Wanda Peretz. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

For Wanda Peretz, Judaism is an art

The lower level of Wanda Peretz’s Beverlywood home is also her art studio, where the 56-year-old works with fabrics of all sorts, and while she stitches together the fabrics and embroiders them with English and Hebrew letters, she’s also strengthening the seam of her Jewish connection.

On the worktable were some of her “greatest hits,” including Torah scroll covers, tallit bags and etrog boxes, covered in vibrant fabrics and decorated with Jewish images and words. The items were on loan from the respective places that had commissioned them: Milken Community Schools, Ruach Nashim and Temple Beth Am, where Peretz and her husband, Avi, are members.

One item, a tzedakah box, was a class gift from Milken middle school students. In designing it, Peretz had a conversation with Milken students about the concept of tzedakah and then shaped the project according to their answers: For them, charity was not just about money. Peretz pointed out the box’s two slots: one for money and the other for ideas about tzedakah projects or reports of tzedakah-related experiences.

The artist shook it so the coins inside jingled. “I feel like one of my jobs is to take objects that have been done — and you see them in every single Jewish museum in the world … this is a tzedakah box and here’s the chuppahs and here’s the challah covers, and it’s like, Oh! I get to do my own interpretation of that!”

During an interview, Peretz was enthusiastic, wide-eyed and energetic as the conversation ranged from her 1996 conversion to a more recent trip to Poland to the meaning of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.

Raised Presbyterian, Peretz went to church with her family, but found herself rejecting one core component of her religious upbringing. “We’re going to heaven but everyone else, unless they believe, they’re going to hell? I don’t think God is that small.

“I found Judaism to be a very solid ground on which to reinvent and refine who I am as a spiritual seeker,” she said. “I always had Jewish boyfriends and loved ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I know everyone loves ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but I’m crazy about ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ So was I in a shtetl? I bet I was!”

Peretz doesn’t mean this just generally, artistically or metaphorically.

“I believe in past lives,” she said. “I could have been one of the apprentices, painters painting the synagogue. I don’t think, ‘It’s just this life and then it’s over.’ ”

She also talks about life’s dualism: “If there are good people, there’s going to be bad people, good weather, bad weather. People say, ‘I want world peace’ and I’m like, ‘Good luck with that.’ You’re not going to get world peace until you do all your work and you go back.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the discussion turns to politics. While she and her husband vote Republican, Peretz was “so surprised” when Trump won, but says it happened because “the system needs to be broken apart.”

An etrog holder (left) and tzedakah box made by Wanda Peretz Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz.

“In my belief system — again, just mine — it’s like, there are bigger forces at work here. He represents old male energy, and it’s having its last hurrah. Something’s got to shift, something’s got to change, like planetary consciousness. I think he’s the dream figure. Do I think he’s a nice man? No. He’s about ‘I’m right, it’s about money, it’s about power.’ But that’s what politics is.”

She also harbors a distaste for political conversations that are “not just debates but arguments in which real awful things are said. … That tears me apart. They’re just beliefs. They are important, but we’re supposed to labor in love and help each other out.”

Peretz doesn’t have a TV, so she sees the news only online, but she said that what is shared is mostly opinion. She said she identifies more with being in the middle.

“I’m always listening —  where are they coming from and what are they trying to convince me of? Everyone’s trying to convince everyone that they’re right and the other guy is the cause of all the problems. But I’m not playing that game. People who are playing that game in politics, I don’t see how they sleep at night. Their stomachs must be turning all the time. I’ll just sit here and sew.”

And sew she has, completing an impressive body of work.

All-white Torah mantles that she created have been used for the High Holy Days at Beth Am for the past nine years. “I had them dry-cleaned because someone always kisses it with bright red lipstick, and I was like, ‘Why would you do that?’ ”

She also helps Beth Am transform the ark, so “for 10 days once a year, you open it and it’s all white. It just says, ‘OK, the High Holidays are different from the rest of the year.’ ”

Peretz spoke passionately and at length about the Gwoździec Synagogue, a 17th-century building that was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. The synagogue’s ceiling, painted with elaborate zodiac figures, has been painstakingly reconstructed for the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where Peretz saw it in March 2016. On the main level of her house, Peretz has devoted a wall to research about the synagogue, as background for a book of children’s stories she is writing, inspired by the animal figures painted onto its ceiling.

In one story, the animals’ energy escapes from the ceiling at night and cavorts around before returning to different bodies than the ones they started in. For instance, the lion’s energy enters a rabbit’s body, enabling the lion to learn what being a rabbit is like. It’s a story that teaches empathy, a value in line with Peretz’s attitude toward life.

“The other person is just like you but having a different life experience. The bum on the street isn’t just a bum on the street —  he’s another holy being who’s having an experience, and you’re no better or worse than he is,” she said. “If you’re a Republican in this life, you’ll be a Democrat in the next life, so let’s get this solved, people.”

With a passion for building objects that reflect Jewish tradition and values, it’s no surprise that Peretz’s favorite Jewish holiday or observance is Sukkot.

