether some of the guys would like to put the band back together again. Grace [Slick] doesn’t sing anymore, so that means that’s really out of the question. We’d like to do something. We don’t know what that is, whether it’s just wandering around and yakking on talk shows or something like that. Maybe having some acoustic guitars and playing some songs and talking.

I was looking through some of your old solo albums, and some songs seemed to have some religious undertones – especially “Quah,” which includes the songs “Genesis” and “I Am the Light of this World.”

Right. “I Am the Light of this World” is a Rev. Gary Davis song. This is another thing that David Bromberg and I have talked about — and we wonder half-jokingly — why so many of us guys who are Jewish folk guitar players do so many songs that are from a Christian tradition. When I listen to a song like that, even though the reverend was obviously a Christian and spoke about Jesus a lot—to me, that’s a metaphor. And as Bromberg himself says, Jesus was a great rabbi. But there is something about spiritual songs that without focusing on the things that make them denominational, I find very uplifting.

How has your relationship to Judaism changed since your wife converted?

When I was finding my Jewish roots when my wife was converting, and when I spoke to the rabbi, one of the things that always came up for me, even when I didn’t think about it, was that I felt very comfortable in the context of a Jewish milieu. I don’t live in a Jewish context most of the time because that’s not how my world works, but whenever it happens, I feel like I’ve come home.

One of the things that I really enjoy about my friends who are Jewish is that almost to a man or a woman, everyone really has a different take on the whole thing. I like that that is allowed to happen. I’m not fond of dogma of any sort. And I know there’s dogma in Judaism too, but I like that in spite of that there’s a lot of wiggle room. And just to keep your mind open without losing the strength of the heritage, I think it’s a really cool thing.

Is she Jewish? Rabbinate says yes, Israel says no

In 2012, Anna Varsanyi was married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony conducted through Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Two years later, the Hungarian immigrant has made a life in Israel, settling with her husband in the central city of Modiin and working a desk job in a hospital. She is weeks away from having her first child.

But when the baby won’t be Jewish, according to the State of Israel.

Varsanyi, 30, is the victim of an unusual bureaucratic mix-up.

Israel abounds with immigrants who are considered Jewish by the state but not by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate under its stricter qualifications. Varsanyi is the rare case in which the opposite is true.

Born to a Jewish mother, Varsanyi meets the Chief Rabbinate’s standards for who is a Jew. But Israel claims Varsanyi isn’t Jewish because her mother converted to Christianity.

Varsanyi says her mother is Jewish and it was her great-grandmother who converted — in 1930.

“It’s like they tell you, ‘Come, make aliyah, you’re Jewish, you’re one of us,’” Varsanyi said, using the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. “But when you’re already here, they say ‘You’re second-class, you’re not one of us. So you might as well leave.’ ”

Born under Hungary’s Communist regime to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, Varsanyi grew up barely aware of her Jewish heritage. But a growing interest in her Jewish roots led her to study Yiddish literature and culture at university and to register for a 10-day Birthright Israel trip. Next came a year abroad at the University of Haifa, where she met her Israeli future husband. After a stint working for the Jewish Agency for Israel in Budapest, she immigrated in 2011.

Varsanyi gained citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires only one Jewish grandparent for an immigrant for automatic citizenship. Varsanyi’s maternal grandfather was unambiguously Jewish.

But when Israel’s Interior Ministry saw a document concerning her great-grandmother’s conversion, they refused to register her as Jewish, claiming she was raised Christian. To be recognized as Jewish, the ministry told Varsanyi, she needed to convert.

Except Varsanyi can’t convert because she is already Jewish according to Jewish law, which doesn’t recognize conversions to other religions. The chief rabbinates of both Israel and Hungary consider Varsanyi, her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother to be Jewish.

“It’s hard to imagine anybody more committed to the Jewish people than someone like Anna,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that guides people with religious status issues through Israeli bureaucracy. “They’re simply not looking at the facts. This woman’s basic rights are being violated, and those of her unborn child are being violated.”

At first, the Interior Ministry’s decision had little effect. Varsanyi already had citizenship and was married, the two areas in which issues of personal religious status are most likely to cause problems.

But last year she began petitioning the ministry for a change in status, worried that her future children would not have their marriages recognized by the government.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Varsanyi said. “Why would they force me to convert when I’m Jewish? If I didn’t have principles or problems I’d say let them win. But I wouldn’t be able to face myself.”

The ministry has rebuffed her requests, claiming that her mother converted from Judaism before she was born. Varsanyi says this is not true, that it was her great-grandmother who converted.

The ministry also has refused to rely on the Chief Rabbinate’s recognition of Varsanyi as Jewish, despite a 2012 law allowing it to do so. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabin Haddad told JTA that the ministry has asked the rabbinical court that declared Varsanyi Jewish for an explanation but has yet to receive a response.

After several rejections, Varsanyi has come to feel like the ministry’s employees “don’t give a crap.” She said she once met with a ministry official, who after reading her papers said, “I don’t know what you want because you’re not Jewish.”

“It was traumatic — I almost cried,” she said. “Like, ‘Welcome to Israel: You’re not a Jew.’”

For some Orthodox converts, biggest challenges come after mikvah

There was the convert who was barred from a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jamaican convert whose boyfriend’s rabbi offered him a coveted synagogue honor if only he’d dump her, the grandmother who told her granddaughter she’d be going to hell because she became a Jew.

The road to conversion can be long and difficult for many prospective converts to Orthodox Judaism, filled with uncertainties and fear about gaining final rabbinic approval. Yet even once they emerge from the mikvah as newly minted American Jews, many find the challenges hardly end.

“Most of my negative experiences were after the conversion,” said Aliza Hausman, a 34-year-old writer and former public school teacher in Los Angeles.

“I was really excited about [attending] my first bar mitzvah. But when I got there the rabbi’s shtick was that he would tell the most derogatory jokes about goyim he could think of,” Hausman recalled. “My first Pesach was listening to someone whose daughter was in a matchmaking situation, and out of nowhere she starts talking about shiksas,” a derogatory word for non-Jewish women.

One Yom Kippur, Hausman, who is of mixed-race parentage, said she was stopped at the door of her in-laws’ synagogue by people who assumed she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. She ran back to her in-laws’ home in tears.

Many Orthodox converts contend that the Orthodox community is less accepting of Jews by choice than the more liberal Jewish denominations, where converts are far more numerous.

In the first couple of days after the arrest last month of Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges that he installed a secret camera in the mikvah at his Orthodox shul in Washington, Kesher Israel, many of Freundel’s converts expressed concern that the legitimacy of their conversions would be challenged. The Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinical group, quickly announced that it would stand by Freundel’s conversions, and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate eventually offered similar indications.

Orthodox converts say it’s not unusual to be asked to produce their conversion papers – either by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, if they seek to marry in Israel, or by a Jewish institution, potential matchmaker or prospective in-law.

One woman who asked to be identified only as Sarah due to the personal nature of her experience said that when she became involved in a serious relationship with a man from a Chabad family, his father demanded to see her conversion papers and decided her conversion wasn’t kosher. Thus began a long odyssey to convince her future in-laws that hers was a bona fide conversion. (Sarah did not convert through the RCA system, whose certified conversions are broadly accepted, because she said RCA rabbis refused to meet her or respond to her inquiries.) Eventually her future father-in-law’s concerns were assuaged.