“You get to build and decorate the structure any way you want to within certain boundaries, and I like pushing the boundaries,” she said, describing her use of palm leaf fabric for the sukkah. “Halachically, I’m probably pushing it, but I’m a Conservative Jew; there’s a multitude of ways I get to express myself and be creative with how I want to reinvent the Jewish holidays.”

Peretz also noted that her conversion brought her husband back to Jewish practice in a significant way.

“Now he’s more observant than I am,” she said. “Go figure.”

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, conversion candidate Jackie Lara, and sponsoring rabbi/dayan Rabbi Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz

Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din celebrates 500 conversions

For Liz Davenport, it was ladies at the mikvah. For Susan Brownstein, it was reading library books to her kids. For Jackie Lara, it was the community spirit she felt among Jews.

These were among the inspirations cited by the recent converts — or, as they’re often known, Jews by Choice — who gathered with community leaders on Aug. 6 at the Skirball Cultural Center to celebrate a milestone: 500 conversions performed by the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din. The Bet Din is the only program in Southern California that brings together Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and transdenominational rabbis to cooperate in the conversion process.

Calling the converts’ devotion to their new faith “inspirational,” Rabbi Richard Levy, a co-founder of the Bet Din along with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, said, “You are here, here we all are,

500 Jews by Choice, whether it’s yours or God’s — a remarkable number. Because the belief that God is one is the backbone of our work, let us affirm that together.” With that, he led the audience in the Shema.

Levy and Dorff were honored at the event.

The program is named for the late Sandra Caplan, who grew up Catholic before developing an interest in Judaism and converting in 1980 through the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University (AJU). It was her deathbed wish that her husband, George Caplan, continue to support conversion-related programs.

Bet Din co-founder Rabbi Elliot Dorff (left), event MC and Bet Din Board of Governors member Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh; bottom row, Bet Din co-founder Rabbi Richard Levy (left)and Bet Din benefactor George Caplan.

After prospective converts complete their studies, they must be evaluated by a Bet Din — a rabbinic court of three rabbi-judges. Most succeed, although Bet Din Executive Director Muriel Dance recalled two candidates who were told they needed more preparation. But, she said, “the goal is not to turn people away.”

The Skirball event drew a mix of Jews by Choice, the Bet Din’s rabbi-judges and board members, sponsoring rabbis who advise and teach prospective converts, and other supporters of the Caplan program.

Among the rabbis in attendance were Heather Miller and Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim; Jonathan Kupetz of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona; Stephen Einstein, founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley; and Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who also served as the program’s master of ceremonies.

Members of the Orthodox community were not represented at the event because they have not participated in the program so far.  Levy, the immediate past director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus, said some Orthodox rabbis were pressured not to join the transdenominational Bet Din, but Dorff said he would welcome Orthodox interest.

Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, said the Bet Din does “not disparage any other program for conversion. Frankly, we need Jews: the Jewish community is facing a major demographic problem,” he said, pointing to a low reproductive rate among Jews and a high rate of interfaith marriage, in which only about 20 percent of the children are raised as Jews. “Conversions to Judaism are one way to increase our numbers, and so I am in favor of any program that encourages that and does it in a serious way.”

Liz Davenport, Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din conversion candidate. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

In any case, Dorf added, the transdenominational component of the Caplan Bet Din is one of its distinctive qualities.

“People who convert can thus rightfully say that they are converting to Judaism and the Jewish community as a whole and not just to a particular denomination or segment of the Jewish community,” he said.

Davenport, who converted under the sponsorship of Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, spoke passionately about the ladies of the mikvah who oversaw her ritual immersion, calling them “precious…they made that day heavenly, like floating on a cloud.”

Brownstein said she had agreed with her Jewish husband to raise their children Jewish, but at first she didn’t convert. As their children grew, she learned about Jewish traditions by reading to them books from the PJ Library program.

“By observing the holidays and rituals, I realized I was committed,” she said. “We have a Jewish family, but I hadn’t done all the paperwork yet.” She subsequently converted through the Caplan program.

“The strength of Judaism is in its stories,” she said, “and the most important part is to try to see every day as a blessing.”

Lara, who was raised “loosely Catholic” and is an educator at Planned Parenthood, said, “We all have a story.” In her journey, she said, she found “a sense of comfort and love just being with y’all. I always asked questions and you were happy to respond.”

She further said that she had “embarked alone” on her search for Judaism, in which she found a sense of agency in her faith, and was drawn to the concept that “one wrestles with God.” She also spoke about having been driven by tikkun olam (fixing the world), “doing mitzvot that we as Jews understand.”

In an interview with the Journal before the Skirball event, conversion candidate Mei-Ling Hubbard said that she was an “atheist as a kid but with a deeper sense of spirituality.” As a biracial woman, she said, “I have never felt at home anywhere; I don’t fit in with white or Chinese people.” But she had a lot of Jewish friends and would joke that “I was looking for a Jewish guy so I could convert … then why don’t I just do it?”

Her conversion, she said, “felt like a homecoming in a sense. For the first time, I have entry to a group that I feel a part of and feel at home with. I am a Jew and that’s a powerful thing, to belong in a way I never felt before. My identity is different now in a more inclusive way.”

Dean Sprague, the actual 500th convert, was unable to attend the event but in an interview described what being a new Jew felt like.

“There’s a big emphasis on getting you to be more mindful and aware of things, whether it’s the seasons of the year, changes to prayers, food you eat — how you eat and prepare it — you’re not taking things for granted,” Sprague said. “It’s not separating yourself from the physical world, rather it’s an opportunity to elevate the physical world into something spiritual and better. Make a blessing, follow the specific rules — taking everyday, normal, mundane activities and giving them a sense of spirituality.”

For all its success in minting new Jews, the Caplan program still faces challenges. Dorff said he wanted more rabbis to participate as judges, and that raising the funds for their $25,000-a-year budget can be a challenge for the nonprofit organization.

In her closing remarks, Missaghieh urged attendees to refer interested potential conversion candidates to the Caplan program and to visit the website at www.scbetdin.us for ways to support the Bet Din and its Jews by Choice.

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) attend a New Year's ceremony of the Israel Police Command at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

There’s no ‘blacklist’ of rabbis

In the last 48 hours, Jewish media have breathlessly reported on an Israeli “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis, including Orthodox ones, whose letters attesting to the Jewishness of olim (immigrants) as candidates for marriage were rejected last year. Furious denunciations of Israel’s rabbinate followed, particularly since the story came right after last week’s Kotel and conversion controversies.

One problem: it’s not true.

Israel’s rabbinate has never used the term “blacklist” or anything like it, and the chief rabbi said he had never heard of any such list. The term arose in a story published Saturday night by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), attributing it to Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, an organization that regularly criticizes the rabbinate. Since then it’s been repeated ad nauseam in headlines and opinion pieces; Facebook posts and Tweets.

The term is wholly inappropriate. Blacklists are not retroactive. Even calling it a “list” implies that Israel looks up the names of rabbis submitting letters to see if they’ve been banned. We have no evidence that’s happening. All we know is that in 2016, certain letters were rejected (for whatever reason) and Rabbi Farber’s Freedom of Information request collected their names. That’s it.

If Israel had a policy to reject letters from all non-Orthodox rabbis (and some left-of-center Orthodox rabbis), that indeed would be news and worthy of debate. But more than 3,000 Americans move to Israel each year, many hundreds of whom are non-Orthodox, and hundreds of whom get married each year. If the rejections are ideological, why are letters from only 45 non-Orthodox American rabbis being rejected? And why none from women?

We don’t know why these letters were rejected, because neither the rabbinate nor Rabbi Farber are saying. But my guess is that many were for routine matters – confirming the Judaism of the mother but not the grandmother, for example. In one case I know of (in a previous year), the rabbinate rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter because it was signed by a rabbi whose name was not on the stationery. In another case, a supposedly blacklisted rabbi had one of his letters rejected but others accepted. Sure, the rabbinate may have also rejected some letters because of antagonism toward the rabbi who wrote them. But it hasn’t said so, and that as-yet-unproven possibility does not justify scandalous headlines.

I hesitate to use a 2017 cliché like “fake news,” but this is an entirely manufactured controversy, and we know who manufactured it: Rabbi Farber. In an essay published earlier today in the Jewish Journal, he used the issue of proof-of-Judaism letters to renew his longstanding antagonism toward the rabbinate, and that’s his right.

But the timing of the controversy couldn’t be worse, while Diaspora-Israel tensions are at historic highs. Looking around social media, some American Jews are starting to think, “Israel reneged on its deal accepting the way I want to pray at the Kotel, won’t accept non-Orthodox conversion, and now is keeping a blacklist of rabbis like mine? Forget it.”

It doesn’t matter that all three of those claims are unfair. The mounting “evidence” that Israel disdains the bulk of American Jewry is straining the relationship and in some places even beginning to break it.

The Jewish people should be looking to defuse those tensions right now, to find common ground between Israel and the Diaspora. But 21st century social and other media tends to reinforce people’s prejudices, and nuggets of news that do just that can zip around the net before anyone has a chance to “Snopes” them.

Well, in this case, Snopes would give “blacklist of rabbis” a big, fat FALSE. It just doesn’t exist.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Clarification: this story has been adjusted to reflect the fact that the letters in question were used for marriage, not aliyah.


When family boycotts a wedding

“Does it bother you that my father is not coming to our wedding?” my husband-to-be Harry asked as we were picking out a tie for him to wear at our civil ceremony.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said. And that was the truth. I did not want someone who did not support our wedding to be present, to ruin the occasion with a long face and to mar the atmosphere with thoughts of tragedy.

Furthermore, I understood why my father-in-law was boycotting our wedding — he had survived the Holocaust, had managed to raise a Jewish family in post-World War II Germany and now his worst nightmare was coming true: His son was marrying not only a non-Jewish woman, but a German one.

The fact that all this was happening in Germany in 1988 put the horrible legacy of the Holocaust into sharp relief. No matter that I was planning to convert. The fact was, I was not Jewish at that point. Harry and I had decided to go ahead with a civil ceremony despite his family’s objections because we were about to move to the United States so I could attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, and it would be a lot easier to build a new life there as a married couple.