Back when she was studying for conversion, a rabbi offered Sarah an early indication that finding a mate would not be easy.

“The rabbi said to me, ‘We don’t have much to offer you in the way of husbands. The only thing we would have to offer is the bottom of the barrel,’ ” she recalled.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a Yeshiva University spiritual adviser who is among the 15 or so rabbinic volunteers who staff the RCA’s conversion courts in New York, says the courts are very cognizant of the challenges of integrating converts into the Orthodox community — and wary of converting those unlikely to succeed. That’s partly why the conversion courts require that every convert have a sponsoring rabbi, he said.

“There has to be a sponsoring rabbi so there’s someone who is gong to take responsibility to keep up with that person after the conversion takes place – making sure the community accepts that individual fully as Jewish, has a place to go to holidays, for example,” he said. “It’s hard enough for a single person to function in the Orthodox community, which is family oriented. The convert doesn’t have any of these support mechanisms.”

Unmarried converts often are fixed up with the community’s least desirables, converts say. Non-white converts say they are frequently fixed up only with members of the same race, even if they have nothing else in common.

Converts “receive the absolute worst shidduch [matchmaking] recommendations for potential marriage partners, if they receive them at all,” wrote Bethany Mandel, a convert in her “Bill of rights for Jewish converts” in the Times of Israel after the Freundel scandal broke. “A corporate lawyer does not deserve to be constantly matched with the likes of a janitor just because he happens to be another black convert (yes, this happened to a friend on a serial basis).”

Rabbi Zvi Romm, who administers the Orthodox conversions in New York certified by the Rabbinical Council of America, says the demographic profile of most converts doesn’t make things any easier: Most are women in their late 20s and early 30s.

“A convert who is in her late 20s or older may have a harder time meeting men, and some Orthodox men are reluctant to date a convert,” Romm said. “It’s tragic that converts who typically enter the community with tremendous idealism often find it difficult to find a marriage partner.”

Conversion also can be lonely. New to the community, converts often have no place to go for Shabbat or holidays.

Yossi Ginzberg, an Orthodox activist who along with his wife runs support programs for converts, including hosting them for Shabbat and holidays, says the community needs to more attuned to welcoming converts – a mitzvah the Torah makes clear in passages about “loving the ger,” or convert.

Ginzberg says some of the greatest resistance to converts comes from their own families. At a wedding last week for a convert who remarried her Jewish husband just hours after formally becoming a Jew, the bride’s mother unexpectedly refused to attend because she was upset that her daughter had rejected Jesus. The mother eventually was coaxed into the Brooklyn synagogue basement where the wedding took place by interlocutors who argued that her daughter’s conversion to Judaism amounted to an embrace of Jesus’ original religion.

Some converts say they face hostility within their own families when they explain that they can no longer eat in their parents’ kitchen or face the predicament of a sibling’s church wedding (Orthodox authorities commonly forbid entering churches or attending church services).

“The biggest transition for me was adjusting to always having to rely on close friends for certain things, like the holidays, especially since I come from an Italian family that’s really close knit,” said Stephanie McCourt, an Orthodox convert in her 20s originally from Connecticut. “Balance between religion and family will always be a struggle.”

Ariella Barker, a 34-year-old single attorney, says that after her conversion she would often leave her lower Manhattan home to spend Shabbat on the borough’s Upper West Side, home to America’s single-largest concentration of modern Orthodox singles. But the scene there felt like a club in which she clearly was not welcome.

“I felt like an outsider. I really couldn’t break through and make a lot of friends,” Barker said. “People would always ask me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ or ‘What’s your Hebrew name?’ I never felt like I fit in.”

Barker immigrated to Israel a year after her conversion and said she immediately found a warm embrace in her multinational Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. But four years later she became ill, forcing her to move back in with her mother near Charlotte, N.C. Now she says her greatest challenge as a Jew is her isolation. The closest Orthodox synagogue is a 45-minute drive away, and it’s Chabad, which Barker says is not an ideal fit for her modern Orthodox sensibility.

“It’s very difficult for me living with my family because my family is not Jewish,” Barker said. “I still keep kosher, I still keep Shabbat. It’s just not what it was when I was living in a community.”

Of course, not all Orthodox converts have difficult transitions.

Clark Valbur, who lives in Brooklyn, said he was worried about acceptance before he converted five years ago. But his fears turned out to be unfounded.

“I have only had really good people who were genuinely interested in helping me, who were there for me and continue to be,” said Valbur, who is married to a Yemenite Jewish woman, with whom he has a child. “Most people that know me don’t know I’m a convert.”


Israel moves to ease path to conversion for those not considered Jewish

The Israeli government has adopted a major reform expected to ease the path to conversion for hundreds of thousands of Israelis now prohibited from marrying in the Jewish state.

In the most significant response in decades to the estimated 400,000 Israelis who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, the Cabinet expanded authority for conversion beyond a small group of approved haredi Orthodox courts.

Since only Orthodox Jewish marriage is permitted in Israel, such Israelis — the majority of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union — must convert if they wish to be married in Israel.

Under the new law, which was passed Sunday and became effective immediately, the conversion process is expected to get significantly easier.

The measure, which allows any city rabbi in Israel to perform conversions, is expected to pave the way for the elimination of some provisions seen as overly stringent, such as the Chief Rabbinate’s requirement that converts send their children to Orthodox schools.

Currently, only four rabbinic courts appointed by the haredi-dominated Rabbinate are authorized to perform conversions.

“Every rabbi in every city will be able to set up his own tribunal according to Jewish law,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who brought the bill to a Cabinet vote along with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. “It also gives a choice. People will be able to choose the tribunal they want to go to, and warm, friendly tribunals will be used more than others.”

Conversion policy has dogged Israel since the 1990s, when about 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union entered the country. The immigrants qualified for citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires immigrants to have just one Jewish grandparent. But hundreds of thousands did not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s stricter standard for Jewishness — either having a Jewish mother or undergoing an Orthodox conversion — and thus could not marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate’s stringencies led many to balk at the process entirely, in many cases choosing instead to marry abroad. Israel recognizes non-Orthodox conversions performed overseas.

The Cabinet vote on Sunday is the latest attempt at a compromise to make the conversion process friendlier.

In 1999, the government established the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, a body intended to teach potential converts about Judaism from a range of non-Orthodox perspectives in preparation for an eventual Orthodox conversion, but the effort foundered.

In 2010, the issue heated up again after Yisrael Beiteinu became the Knesset’s third-largest party. The party, focused on Russian immigrant interests, proposed a measure similar to the one that just passed, but a provision would have given full control over conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. That provoked the ire of non-Orthodox groups and the law was shelved.

“This government resolution doesn’t give more power to the Chief Rabbinate,” said Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an organization that aids Israelis with personal status issues. “The hope is that this bill will enable a much more understanding and friendly set of rabbinical courts to emerge without the Chief Rabbinate imposing their monolithic view on every conversion.”

The reform chips away at longstanding haredi Orthodox dominance of conversion policy. Both of Israel’s chief rabbis, who are haredi, oppose the new law. Should the chief rabbis attempt to block the conversions, Farber has pledged to petition the Supreme Court.