I did not, however, entirely get my wish of unconditional support from our wedding guests. Our witnesses, yes. My brother and sister, yes. Harry’s brother, yes.

Harry’s mother attended with a cheerful face — in that way, she was a wonderful actress. My grandmother, however, wore the sourest expression she could muster. She would never have committed the social affront of not attending. It was inconceivable to her that she should not be at her granddaughter’s wedding. No, she would keep with the social mores and be there, but she did say to my mother, as we were leaving the city hall, that this would not have happened had my father still been alive. This was as much a dig at the tragedy of my marrying a Jew as it was at my mother’s inability to keep her daughter in check. It was also typical of her to say this to my mother, who might pass it on, rather than tell me directly.

My grandmother did not object out of anti-Semitism but rather because she had experienced, during World War II, the persecution of the Jews. Her brother-in-law had been Jewish, and the families had been very close. That connection, once the Nazis took over their hometown in Czechoslovakia, put the entire family in mortal danger.

Incidentally, parents who boycott their children’s weddings run in the family, and oddly, to no ill effect. My father’s parents had not attended my parents’ wedding. Why, I could never quite figure out. It always struck me as odd because my father was their only surviving child. There were the travel costs, of course, as my grandparents lived in Germany and my dad was getting married in the U.S. Perhaps the language barrier was intimidating. But they could have afforded the trip, and they did like to travel.

Because no solid reason was ever put forth, I believe my grandparents’ reservations were the real reason they did not attend their son’s wedding. I still have a binder of my grandfather’s correspondence with my dad from that time — letters that bear witness to his severe opposition to his son’s choice, mainly on the grounds of culture and language. After he met my mom, on my parents’ honeymoon in Germany, my grandfather conceded to my dad that he could see why my dad had fallen in love with her.

Our wedding photos, taken on the front steps of the city hall, show my grandmother with a stone face. At the reception, after some wine, she loosened up. Later that year, when we were already living in the U.S. and my husband’s birthday rolled around, she sent him an envelope. It contained the same amount of money she customarily gave my siblings and me for our birthdays. When I asked her about it, she said, “Well, it’s only right. He’s my fourth grandchild now.”

My father-in-law, more reserved and more concerned with the family lineage, always seemed a little on the fence about me — even after I converted, after he attended our Jewish wedding a year later in Zurich, and when I was raising his Jewish grandkids.

But that, I think, had more to do with the fact that we came from such different worlds. Oddly enough, I could get him to do things nobody else could, such as when I persuaded him to book in advance a cruise to celebrate his and my mother-in-law’s 40th wedding anniversary — he never booked trips in advance.

In the grand scheme of life, the fact that he boycotted our civil wedding bore no ill effects on our subsequent relationship; on the contrary, it was a genuine manifestation of his values, and I respected him for it. 

Annette Gendler is the author of “Jumping Over Shadows,” the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past.

An Israeli flag is seen near the minaret of a Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. Nov. 30, 2016. Photo by Ammar Awad/REUTERS.

Why the aversion to conversion?

The discourse among Conservative, Reform and other progressive Jewish scholars and clergy has been dominated more than usual over the past few months by the theme of intermarriage. This recent round of debate seems to have been spurred in March by a vote of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s General Assembly to allow individual Conservative synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews. Since then, numerous articles by rabbis, academics and other Jewish professionals have appeared on this topic. The discussion has continued to pick up steam given the Jewish People Policy Institute’s early-June release of two significant studies: “Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews” and “Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education, and Jewish Identity.”

The commentators go back and forth on whether, and how, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should welcome intermarried couples, but surprisingly, there is relative silence on a related, and even more significant, topic: conversion. True, some Conservative rabbis, notably Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, are attempting to highlight the importance of conversion and to emphasize the need for some leniency in the ceremony. In an April essay in The New York Jewish Week, Cosgrove wrote: “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” Despite his efforts to highlight a need for a new direction for his movement, much of the discussion in and about Conservative Judaism continues to grapple with how to address intermarriage rather than how to promote conversion to Judaism.

In some Reform congregations, conversion before marriage is not actively encouraged. One of my non-Jewish students is marrying a Jewish man this summer. When they spoke with the Reform rabbi who will be officiating, the rabbi actually discouraged my student from considering conversion prior to the marriage. According to my student, the rabbi said the decision to convert should be driven by her personal desire to convert, rather than by her desire to marry a Jewish man. Ironically, the Reform rabbi’s response about personal conviction comports with Orthodoxy with one significant difference: a Reform rabbi will still perform the marriage.

In recent years, sociologist Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have proposed a means of joining the Jewish people that would not require a formal conversion according to Jewish law, halachah, but instead would allow non-Jews to acquire a Jewish cultural identity without a Jewish religious identity. In essence, this is a “cultural” conversion. To be fair, Cohen has long been advocating increased rabbinic conversion, and he sees their concept as a “half-step” between this and nothing.

Although Cohen and Olitzky get points for creativity, this proposal seems to assume that Jewish culture and Jewish law are distinct entities. From a theoretical perspective, however, the reality is that Jewish law and Jewish culture are completely tied together. The law has influenced the culture and the culture has influenced the law. Taken together, both the law and the culture are embedded in the entire chain of Jewish tradition.