The passage of the law marks the end of a lengthy legislative process. Though it passed an initial Knesset vote last year, a ministerial committee vote required to move the measure along was postponed continuously until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed it from the legislative agenda entirely two weeks ago, reportedly to appease haredi parties.

A group of ministers led by Bennett and Livni responded by pushing the law through the committee anyway, and a modified version passed in the Cabinet.

While the reform doesn’t go as far as recognizing non-Orthodox conversions — a step many non-Orthodox and Diaspora groups would liked to have seen — those groups nevertheless heralded its arrival. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Israeli Reform movement, said he supports any reform that eases conversion as long as it doesn’t hurt non-Orthodox streams.

“Now there are no more excuses for [Religious] Zionist rabbis,” he said. “Now is the time for them to deliver.”


For prospective Orthodox converts, process marked by fear and uncertainty

Tzipporah Laura LaFianza and her family have been living as Orthodox Jews for four years now. They reside in a heavily Jewish suburb of Washington, go to shul every Shabbat and keep a strictly kosher kitchen.

But they’re not Jewish — yet.

A prospective Orthodox convert, LaFianza, 34, is still waiting for the all-clear from the local rabbinical court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America so she and her family can immerse in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, and formally become Jews.

LaFianza has been working toward conversion under the auspices of Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Washington clergyman arrested two weeks ago for allegedly installing a secret camera in the mikvah adjacent to his Orthodox synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation.

As the RCA continues to deal with the fallout from Freundel’s arrest for voyeurism, many converts and prospective converts say more must be done to address the systemic problems that make Orthodox conversion difficult. In particular, they cite a lack of clarity and consistency about the prerequisites and the timetable for conversion.

For her part, LaFianza says she has encountered unexpected obstacles at every stage of her drawn-out conversion process. She had to relocate to an Orthodox neighborhood. She was told she must send her children to Jewish day school (something she says she cannot afford). She had to search for a new sponsoring rabbi after her original choice told her he didn’t have the time.

“It’s always hard to get a real answer out of anyone,” LaFianza, who grew up a secular Christian, told JTA. “You have to figure it out as you go. We’ve been delayed, delayed, delayed.”

Now she faces yet another obstacle: the Washington rabbinical court, or beit din, has been suspended following Freundel’s arrest. LaFianza doesn’t know where to turn.

The RCA, which in 2007 began to formally accredit Orthodox conversions through a centralized system with regional rabbinical courts that work in tandem with converts’ sponsoring rabbis, says it is putting together a commission to review its entire conversion system. It’s also appointing women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”

But it’s not clear whether those steps will address the most common problems encountered by conversion candidates. Every conversion proceeds at a different pace, depending on the candidate, the sponsoring rabbi and the beit din. There are no clearly delineated requirements. Unmarried women cannot date during their conversion process. Converts have little recourse when their sponsoring rabbi is unresponsive or, in the worst cases, abuses his position, as Freundel allegedly did by requiring conversion candidates to do clerical work and donate to his rabbinical court.

Rabbis involved in the RCA’s conversion courts say conversion is not a one-size-fits-all program, and that while they try to be sensitive to converts’ needs, the ultimate goal of a successful conversion may be at odds with a smooth process.

“The conversion process is not like getting a degree where you have to fill requirements X, Y or Z,” said Rabbi Zvi Romm, the administrator of the RCA’s New York beit din for conversion. “Acquiring knowledge is one component. But ultimately, the conversion process is about embracing a new lifestyle and community, and some people are going to do that faster than others. It’s like dating: How long do you have to go out with someone before you know?”

For the rabbinic gatekeepers who oversee RCA conversions, there is only one acceptable gauge for whether a conversion should be approved: They must become an Orthodox Jew.

Romm outlined the basic requirements: Shabbat and kosher observance; daily prayer; fluency with the blessings; wearing a head covering and tzitzit ritual fringes for men; and commitment to family purity observances — abstaining from sex during menstruation and immersing in the mikvah afterward. Hebrew reading skills also are usually required, and the person must be part of an Orthodox community.

On average, the process takes about two years, Romm says.

During that time, dating is banned because it’s a Catch-22: Romantic relationships with non-Jews are forbidden, and any Jew willing to date someone who has not formally converted is thought to be an unsuitable romantic partner for the convert.

For Jennifer Ajsenberg, two years of study with an Orthodox rabbi in the Minneapolis area came and went with no end in sight.

“Every time we’d meet it was always, ‘I’ll see you next month.’ It never felt like I was being checked for anything. There was no sense of timeline,” Ajsenberg said. “It felt like a really long and ambiguous process and that it’s really in the rabbi’s hands: whatever he determines the requirements to be.”

A single woman in her 20s, Ajsenberg knew she was not supposed to be dating but met a Jewish man she wanted to marry. Eventually, after three years of waiting, Ajsenberg gave up and enrolled in a Conservative conversion program. Within a year she converted Conservative, and two months later she married. That was a decade ago.

Maury Kelman, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches a weekly conversion class in Manhattan, says rabbinical courts need to be more up front about timetables.

“It can be devastating psychologically for students, who have devoted themselves to transforming their lives, to feel that the beit din is delaying their conversion, even by a week,” Kelman said. “It’s of crucial importance to give the prospective convert an understanding of the timeline and process involved, and the reasons behind any delays — whether for bureaucratic reasons, such as the difficulty in convening three busy rabbis who are all volunteers, or because the beit din feels that the student is not yet ready to accept Jewish law.”

Orthodoxy requires three rabbinic judges to approve and witness conversion. Orthodox converts don’t have to go through the RCA system; all they really need is a cooperative rabbi. What the RCA system offers is a degree of authentication that makes the conversion less likely to be challenged or questioned down the line, especially by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a rabbinical conversion court judge in New York who works as a mashgiach, or spiritual adviser, at Yeshiva University, says it’s impossible to offer converts a concrete timetable. For example, he said, the timing for someone still in college is likely to be longer because the beit din wants to be confident that the person’s interest in Judaism is not part of some passing phase.

“A lot of this really is a judgment call,” Blau said. “If you give the person a time frame that’s very precise, you’re running the risk of being misleading.”

About 70-80 people convert per year through the RCA’s New York regional beit din. To handle the load, the RCA has only one part-time rabbi, Romm, and a pool of about 15 volunteer rabbis who take turns serving as judges. Converts are expected to pay about $400 in fees, but the beit din sometimes will waive costs based on financial need and on occasion has played a proactive role in helping converts get tuition discounts at Jewish day schools.

That can be a dangerous proposition, however, Romm says, because the beit din wants to be confident that the convert will be able to afford the higher costs associated with an Orthodox lifestyle: kosher food, Jewish education, housing in an Orthodox neighborhood.

“One of the considerations we make is, can the person hack it financially?” Romm said. “If a person says I have no money whatsoever, I can’t afford the $400 fee paid out over time, the question you have to ask is, how are you going to make it as an Orthodox Jew?”

After the Freundel scandal broke, Bethany Mandel, who converted with Freundel in 2011 and took one of his now-infamous “practice dunks” in the mikvah in 2010, published a proposed “bill of rights” for converts in the Times of Israel. Among other things, she called for an accelerated and unique conversion process for converts raised in Jewish homes — a demographic that makes up a sizable number of Orthodox converts in America.

“I was born to a Jewish father and was raised Reform. I didn’t know I wasn’t halachically Jewish until a college Birthright trip,” Mandel wrote. “While in the process I was treated with the same unacceptable dismissiveness and disdain afforded to girls who were converting for marriage.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, agrees that the RCA should do all it can to ease the path to formal conversion for those raised in Jewish homes, like those in Mandel’s circumstance.

If one good thing comes out of the Freundel scandal, he says, it should be to help redirect the RCA back toward the converts that its conversion guidelines are meant to serve.

“The whole focus for RCA conversion has been oriented toward making sure the Israeli Chief Rabbinate accepts conversions,” Lopatin said. “Hopefully this will reorient toward an embrace of people who are very interested in converting.”


A Jewish conversion, three generations in the making

During World War II, Mileva Popovic hid four Jewish families from the Nazis in her home in the former Yugoslavia, now Montenegro. After Mileva’s son Vladimir found out about his family history, he started to learn about Judaism and became fascinated by its teachings.

Vladimir passed his interest in the religion along to his daughter, Ivana Popovic. Through her father’s teachings and her own observations, Popovic became interested in Judaism, so much so that when she started dating a Jewish man, it seemed natural that she should convert. 

“Most families don’t have the past that mine does,” she said. “I met my fiancé and embraced Judaism right away. My dad was always connected to it. I felt like it was fate.”

Popovic, 32, was born and raised in Montenegro in the Christian-Orthodox religion, though she celebrated only Christmas and Easter. She moved to the United States when she was 17 and spent eight years in New York City. During that time she met her now-fiancé, Anoush Hakimi, an Iranian Jew. 

She said she was intrigued by Judaism’s love of community. “I don’t see that kind of camaraderie in any [other] culture or religion. Jews take care of each other. That’s important.”

In 2013, Popovic moved to Los Angeles with Hakimi and decided to officially begin her work toward conversion, putting that before starting a new job and other responsibilities. Through her research, she found Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice course and felt it would be the best fit for her. “He had a lot of very good reviews and people seemed to love that program,” she said. “It felt like the right way to go.”

In her studies with Weinberg, she learned about Jewish traditions, holidays, dietary laws and tikkun olam. She said she identified most with the lessons on family values and took his teachings about Shabbat to heart. 

“I grew up in a culture where the most valuable times are those spent with your family and the ones closest to you,” she said. “That should be a priority. I can’t wait for Shabbat.”

Popovic learned that she should try to keep kosher, which she admitted was a struggle. “I never had any food restrictions growing up,” she said. “When you go to Montenegro, there is smoked prosciutto everywhere. The food part was the most difficult.”

When she completed her classes, Popovic went before the beit din, on Dec. 16 of last year. She answered questions for an hour and cried while she read from the Book of Ruth. Then she immersed in the mikveh and emerged a Jew. 

“I didn’t expect it to be as emotional as it was,” she said. “It really did feel like a new beginning. I was very happy to have a new beginning. Once I left, that first day I was trying to adjust. It was transformational and emotional.”

She chose the Hebrew name Aviva, which translates to “springtime.” Her mother’s name also means spring. 

Popovic continues to make it a point to cease work when Friday night rolls around, and to observe Shabbat. “Shabbat creates a habit, and the more we do it, the easier it gets,” she said. “Sometimes you’re in your own world during the week. It forces you to remember what’s most important.”

She and Hakimi attend Sinai Temple in Westwood for Shabbat services and relax with their loved ones. “I always light two candles at home and we always spend the Shabbat either at our home, or with my fiancé’s family or among close friends celebrating a traditional Shabbat dinner. It’s a soul renewal day, and it should be taken seriously.” 

Vladimir was happy with his daughter’s decision, and the rest of the family supported her as well. Hakimi’s family was also accepting. “They set an example by embracing me and showing that it’s good to welcome somebody who has a genuine interest,” she said. “Anoush and I got over the fact we’re from different parts of the world. It’s amazing how close our cultures are.”

Although Popovic‘s conversion is complete, she knows that she still has a long way to go in terms of education. Currently, she’s studying with Rabbi Jason Fruithandler at Sinai to prepare for her bat mitzvah, which is set to take place in June 2015. She said that she wants to continue to grow with her learning and expand her knowledge of Judaism. 

“Conversion is only the beginning,” she said. “It’s pointless to convert unless you’re planning to make that your beginning and delve deeper because anyone can get a certificate. I want to continue to learn more.”

Conversion: George Guzman

George Guzman, 45, grew up in a Catholic home in Corona, Calif., and though he served as an altar boy at his local church, he never felt connected with the religion. In 1995, he turned his back on Catholicism forever.

It happened when Guzman, who now lives in Long Beach and works as head hairstylist for the TV soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” visited a Catholic church in West Hollywood with his sister, who was going to confession. While the priest forgave her sins, Guzman was met with hostility because of his sexuality.   

“I told the priest I had used profanity, and he says, ‘That’s it?’” Guzman remembered. “He asks, ‘Have you ever been with anyone? Were they male or female?’ I say male, and he asks if there were many males or one male. I said many males at one point, but now one male that I’m in a relationship with. He told me it was a sin against God and the church, and that he couldn’t absolve me of my sins, because I was going to do it again. He told me to break up with the guy I was dating.”

After that, Guzman said, “For the first time in my life, I was able to look at what I was investing my faith in, and said that this is a joke. That experience, coupled with the Christian right being so vulgar about being against gays ruined my whole idea of God and the church.”

Following his fallout with the church and then the end of his relationship, Guzman decided to seek out a relationship with a Jewish man. Although he hadn’t considered converting or seriously looking into the religion, he said he had always felt a bond with it. “Back in sixth grade, when we started studying the Holocaust, I remember always asking the nun, who taught our class, why we didn’t do anything to help the Jews. There was never a good answer for me.”

Guzman started dating Craig Astrachan, who is Jewish, in 2007. They traveled together to Germany and Austria, where they visited the concentration camps. It was on one such trip that Guzman realized that he wanted to convert. “I was in the Schindler factory in the final room of this wonderful exhibit, with the sound of a somber cello playing what sounds like Jewish prayer,” he said. “I heard sobbing that was getting louder. To my surprise, it was me. It was at that moment that I realized that my Jewish soul was born.”

In 2012, Guzman started to pursue conversion at American Jewish University (AJU). His sponsor was Rabbi Lisa Edwards, the spiritual leader at his synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. 

Guzman said he struggled with giving up non-kosher foods, although did not grow up eating pork. He said he believes his mother’s side of the family may have Jewish roots, because his grandmother wouldn’t eat pork, prayed three times a day and covered mirrors and would not use the electricity on certain days. She also prayed in a closet, as if she was trying to hide her practice, he said.

“Jewish people in Mexico would be Catholic in the street and Jewish at home,” he said. 

When Guzman converted at the AJU mikveh last July, his parents told him they were just happy that he had found a faith. Astrachan’s family members also were in attendance to celebrate. “They have been so welcoming and loving,” Guzman said. “Both his parents and their partners showed up at the mikveh, as well as his sister, and they brought me gifts.”