I suggest that progressive movements need to develop better marketing skills, because the Jewish religion is a wonderful product. It is a way of life that touches both the mind and the heart. We need to take more pride in our product and encourage others — particularly those who are marrying Jews — to join us as members rather than as spectators. In short, we need to actively encourage conversion.

Of course, there can and should be flexibility as to what conversion standards should look like, depending on the overall nature of a particular Jewish community. But at a minimum, non-Jews contemplating marriage to a Jew must be educated as to the beauty of Jewish tradition and why formal membership matters to the couple and to their future offspring.

In this respect, progressive synagogues can take a lesson from Catholic communities. Recently, a close Catholic friend started taking her 8-year-old daughter to Mass at a liberal Catholic church. Her daughter was upset that she could not receive communion, given that she had not been baptized into the Catholic faith. My friend was told that the situation could be remedied if her daughter converted after taking a one-year program of instruction and initiation, including receiving the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.

So why do Jews feel that what we have to offer the world should be accessed so much more easily? More lenient conversion standards do make sense for progressive Jews, but when we ignore formal membership as a criterion we do so at our peril.

A Jewish colleague involved with a non-Jewish partner wrote to me just yesterday about all of the current intermarriage discourse in the news and on social media. He remarked that these conversations served as a reminder that his life choices can have drastic consequences, and most significantly, that he may end up “ceding something wonderful.” Progressive Jewish communities should not be able to live with this result.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in Bnei Brak (Photo by Reuters)

24 short and sober comments on the temporary halt of the conversion bill

A note to readers: This article was updated on Friday morning, following the decision by the Prime Minister to possibly freeze the controversial conversion law by sending it to a committee. A meeting of the heads of the parties that form the coalition was set for Friday morning.

My 24 short and sober comments on the sudden death of the Kotel compromise drew a significant volume of attention, and some readers suggested that I use the same format for writing about the no less controversial conversion bill. The law, advanced by the haredi parties, was approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The Knesset has not voted on it yet. The law is supposed to grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over the conversion of non-Israelis in Israel.

A word of warning: conversion is complicated, so this will not be as short as the Kotel article.


The timing of two separate decisions put many observers under the impression that the Kotel issue and the conversion law issue are similar issues. They are not.


You can read a lot about the Kotel decision here and here. But to put it shortly: it was a decision by the government to cancel its own previous decision because of political pressure. The conversion law is different. It is a decision by the government to circumvent a decision made by the Supreme Court. It is a battle waged by politicians against (what they consider to be) legislation from the bench.


Yes, you can blame the court for the conversion law crisis. The Supreme Court began rolling this snow ball by approving private Orthodox conversions – and thus opening the way for all private conversions to demand recognition. Did the court have a choice? Its defenders will say that no, it didn’t have a choice. It begged the Knesset to legislate, but the politicians didn’t make the necessary decisions – so the void was ultimately filled by the court.


So, why is the government opposed to all private conversions being recognized? Why does it feel the need to circumvent the court? The government will make three basic arguments.


Rationale A: The court’s decision changes the religion and state status quo – and the people (represented by the Knesset) did not ask for such a change. That’s an argument that is part of an ongoing government campaign to change the habit of Israel’s Supreme Court to step on the legislature’s toes (more about this here).


Rationale B: The court’s decision could open the door to uncontrolled mass conversions of outsiders – foreign workers, tourists, Palestinians – that want to become Israeli citizens. That’s the main rationale of those politicians who want to support the law, without seeming anti-Reform/Conservative.


Rationale C: The court’s decision would open the door to the recognition of Reform and Conservative (and liberal Orthodox) conversions by the state. For the Haredi parties this is the main motivation to push the circumventing law forward.


Let’s deal with these three rationales one by one.


First – the status quo. The government is right to argue that no legislation means the acceptance of a changed status quo. But it is somewhat insincere in its refusal to acknowledge that passing a law also changes the status quo, just in a different way. In other words: the status quo is dead no matter what. The court killed it, and there is no way back.


Second – The fear of mass conversions. No truth there. This argument is a vicious and unjust attack on the motivation, the character, and the practices of Conservative, Reform, and liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel. These people – and I know dozens, if not hundreds, of them – have no intention to serve as an entry gate for mass conversions of foreign workers and illegal immigrants.


Besides, giving the rabbinate the authority to be the sole body with a license to convert is hardly the only path to prevent mass conversions of unwanted people (assuming there is such a thing as unwanted converts). The other converting bodies would gladly accept official recognition of their processes in exchange for meeting a certain bureaucratic standard dictated by the state. A non-rabbinic official – say, someone in the Attorney General’s office – can set a standard that all conversions must meet. Problem of mass conversions solved.


Third – Rationale C, opening the door to the recognition of Reform and Conservative (and liberal Orthodox) conversions by the state. This rationale has merit. If the law doesn’t pass, the door will soon be opened. Some people believe that this would destroy Israel’s true character as a Jewish State. Other people believe that this would much improve Israel as a Jewish State – as it would make room for more than one version of Jewishness.