Following his conversion, Guzman traveled to Israel for the first time with A Wider Bridge, a group that connects people who identify as LGBTQ. On the tour, which lasted just over two weeks, the group met with political and religious leaders supportive of Israel’s LGBTQ community. He also visited the Western Wall and Tel Aviv. 

“It’s so modern, and there are a lot of positive aspects of the gay community there,” Guzman said. “Craig and I have traveled a lot throughout Europe, and there are parts of Europe where we could not feel comfortable as a gay couple. But in Israel, I didn’t feel that way. We felt very at home.”

When he got home, Guzman started to study for his bar mitzvah, which is set for July 26. Every week, he and Astrachan pause to celebrate Shabbat. Since his conversion, Guzman said, he’s grown as an individual because Judaism inspires him. 

“I’m able to see things in a better light than I ever did before. Knowing that I’m responsible for my actions and I have to answer to myself and not rely on the absolution of sin makes me a better person.”

In rural Uganda, small Jewish community splits over conversion

On Fridays at sundown, the Jewish residents of this village set amid the lush hills of eastern Uganda gather in the synagogue to greet Shabbat.

The room is bare, the light is dim and the Conservative prayer books are worn. But the spare surroundings do little to diminish the enthusiasm of the men, women and children who sing psalms, clap and dance while a few in the front strum guitars and play drums.

Two days later and an hour away in the village of Putti, a handful of men wake at sunrise and trudge into a narrow room lit only by sunbeams streaming through the nearby banana trees. Those who have tefillin wrap them, while the rest sit on hard benches behind oblong wooden desks reading from traditional Orthodox prayer books with crumbling bindings. A sheet hung by a string demarcates an empty women’s section. At the front of the room hangs an Israeli flag.

Until the early 2000s, the two communities were one. Known as the Abayudaya, the 2,000-member group has practiced Judaism for about a century, owing to a former community leader who read the Bible and adopted the religion.

Now, despite being led by cousins and sharing other ties, the communities are split and barely speak to each other. Even in the mountains of rural East Africa, there’s the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t.

In the late 1990s, Conservative movement leaders began to visit the Abayudaya and, in 2002, many community members underwent conversion by a Conservative rabbinical court. Gershom Sizomu, the Nabugoye group’s American-trained rabbi, calls it a “confirmation.”

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Keki Maniah, soon learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative conversions, so he and a handful of followers declined the confirmation, opting instead to practice Orthodoxy. In 2003, they left Nabugoye for Putti.

“The goal of our grandparents were not [just] to be here as Jewish people but to be known as Jewish people,” Maniah said. “All along, our grandparents had a dream to go to Israel.”

The central synagogue of the Abayudaya Jewish community in rural Uganda. Most of the 2,000-member community is Conservative, but a small faction has chosen to practice Orthodoxy. (Ben Sales)

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/03/23/news-opinion/world/in-rural-uganda-small-jewish-community-splits-over-conversion#ixzz2wuRcQdWZ

Although the communities are a short distance apart, they have mostly lost touch. Sizomu and Maniah used to share a home, but aside from attending a recent wedding, Sizomu no longer visits Putti. Nor do the Putti Jews come to celebrate Jewish holidays in Nabugoye, where some of them once lived.

The group in Nabugoye models its practices on those of the liberal Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has received material support from Conservative Jews in the United States and Israel, as well was from the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports far-flung Jewish communities.

“Our children are growing with interest in Judaism, with love for their tradition,” Sizomu told JTA. “I only hope that my people get access to the outside world, where they’ll get more Jewish experience.”

Even with support from the Diaspora, the community remains poor. All the members are farmers, including Sizomu, who despite his rabbinical degree from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, grows plantains to support himself.

The smaller community in Putti relies on private donations from abroad and lacks some of the amenities of Nabugoye, though it is building a new synagogue, health clinic and a school named for Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli commando who died in a 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.

Enosh Keki Maniah is hoping to move to Israel.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/03/23/news-opinion/world/in-rural-uganda-small-jewish-community-splits-over-conversion#ixzz2wuRs4EXf

Still, accessing world Jewry is the group’s top priority. Only a handful of members have converted under Orthodox auspices, but the community of about 100 practices Orthodoxy and, after conversion, hopes to move en masse to Israel.

“I would go around each community telling them if you want to be considered by the Israeli state, it’s better to follow the Orthodox route,” Maniah said. “We didn’t have any grudge with anyone. We knew it was our choice.”

Maniah’s dream of conversion and immigration to Israel is inching forward. Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has visited Putti twice and brought two of its residents to study at his yeshiva, where he converted them to Orthodoxy. Maniah’s family also converted under Riskin’s auspices.

“I was amazed with what I found, the old shul and the new shul,” Riskin told JTA, referring to the Putti community’s new synagogue. “The whole town came out. They sang Hebrew songs. They’re learning, teaching, keeping mitzvot.”

Under Israeli law, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize Riskin’s conversions because he doesn’t sit on any of its official rabbinical courts. But a law expected to pass the Knesset later this year would give Riskin that authority and set the community on the path to conversion.

In the meantime, Riskin has converted only the few community members he knows well. One is Moshe Yashirah Madoi, who studied at Riskin’s yeshiva and has returned to Uganda, where he lives with his family in a small house a short drive from Putti. It is his home, but Madoi says he longs to live a Jewish life in the Jewish state.

“It is my dream, my goal because Judaism is a very strict faith,” Madoi said. “The environment has to be favorable. In Israel it is the most favorable environment. Sometimes we are forced to eat in restaurants that are not kosher. Everywhere you walk [in Israel] there is kosher. Shabbat everyone is observing.”

Like his Conservative counterparts in the United States and Israel, Sizomu rejects the Chief Rabbinate’s injunction that Conservative conversion is somehow insufficient to establish Jewishness. But though he’s proud to be Conservative, he regrets that denominational battles have splintered the once united community.

“Inside us we still think we are a unique African-Jewish community,” Sizomu said. “We don’t want to amplify our association to any of the Jewish movements. We feel bad that these Jewish movements have the effect of dividing up the Jewish people. We don’t have to compete with others.”

Natalie Portman’s husband says he is converting

French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, the husband of Jewish actress Natalie Portman, told an Israeli newspaper that he is converting to Judaism.

Millepied told the Hebrew-language Yediot Acharonot in an article published Wednesday that he is “in the middle of the conversion process.” He added that he hopes the process will “come to an end soon and I will become a Jew.”

Becoming Jewish is “very important for me,” Millepied told the newspaper.

The couple is in Israel through March as Portman casts the movie that she is directing based on “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a book by Israeli author Amos Oz.

The couple will relocate to Paris, where Millepied will work as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet

Portman said in September in an interview with the French magazine Madame Figaro that she is interested in becoming a French citizen.

“I don’t have the French nationality, but I would be love to get it. But I don’t know if it’s possible because I already have an American and an Israeli passport,” she said.

Portman and Millepied, who have a son named Aleph, were married in a Jewish wedding ceremony last year.

After much searching, she finds hope in adopted faith

Growing up in Colorado, Laura Waller wasn’t raised with a religion. She knew nothing about Judaism, save for the Torah — which she read as a teenager — and her community’s negative attitudes toward it.

“I didn’t exactly grow up in a town where being Jewish was acceptable,” she said. “I remember seeing anti-Semitic billboard signs in front of one of the churches I used to drive by. I remember one said, ‘Observers of the law are condemned by God, but the cross redeems you from your sin.’ Another sign said, ‘The Torah sends you to hell, the Cross saves you from hell.’ And another said, ‘The Jews forsook the Messiah and forfeited their inheritance.’ They were directing it at the small Jewish community that I later learned about in my hometown.”

The operations manager, who now lives in Encino, spent much of her adult life searching for meaning and a spiritual home. 

As an adult, she enlisted in the Army, which took her to places like Tennessee, Mississippi, New York and Maryland. In all of these states, she explored Baptist, Mormon and Catholic churches, but none of them stuck. 

“I did everything that the normative religious seeker would do,” she said. “I was asking questions, but rather than getting a welcoming response, pastors at the churches would get mad at me instead.”

Waller said she didn’t feel welcomed at the churches because she was a divorced and single mom. “I always had this stigma,” she said. 

During her time of religious exploration, Waller walked into a Jewish community center in Pueblo, Colo., and stumbled upon a Chanukah celebration.

“I thought I’d be fashionably late so no one would notice me,” she said. “When I entered there were only six people in there, so everybody noticed me come in and sit in the back. But, for the first time in my life, I was home. I felt at peace. I felt like everything I needed to know about my life suddenly made sense. All of my answers were right there.”

After that fateful Chanukah, Waller realized that she wanted to be Jewish, and slowly began to keep kosher, learn about the holidays, celebrate Shabbat and read books about the religion. Because she was still traveling as part of the military, however, she didn’t feel like she had the option to convert. She directed her questions to rabbis, whom she corresponded with over the Internet. 

Things were further complicated by her second husband, who was Christian and disliked that she wouldn’t eat bacon. While they were married, she said she had to deny her inclination to practice Judaism. When this marriage also ended in divorce, she returned to Judaism. 

Over time, she became more immersed in her practices and, in 2010, moved to Los Angeles. In fall 2012, after spending some time researching prices and places to study, she reached out to Rabbi Adam Greenwald at American Jewish University (AJU) and decided to take conversion courses there. 

Part of Waller’s Conservative conversion process entailed telling her friends and family about her decision. While some Christian friends disapproved, her Jewish friends said they knew it was destined to happen eventually. Her stepfather supported her, too, unlike her mother. 

“When my mom found out I was converting, she was kind of ticked off,” Waller said. “I’d already been practicing for about 17 years and keeping kosher. It was always an argument. When I’d go home, she told me she’d made some pork stew, but I wouldn’t eat it.”

Waller decided to go ahead with the process nonetheless. On June 7, 2013, she stepped into the mikveh at AJU and officially converted.

“When I went in, it was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Waller, whose Hebrew name, Tikvah, means “hope.” “I was letting all my experiences, hurt and anger go. I started to climb out of the mikveh, and everything was pulling me back into the water. My past didn’t want to let go of me even though I wanted to let go of my past. I felt like I was leaving black tar.”

She added, “I felt human for the first time in my life. [I thought], ‘I am not a single mom, divorced twice, terrible past, a problem child, a betrayer of the faith, the sinner, the person with issues, etc. I am just ‘human.’ No other religion has done that for me.”

After she visited the mikveh, her youngest son, Adrian (Yishai) Waller, 12, did as well. Her other son, 16-year-old David (Dovid) Sandoval, didn’t end up converting, but he did take classes with his mom to show his support. 

Waller said that in the Jewish community she has finally found the perfect philosophy for herself and her family.

“There’s something so beautiful in the humanity of Judaism and tikkun olam that you don’t find anywhere else,” she said. “It’s not just one person demonstrating it. It’s a whole community living it.”

Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute

A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Conversion: Erica Hooper

Falling in love with a Jewish man was Erica Hooper’s introduction to Judaism, but the religion’s ideals were ultimately what made her want to embrace it for life. 

Hooper, 30, grew up in East Los Angeles in a Catholic home. She attended Catholic school and considered herself religious — that is, until she went to college.

“There was this disconnect between things I learned in high school and the questions I asked as I got older,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting answers to certain things, and it made me feel disconnected from the religion.”

In 2007, she met and started dating Robert Mahgerefteh, 31, an Iranian-American Jew. Four years into their courtship, they got engaged and started to talk about the future. Although Hooper hadn’t considered conversion before, she and her fiancé were beginning to think about what their family dynamic would look like.

“That was really the first time we even started talking about conversion,” the Long Beach resident said. “I decided to give it a try and see what we thought. I ended up loving it, so it worked out.”

After researching various options, Hooper decided to enroll in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program, which is recognized under the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. When she stepped into that initial class one Sunday morning in the winter of 2012, she felt at home. 

“I liked what Neal said, which was that you’re not converting someone to something that you want him or her to believe,” she said. “You can talk about it, but it’s more about whether or not it resonates with a person when he or she hears it.” 

Hooper began to discover through the lessons that her beliefs were aligned with those found in Judaism.

“I remember saying that I wanted my funeral to be very simple,” she said. “I wanted to be wrapped in white cloth and buried in the ground. My family said I was crazy. Catholics have a fancy casket and get embalmed. I was sitting in that class and the rabbi started talking about the way Jews think about the approach to death and how you don’t put the body on display. I got chills because that was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about before.”

At that point, she knew she had made the right decision to take the class. 

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’ ” she said. 

The more she learned, the more Hooper realized her beliefs were aligned with the ideals behind Judaism. She especially enjoyed learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world), since she works at S. Groner Associates, a social and environmental marketing company that helps foster positive environmental change. 

“The focus [in Judaism] is what are you are doing now in the present moment to be a better person,” she said. “It’s about trying to make this a better place for the people around you.”

Although she began to feel more a part of the Jewish religion, there were some who were not very accepting, she said.

“I would tell some Jews that I was converting, and they’d ask why. The religion I came from before was about trying to actively get people to join them. It was come one, come all. I liked that very welcoming spirit to it. Going to Judaism by Choice was very welcoming, but as a whole it felt more like I had to work my way into becoming Jewish. Some people said that if I convert,  I’m not really Jewish.”

Fortunately, Mahgerefteh’s family was accepting, as was her own. 

“They said they trusted that I was going to do what was best for me,” she said.

In November 2012, Hooper made it official. She converted at the mikveh at American Jewish University, and then married Mahgerefteh in February. Both partners have taken an active role in their religion by partaking in fast days, joining Leo Baeck Temple and keeping a kosher home. Hooper said that celebrating Shabbat every week has added another layer to the couple’s relationship.

“When we do Shabbat on Fridays, we bless each other,” she said. “The rabbi told us the traditions that he and his wife do. They tell each other one of the things they appreciate about each other. That’s what we do. Even if we get into a spat beforehand, it’s Shabbat and it’s time to bless and tell each other what’s great about one another. You follow the rituals, and they bring you closer.”

Whenever Hooper participates in the holidays or goes through Jewish rituals, she knows that she is a small part of a bigger history, people and tradition. 

“It goes back through generations all the way from Moses to the slaves in Egypt,” she said. “I am now one little thread in the huge fabric that’s Judaism. It feels special to be connected to something bigger than yourself.”