Note that there is an ideological dimension to this battle. The Haredi parties truly abhor the idea of Reform conversions being recognized by Israel. But there is also a political dimension to this battle, one that should not be ignored. The rabbinate is an institution with power. The Haredis, who control the rabbinate, do not want to see its power diminished. Guarding against other conversions is guarding the Haredi turf.


Other parties to this debate are also fighting for power – not just ideology. Take, for example, the more liberal Orthodox rabbis who are now fighting for less rabbinate control and more opportunity for private conversions. Many of these rabbis would take the opposite side had they been the ones controlling the rabbinate (as at least one of them, rabbi David Stav, attempted and failed to do so).


Some of these rabbis are currently lobbying the government in an attempt to modify the proposed law. There’s great irony here: Zionist rabbis – historically the great supporters of the Chief Rabbinate – are lobbying against it. Non-Zionist Haredis – who have little respect for the State-mandated rabbinate – are lobbying for it. Why? The answer is power.


Should US Jews be concerned with this legislation? The short answer is no. It does not affect them in any way. This law deals with people who live in Israel and want to convert, not with people converting in other countries.


However, historically speaking, every attempt by the Israeli government to change the laws of conversion, or the definition of who is a Jew, has always been met with diaspora resistance. Why? Because they are rightly suspicious that when Israel tinkers with the law it is never to the benefit of the things they believe in; because there’s always a legal scholar who makes the argument that the new law will eventually change the status of Diaspora conversions; because one never knows how the courts will interpret the new legislation; because the movements of progressive Judaism in the US are supportive of their small sister movements in Israel; because more power for the Orthodox authorities seems like a step backward in Israel’s religion and state affairs.


Jerry Silverman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, argued that “the proposed bill fundamentally changes the status quo of conversions in Israel and casts a shadow over conversions undertaken in the Diaspora.” A “shadow” is a good metaphor for describing a law that most likely has no direct implication on US Jews. For the leadership of US Jews, this issue – like the issue of the Kotel – is no less about symbolism than about substance.


By the way, historically speaking, in all previous conversion crises, Diaspora leaders were able to win. See, for example, what happened just a few years ago with the Rotem Bill conversion crisis. Israelis thought it was all about them. Diaspora Jews disagreed, protested, and made the Prime Minister shelve the bill.


Is the current law going to pass? There is a fair chance that it will not pass – not in its current form. First – because there are powerful political forces working against it, among them rabbis associated with The Jewish Home Party and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (whose constituency includes Russians who might want to convert). Also in opposition are Knesset Members that were taken aback by the harsh response of US Jews to the two decisions made last Sunday. The meeting of coalition leaders on Friday might be another sign that the law is likely to end up the way previous laws did – shelved by a committee.


Netanyahu sees more than one reason to worry about this law. It is not completely impossible to see a scenario that leads to the collapse of the government because of this law. The Haredi parties seem less likely to cave on this legislation than on the Kotel issue. But we will have to wait and see how they react if postponement is required.


What can the government do? The answer concerning the Kotel is simple: go back to the compromise, and tell the Haredi parties there’s no other choice. The answer on conversion is more complicated, because there is nowhere to go back to (because of the court’s decision).


So, this law is Netanyahu’s real moment of truth. And if you are not blind to Israel’s political reality, you will not underestimate the complexity of the decision the Prime Minister faces. From Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the late Seventies to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today, the bond between the Likud Party and the Haredi parties has been strong. The gain for both is significant. Ditching this bond is neither a simple task nor a simple choice for a political leader.


Several Israelis that defended Netanyahu’s decisions have asked me in recent days: is the Kotel compromise important enough to hold new elections because of it? My response to them was that this is not the real question. The real question ought to be: is the unity of the Jewish people important enough to hold new elections because of it? Ask the right question, and your answer might change.

Survey: Jewish men more likely to marry non-Jews; Wives more likely to convert to Judaism

A detailed study of non-Jewish-born spouses in mixed marriages has confirmed that Jewish men are much more likely to marry non-Jewish women than the reverse and that women are more likely to convert than men.

The study, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, was released at a press conference here Wednesday. It also found that most non-Jewish-born partners found it easy to integrate into the Jewish community, though few had been exposed to community “outreach” efforts. But they felt that born Jews lacked understanding for the converts’ particular situation.

The study was conducted by Dr. Egon Mayer, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, and Dr. Amy Avgar, assistant director of the AJCommittee’s William Petschek National Jewish Family Center.

They based their findings on responses to questionnaires mailed in 1985 to a nationwide sample of born non-Jews married to Jews. Of the 309 respondents, 109 had converted to Judaism and 200 had not. Mayer reported that while 74 percent of the respondents were women, a higher proportion, 86 percent of the women, were converts.


The study found that converts tended to have somewhat more education and higher income than non-converts and appeared to have been more favorably disposed toward Judaism than non-converts. Women were more likely to convert if they considered religious affiliation important to begin with and felt conversion to Judaism would be important to her husband.

About two-thirds of the converts and approximately one-third of the non-converts viewed the Jewish family into which they married as being “very” or “moderately” religious. According to Mayer, “This might imply that many of them were actively encouraged to convert to Judaism by their Jewish families.” Conversely, converts were more likely than non-converts to perceive their own parents as being “not at all” religious or “anti-religious.”