Conversion: Kimia Sun

Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Convert: Rico Collins

Rico Collins, 39, was raised Southern Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., but could never relate to the messages he heard in church as a boy. “It’s very fire and brimstone,” he said. “I didn’t like it.” 

Collins said he didn’t fit in with the other kids at church and felt alienated because he was gay. “In the ’80s, there was a huge anti-gay movement, and at almost every sermon they were bashing” homosexuality, he said. “I found it to be so negative. I knew I was gay at a young age and that this wasn’t for me.”

Collins turned away from religion. “I always had my relationship with God,” he said. “I guess you can call it Ricoism, but I knew organized religion wasn’t for me. I thought that [religious people] needed rules, and they needed someone to tell them what to do, because they wouldn’t do the right thing on their own. I abandoned it.” 

In 1991, Collins, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles, and six years after that, he started dating Mark Goodman, who at the time was working as an actor and singer. Then, as Goodman went on to become a cantor and then rabbi at Valley Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sun Valley, Collins would attend synagogue with Goodman. Yet, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they were partners: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t put his reputation or job in jeopardy,” Collins said. “There were only a few people who knew who I was in reality, but it was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

All that changed in 2006, when the Conservative movement declared that gay people could serve as rabbis and that it would be up to individual synagogues to decide whether to approve gay unions. 

That same summer, Goodman convinced Collins to check out Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s conversion program, which at the time was based at American Jewish University. Despite Collins’ resistance to religion, he went along with the idea, enrolled in the class, and began to study Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish rituals. Over months of study every Sunday, he began to feel at home with Judaism. 

“I saw that it was something I really could be a part of,” Collins said. “It was something that was in me all along, and my resistance was just because I knew better. I knew better than what they were telling me in church.”

Following the class requirements, Collins began to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Because he was already a vegetarian, keeping kosher wasn’t too hard. “I was used to having restrictions on what I eat, so it was not that difficult a transition,” he said. “The thing that was hardest was Shabbat. I like to run, bike, lift weights and play on the computer on Saturdays. These are all the things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat. It is a constant struggle.”

Collins completed the program quickly, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to go before the beit din (rabbinical court) to complete his conversion, where he had to pass a written and oral Hebrew test. He said recently that he “aced it” and that, in the end, converting was “one of the most positive experiences of my life. There is an academic aspect to being Jewish. You have to know your stuff.”

Although he felt welcomed at Valley Beth Israel, Collins said that some of his own relatives were not so accepting. “I had some born-again Christians in my family. You have to be strong when you deal with them. … I was told I would go to hell, in a polite way.”

Collins’ immediate family, however, were fully accepting. “My mom and grandma were so happy I chose any religion,” he said.

Collins and Goodman have adopted three sons together, all of them now in their late teens. Two of the boys converted when they were children and now go to Hebrew school on Sundays. 

The family, who live in Burbank, are proud Jews. “I tell other people about it because they’re so curious, especially in Southern California. When you tell someone you’re Jewish, it starts a conversation,” Collins said. 

Through conversion, Collins said, he discovered his true identity. “I appreciate the fact that Mark led me to this point. I had to think about our relationship, and if he wasn’t in my life, would I still want do this? I think that’s why I hit the accelerator and went full throttle. I wanted to do it, regardless. This is who I am.”

Conversion: A big leap, one small step at a time

Jazmine Green’s Jewish journey began when she met the person with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. It wasn’t until a brief separation from her boyfriend, however, that she knew she was making the right decision — to convert.

“There was this assumption that since we were broken up, I didn’t have to be Jewish,” but, she said, “it made me realize Judaism was something I loved. I was brokenhearted, not just about our relationship, but for this spiritual path that I had already started to walk down.”

Six months later, when she and her boyfriend, Jeremy Aluma, got back together, she was ready to make the leap. “It was already a part of me,” she said. “Of course, I knew I would convert. I think I needed that time apart to know it wasn’t for him, and it was my path and something I wanted to do.”

Green, who had been attending services at Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, started to study with the rabbi there. However, she didn’t feel the Orthodox lifestyle was right for her, so she decided to pursue a Conservative conversion at American Jewish University (AJU), in May 2012. Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Introduction to Judaism program, sponsored her. 

Since she first started dating Aluma five years ago, Green, now 36 and a writer, had been observing the major holidays with him and participating in Shabbat dinners. She had fasted on Yom Kippur and gone to services, but it wasn’t until last fall, when she was weeks away from immersing in the mikveh, she said, that she truly sensed she was participating in Yom Kippur. 

“I felt like a Jew already, so it still had a lot of significance on me. It felt like my holiday, finally. Before, it was just going through the motions. Without the meaning, you’re just fasting. It was the first time it really had a deep significance for me.”

In October of last year, just after the High Holy Days, Green went into the mikveh. “I had no idea what an emotional experience it would be,” she said. “I feel like there have been very few moments at which I felt more connected to God than in that moment. It was really beautiful.”

Green grew up “loosely Catholic” in Corona, Calif., although she wasn’t practicing any religion when she met Aluma. Her parents have been entirely supportive of her conversion to Judaism, she said. “They adored Jeremy, and they were so happy to see me fall in love with a spiritual practice,” she said.

Green’s mother plans to take the Introduction to Judaism course at AJU, and her father is going to make the chuppah for the couple’s wedding in September. After the ceremony, they plan to spend their honeymoon in Israel.

Because Chabad is only two blocks away from their home in downtown Los Angeles, Green and Aluma continue to attend services there on Shabbat and the holy days. They have begun to kasher their kitchen and have chosen to follow Sephardic traditions because of Aluma’s father and Green’s Mexican heritage.

Green said one of the reasons she chose a Conservative conversion was to allow her to move at her own pace with her practice. Through observing Shabbat, she’s taken on more and more traditions. 

“It’s more comfortable for me when it’s a gradual thing,” she said. “On a practical level, it’s easier to go in step by step. Shabbat is the biggest thing that helps the transition, because it’s something that happens every week. The planning for Shabbat every week is a beautiful process.”

Green teaches yoga at Yoga Vibe in Los Feliz and Yogala in Echo Park. She also likes to go to the theater with Aluma, who directs and produces plays. The two enjoy having over friends and cooking for them as well. “Jewish holidays are the perfect time to do that,” she said. “We end up hosting many Shabbat dinners.” 

Above all, since she started her journey, Judaism has changed Green’s life for the better. “Not only has Judaism strengthened my relationship to God, it has taught me how to be a good partner, a good friend and a good person,” she said. “It has enriched my life by giving small moments of the day meaning.”

Israel’s mikvahs open to non-Orthodox conversions, official clarifies

Clarifying existing policy, the office of Israel’s deputy religious services minister said Israel’s state-sponsored mikvahs are open for use for Conservative and Reform conversions.

Wednesday’s announcement, said a spokesperson for Eli Ben Dahan, does not change existing policy. The spokesperson said that some mikvahs, or ritual baths, had blocked Conservative and Reform Jews from entering,  but that because the mikvahs are public spaces, any Jew is allowed to use them for any purpose.

“It’s a public space, so it’s open to any Jew regardless of the movement,” she said. “This is an issue of equality.”