More than 70 percent of the marriages involving a convert were performed by a rabbi compared to 21 percent of those involving a non-convert. But nearly 84 percent of the converts and 45 percent of non-converts said they had approached a rabbi to officiate at their marriage.

The study found that the Jewish behavior and attitudes of converts resembled born Jews affiliated with Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism in America.

More than 68 percent of the converts, compared to 34.8 percent of non-converts, described themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious. Similarly, 84 percent of converts and 44.8 percent of non-converts thought it was “important to have a religious identity”; 73.8 percent of the converts and 59.5 percent of non-converts felt a “personal need to pray”; and 78.7 percent of converts and 62.2 percent of non-converts expressed belief in supernatural forces.

Ed Elhaderi (middle) with high school classmates in Libya in 1967. Photos courtesy of Ed Elhaderi

From a culture of anti-Semitism to becoming a Jew

A Libyan’s nomadic journey of self-discovery and understanding

That hot afternoon seems like yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation facing the Egyptian army.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said.

I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews.

I followed the crowd to the only Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street outside.

Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”

The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000 years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.

Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question the life we had.

Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi, Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.

I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian, the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.


Elhaderi receives the prestigious First Honor National Academic Award from Libyan Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud in 1974.

After high school, I went to the University of Tripoli, where I was neither politically active nor religiously observant. During my first year there, my father arrived to deliver tragic news: My mother had died. I channeled my grief into focusing on my studies, earning a place in the prestigious chemical engineering program.

Hoping for a career in the country’s burgeoning oil industry, I won a scholarship to study abroad in one of the top-ranked programs in my field, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Leaving behind my father and one younger brother, I set out for my first journey beyond Libya.

In Madison, I discovered a campus teeming with international students — Iranians, Nigerians, Europeans, Asians. Amid the activist ferment of the mid-1970s, each group freely and openly expressed its political and cultural identity.

I did that, too: When I moved into an office I shared with two other graduate students, I tacked up a large poster of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, wearing his iconic kaffiyeh and brandishing a semiautomatic rifle.

It was 1974, just two years after the murder of Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games and the same year as the terrorist massacre in the Israeli town of Ma’alot. Half of the department’s faculty and perhaps a quarter of its students were Jewish, yet it didn’t strike me that my choice of décor might offend anyone. Many colleagues undoubtedly reacted by steering clear of me.

And then, for the first time, I began getting to know Jewish people. The encounters happened organically, in classrooms and the student union. Two Jewish professors in my department were kind and understanding. Over one leisurely summer, I spent time with a Jewish philosophy professor who engaged a group of us over beers in leisurely discussions about politics and life. I was struck by how they were just people — wonderful, decent, normal people. They defied every stereotype I had been fed while growing up in Libya.

The contrast was so striking that not only did I begin to reconsider my assumptions about Jews, but I also came to re-examine every aspect of my life. Gradually, I came to see how the black-and-white worldview I had grown up with didn’t jibe with reality.

The more experiences I had with Jews, the more I felt drawn to them. I even began thinking that I wanted to marry a Jewish person (although I didn’t have a particular one in mind). Perhaps that would help me to cleanse myself of the hateful mindset of my upbringing.


Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, after he received his doctorate in chemical engineering from USC in 1982.

After three years in Madison, I transferred to USC. A few months after arriving in Los Angeles, I was practicing tennis at the Ambassador Hotel when I struck up a conversation with an attractive young woman named Barbara and suggested we volley. When I told her my background, she said, unprompted, “I just want you to know, I’m Jewish.”

We exchanged phone numbers, and a week later, I called her. It took a couple of weeks before we connected again, meeting to play tennis and dine on Mexican food. We got along well. Not long after that, I went out of town to take a break from my studies and returned to find a note from Barbara telling me she missed me.

Before long, she invited me to meet her parents. Barbara’s father had lived in Israel, serving as an officer in its War of Independence. And one of her sisters’ boyfriends was an Israeli who had served in the Israel Defense Forces.

I’m sure that when they learned that she was dating a Libyan named Abdulhafied (the name I had grown up with and still used), they thought Barbara had lost her mind.

Still, we grew closer. After a couple of months, we moved together into an apartment her parents owned in Koreatown. At first, the arrangement was one of convenience, but soon our lives became intertwined. Barbara lovingly helped me through my doctoral thesis and cared for me in ways no one had since my childhood.

She also welcomed me into her family’s life, and, despite our contrasting backgrounds, her parents accepted me with love. Barbara’s family wasn’t particularly observant — they celebrated only Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover.

In 1980, we married at their Fairfax District home. At that point, I didn’t consider myself a Muslim, but rather a spiritual searcher. Together, Barbara and I had explored a nondenominational church called Science of Mind. Our wedding ceremony blended elements of Judaism with some of our own personal touches.

By then, my relationship with my aging father, still back in Libya, was distant. I spoke to him only occasionally, and his question was always: “When are you coming back?” I chose not to share the news of my marriage.

As we settled into our life together, Barbara and I had only limited Jewish observances: Rosh Hashanah dinners, Chanukah gift exchanges, seders hosted by her parents. Together, we continued our spiritual search, occasionally joining a colleague of Barbara’s at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.


Elhaderi’s father, Elsaidi, in front of his home in the Libyan village of Hatiet Bergen in 1979.

Eager to start a family, we struggled with infertility for many years. We were just days from adopting a baby when the birth mother had a last-minute change of heart. Then, just a week later, Barbara learned she was pregnant. Our daughter, Jessica, was born in 1991 and, two years later, we had a son, Jason.

Not long after that, my father died. We had spoken only occasionally since my last visit to Libya, in 1979. I had shared little about my new life with him, knowing it would have been nearly impossible for him to grasp the pluralism and openness I had come to cherish.

Surely he couldn’t have imagined the next step in my spiritual journey. When Jason turned 12, he announced that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. We were living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and a neighbor, the Israeli-born wife of a rabbi, offered to teach him to read Hebrew and start some initial religious study.

He also began studying Judaism and his Torah portion with a Chabad rabbi at a shul not far from Barbara’s parents. I sat in on every class, slowly learning about Jewish prayer and customs, as Jason studied his haftarah and maftir. The more I absorbed, the more I felt drawn to Judaism.

On the day he became bar mitzvah, I stood on the bimah, filled with pride in my son and awe for the beauty of the service I could barely understand — and overflowing with emotions I could not fully explain.

The power of that day also made me start to ponder my own mortality. It pained me to realize that since I wasn’t Jewish, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery beside my beloved wife.

Not long after the bar mitzvah, I told Barbara that I wanted to convert to Judaism. A rabbi we knew directed us to American Jewish University’s Introduction to Judaism Program, and Barbara and I enrolled.

Our 18 months in the class felt like a second honeymoon: While I learned about Jewish history, Torah and Jewish rituals, I felt closer than ever to Barbara, and I fell in love with Judaism.


Ed Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, celebrate his becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985.

When I met with my sponsoring rabbi, Perry Netter, then at Temple Beth Am, he asked only one question: “Why do you want to be Jewish?” Choked up with emotion, I couldn’t speak. I simply cried.

“OK,” he said, smiling. “You pass.”

Something else happened: The more I learned about Judaism, the more I saw parallels in my own upbringing in Libya. When I learned about the mezuzah, I remembered how in my childhood village, families posted palm fronds wrapped around verses from the Quran in their doorways. Words I learned from biblical Hebrew seemed to echo colloquial terms unique to the region of my youth.

Investigating, I learned that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Libya, including in my native region of Fezzan — although most left in 1948, and nearly all of those remaining fled just after the Six-Day War. My strong feeling was that I wasn’t so much discovering a new faith as uncovering a long-hidden part of myself, that perhaps some of my ancestors were Jews.

On the morning when I went before the beit din — the rabbinical court — to finalize my conversion, and plunged into the waters of the mikveh, I felt joy combined with a serenity that had eluded me for decades. I felt that I was returning to where I belonged.

Our family joined Temple Beth Am, where I felt increasingly at home, regularly attending on Shabbat and weekdays. At home, we shared weekly Shabbat dinners, at which I started offering each of my children a blessing.

I also engaged in regular Torah study and found particular resonance in Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom from Pirkei Avot: “Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is given.”

That essential tenet — that we can embrace God but decide our own fates — encapsulates much of what I hold dear about America and Judaism. I grew up like so many people in closed societies, knowing one way of life, having one set of beliefs, and taught to despise anything beyond that realm.


Ed Elhaderi (far right) at his son’s bar mitzvah in 2006 with (from left) daughter Jessica, in-laws Ellen and Bob Levin, son Jason and wife Barbara.

The best guidance for overcoming that kind of internal and external strife is another piece of advice from Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.”

My own learning came full circle in November 2012, when Barbara and I traveled to Israel. We landed in the late afternoon, and by the time we arrived at our Tel Aviv hotel, Barbara wanted to rest, but I felt energized, so I took a walk. Traversing the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa until midnight, I marveled at the variety of people I saw — young and old, from so many ethnic backgrounds. I was amazed by the sights and smells and how alive the city was.

Scanning the faces I passed on the street, I could not help but think back to my youth, to the hatred for Israel and Jews that had been fed to me.  As we traveled the country — Jerusalem, Safed, the Golan, Rehovot — Israel entered my bloodstream. I felt at home.

The trip deepened my connection to Israel and to being Jewish. In synagogue on Shabbat mornings, I began to take notice of a part of the service that I hadn’t thought much about: the prayer for the State of Israel.

Now I say it each week with full intention: “Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.”

Occasionally, as I say those words, I think back to my 15-year-old self, on that hot June afternoon on the streets of Sabha. And I say an extra prayer of gratitude to God for carrying me on this remarkable journey to myself.

ED ELHADERI is a real estate investor and developer who lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, daughter and son. He is writing a memoir about his journey from his Libyan childhood to his life as an active and committed American Jew. Tom Fields-Meyer is a Los Angeles author and editor who helps people tell their life stories in writing.

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.”