The spokesperson emphasized that the  announcement did not amount to recognition of non-Orthodox conversion. Ben Dahan is a member of the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party, which is opposed to state recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The chairman of Jewish Home, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, unveiled reforms of Israel’s religious services earlier this week aimed at streamlining the state’s religious institutions.  The reforms shrink the number of Israeli regional religious councils, allow couples to be married by any Orthodox rabbi in the state and change the criteria by which religious council heads are chosen, including adding more women to the process.

Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh

Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 

Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”


Jewish conversion 101

Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Conversion: An Irish Catholic comes ‘home’ to Judaism

Growing up Catholic in Ireland can be intense, and it may be one reason why Philomena Wallace decided to become a Jew.

“There were too many questions and no answers when I was Irish Catholic,” said Wallace, who grew up in the small village of Wexford. “It was a very strict religion. I broke most of the rules by the time I got into my teens. It was unforgiving and judgmental. Judaism teaches you to question everything. It was very refreshing.”

Wallace converted to Judaism through the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2000, but her desire to convert didn’t happen all at once. Throughout the years, beginning when a traveling library stopped at her school and she picked up “The Diary of Anne Frank,” she became more and more interested in the religion.

The Irish native bought a Star of David and lived in a Jewish area of London, Golders Green, while employed for an Israeli shipping company. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, she got a job in the office at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she still works today.

After she began working at the synagogue full time in 1997, Wallace started her Jewish education. Despite the fact that she was going from one major faith to another, it just felt right, she said.

“One day the light bulb went off, and I said it’s not just a major religion. It’s a way of life,” Wallace explained. “I felt I was on the cusp of it, and I wanted to be official.”

At the UJ, which offered a Conservative conversion, Wallace, 56, learned about Jewish history and traditions. She shul-hopped on Fridays and Saturdays and kept kosher for a weekend to experience different facets of the religion.

After immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) in 2000, Wallace said she didn’t feel Jewish right away. It wasn’t until the next year that she started being comfortable with her new identity.

That’s when she went to Israel and for three weeks participated in Sar-El, which is the National Project for Volunteers for Israel. There, she lived on a base with soldiers and helped with recycling and reconstructing antennas for tanks. One day, she and the other volunteers spent 12 hours filling food bags for soldiers deployed at the Lebanon border.

Wallace prayed at the Western Wall and stayed in Jerusalem with Evangelical Christians. One night, she was invited to a “Shabbat” dinner by one of her Christian friends. A woman lit the Friday night candles, and the hosts were going through all the usual rituals. Throughout the dinner, however, the vibe began to change, and Wallace saw that it wasn’t a regular Shabbat meal.

“The host goes around and says something like, ‘Let’s have a drink so that all the Jews can be converted.’ My glass went down. I looked at my friend and she looked at me. I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ The host had everybody around the table introduce him or herself and say who we were. He got to me, and I said, ‘My name is Phil. I am from the United States and I’m very proud to say I’m a Jew.’ The host didn’t know what to do with himself.”

The experiences at the dinner and with the troops solidified Wallace’s new identity. She started to call herself a Zionist and pro-Israel Jew.

“Going there really made a difference to me,” she said.

These days, along with her job at the temple, Wallace volunteers there as a chaver (friend) for the Caring Community. She explores her spiritual side at Agape, an international spiritual center in Culver City.

Her family has accepted her conversion, and her parents told her that they were happy with whatever made her happy. Pearl Nolan, Wallace’s sister, was asked to contribute to “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker,” a book by Rabbi Harold Schulweis and edited by Michael Halperin in which Wallace was featured. In the book, Nolan says, “When my sister Philomena told me she was converting to Judaism, I thought: ‘Bloody hell, she is mad going from one major religion to another. But if it makes her happy, I don’t have a problem with it.”

Wallace said that after all of these years, her favorite aspect of the religion is the community. 

“If I go to High Holiday services, I’ll always see people that I know and maybe haven’t seen since the previous year. Everybody is on the same page. If it’s Rosh Hashanah, you say ‘Shana Tova.’ On Yom Kippur, you ask people how their fasts are going. I like that sense of camaraderie with people. I never felt that with Catholicism.”

Being a Jew, Wallace said, is what “feels right. It feels normal. And it feels like coming home.” 

Converting: The best decision of her life

When Donna Levine told her mother she had converted, the response was that she would burn in hell. A friend encouraged Levine to join Jews for Jesus. She had to explain to this friend that, unfortunately, that wouldn’t work.

“I told her that if you are really serious about being Jewish, that you can’t belong to Jews for Jesus,” Levine said. “I told her I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that anyway.”

Levine, who converted through the Conservative movement in August 2000, was born in Kansas and raised in Florida. Judaism, for her, was completely different than being a Baptist, as she experienced it growing up. “You were not supposed to ask questions. When I was in Sunday school, I would get into trouble for questioning things. That was something I really liked about Judaism. Not only are you allowed to ask questions, but also you are encouraged to ask questions.”

Now 58, Levine lives in Arleta, north of Los Angeles. She has lived in Los Angeles for 37 years and managed dental offices for 30 of them. She attends Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, and now spends her time working on projects around the house and looking for employment.

Levine first became interested in the religion when she attended the bat mitzvah of a former employer’s daughter. She then met her future husband (now former), who was Jewish, and that gave her the push to decide to convert. She went to services with Rabbi David Vorspan of Shir Ami, and started taking classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). “Rabbi Vorspan let me know that if I needed any help or had questions or anything, that he was available for me,” she said. “I felt really comfortable with him, and he was so sweet. He didn’t know me, and yet he volunteered to help me out, and I thought that was really great.”

Levine began her conversion studies in March 2000, and decided to take the Conservative route because she thought that Reform Judaism was too relaxed and Orthodox too strict.

Attending the weekly classes was not the only aspect of Levine’s conversion process. She had to learn how to read Hebrew and to keep kosher, which she found especially difficult when going out to eat at restaurants. At the end of the five-month learning period, she was required to take a test and translate sentences from a prayer book from Hebrew into English. “I was very nervous about it,” she said. “Hebrew is not an easy language to learn.”

On the day of her meeting with the beit din, she received a certificate. Though she had been nervous about going before the rabbis, having Rabbi Vorspan there made her feel more comfortable. After she came out of her immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), she said, she “jumped into synagogue life with both feet,” attending  meetings, helping to plan for the holidays, sending out letters and membership packets and serving as the synagogue board’s vice president and, finally, its president, from 2006 to 2008.

Although Levine’s mother wasn’t accepting of her daughter’s new religion, Levine said she learned not to bring up the subject with her. She also got support from a Catholic friend, and from her own son, who was 23 at the time she converted. “He said whatever made me happy was fine with him.”

By now, Levine has been a Jew for almost 13 years. She said that every day she celebrates her religion by “trying to treat everyone the way that I would want to be treated. That’s one of the main lessons of Judaism: Do you treat others as you would want to be treated?” And, she said, “I try to be active in my community as far as doing good work.”

Judaism has given Levine value that she never found in her former religion, as well as a whole congregation full of new friends. “I feel more spiritual and comfortable in my religion than when I was a Baptist. I love my synagogue and the people there. It’s like my other family.”

She added, “I feel like converting was the best decision of my life.”