Them and Us


“Jews are just stupid. I’m telling you Rob, they’re just stupid.”

“Can I quote you on that, rabbi?”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis hesitated a second, then said, “Sure, you can quote me.”

Of course, he wasn’t talking generally. Some of the rabbi’s best friends are Jews. He is passionate in his love of Judaism, second to none.

That’s why it sends him into a rage to see how the Jews — from the leaders of his Conservative movement to the man and woman in the street — deal with converts and the whole issue of conversion.

And he’s right.

At 81, frail of body but sharp-tongued and wise, Rabbi Schulweis has made it his mission to preach the gospel of conversion to the Jews. That is we, as individuals and as a people, must seek and embrace converts. Doing so will not only improve Jewish life but improve our own lives as Jews.

Here’s the second half of his quote:

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Schulweis said. “I want them to see the blood transfusion into the veins of the people. Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time. For the life of me, I don’t understand why there should not be a proactive effort to accept converts.

“It’s a mitzvah to embrace these people.”

On June 1, Schulweis’ synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, held a Shavuot service welcoming converts within the community. The holiday has special meaning for converts. On it, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a non-Jewish woman whose love for God and Torah led her to convert to Judaism.

To coincide with the VBS event, the synagogue created and distributed “Your People, My People: Journeys,” a 36-page booklet compiling the personal stories of 27 converts. I didn’t get to the service, but I did get the book.

What’s inside are the kind of heartfelt, moving stories of personal transformation that Oprah would kill for.

Cheryl Gillies had little religious upbringing and was out searching for a meaningful tradition when she read about the VBS outreach program. She walked in and found a tradition that matched her inner yearnings. “Judaism,” she writes, “places emphasis on the deeds and actions one performs in this world, and the accountability hit home.”

Chris Hardin fell in love with Jennifer Rea, who was studying for conversion at the time they met. He attended some classes with her and grew to feel he belonged. “Judaism,” he concluded, “is the best kept secret in the world.”

Elisabeth Kesten was raised a devout Protestant in Germany, the step-granddaughter of a concentration camp officer. As she read more about Judaism, she resisted the feelings that drew her toward it.

At 13, she decided to learn Hebrew; at 14, she was confirmed in the Protestant church. “Being Jewish didn’t seem like an option to me,” she writes, “but God wasn’t giving me the choice.”

She stopped going to church and joined the small Jewish community in Nuremburg. She informed her parents she was converting.

“A protestant evangelical minister told me I would go to hell for rejecting Jesus. I asked him if all Jews murdered by the Germans would go to hell. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then I’ll be with them, and that would be fine with me.’ Only when I am Jewish,” Kesten writes, “am I truly happy.”

And yet … Jewish organizations and synagogues refuse to make conversion more of a priority.

There are several reasons Jews treat conversion like kryptonite, all of them bad. In Roman times, according to the historian Salo Baron, Jews who proselytized were beheaded. Under the Emperor Constantine, converts were burned alive. Eventually, their punishments became our aversion.

Today, with no such threats hanging over our heads, why do we still desist?

My guess is twofold: blatant ignorance and subtle racism.

In order to reach out to others, we must first know what we are talking about, and most of us don’t. Why be Jewish? What does it mean? What does it offer, and what does it require?

If only we could answer these questions for ourselves (go ahead, try it), much less discuss them with non-Jews.

Jewish leaders who oppose widespread conversion efforts often use this very reason: There is so much education to be done among our own, why go outside?

But Rabbi Schulweis has found that engaging his congregants in conversion efforts actually increases their own understanding.

“One cannot have outreach without inreach,” he said. “And you can’t have inreach without outreach. Jews can only learn when they can teach. The only way they learn is to do something with their learning. They have to discover what is so important about Judaism. Our outreach program complements our inreach program.”

The other barrier to such programs is nastier. Many Jews cling to their identity as a status marker — it makes them feel different and special. To admit the multitudes is, in their minds, to dilute the brand, to fling open the gates of the country club. This is a message too many Jews never fail to convey to spiritual seekers from other faiths.

“They are scared of us,” said Schulweis of those seeking to learn more. “They are scared of the synagogue, because they have been told to be a Jew is a racial matter. They’re told it’s a matter of birth, and you can’t come in, because you will not be trusted and not be embraced.”

Few groups are bucking this trend. A Web site — www.convert.org — exists to make it somewhat easier, and VBS is leading the way among synagogues.

At his shul, said Rabbi Schulweis, prospective converts “are overwhelmed by the greeting. They know the rabbis of VBS love these people.”

As for the critics who say VBS is wasting too much time and money on outreach: “When they became us,” said Rabbi Schulweis, ” they are no longer them.”

For information on how to receive a copy of “Your People, My People” e-mail Jane Jacobs at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue: < href="mailto:jjacobs1@vbs.org">jjacobs1@vbs.org

 

A Superhero Dreams


When friendly strangers find out I’m a convert to Judaism, they want to know why.

And I’ve learned to be ready.

I have two stories: One is

respectable, and one involves comic books and video games.

The first is the one I bring out for casual conversations, for puzzled strangers and for grandparents. It fits in a neat little box, and people nod their heads in an understanding way when I’m talking, so it must make sense.

It goes like this: I asked my best friend (not a Jew) about Judaism, and he recommended I read Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.”

I did. With a few more books under my belt, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at Temple Beth Sholom; it happened to be the shul closest to my old apartment.

I called the front desk at Temple Beth Sholom and said I wanted to talk to a rabbi about converting. That’s how I met Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell. He said he didn’t turn people away from Judaism, because he knew how wonderful it was for him. He expected me to study, to experience the ritual and to bring Judaism into my life. I said I was game.

Donnell and I looked at the prayer service and talked about what the prayers meant to me. He encouraged me to look at Shabbat and what I could include or exclude to make the day holy. Most important, he helped turn my book learning into emotion and communion with God.

“How do you feel?” he would ask after I described things I’d done. That’s how Judaism traveled from my brain to those places in my stomach and heart that make me cry and laugh.

I explained my interest in Judaism to my parents — an atheist and an agnostic — and they both thought it sounded like a good idea for me.

After more than a year of study, I converted. There was a beit din with Donnell and Rabbis Stephen Einstein and Heidi Cohen to determine my seriousness about conversion. I went to Tarzana for a ritual circumcision (I was already circumcised). Finally, I went to the ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Some guy saw me dunk naked (he was a rabbinic student making sure I did it right). And when everyone had left the room I got out of the mikvah and said the “Shehecheyanu” privately. I knew I was a Jew. I hadn’t believed in God, and now I did.

So, that’s the story I’d tell you if I met you on the street. But if we crossed the street to a coffee shop, and the subject stayed on Judaism, well, I might come clean: I converted to Judaism because of superheroes and video games.

When I was a kid, I read comic books (OK, I still do). I wanted fantastic powers to use for good deeds.

Sadly, it was no dice on being Superman, cape flapping in the breeze, rescuing innocents from scowling super villains. Like all of you, I am left with the more mundane abilities of humankind: smiles to make someone feel better, an ear to listen when someone needs to talk, a hand to help others, and a heart and a voice to thank God.

The rabbis knew the power of those little things in life and what a difference they could make. They had rules for putting on a happy face, helping the less fortunate and blessing God for every beautiful thing in the world (and there so many).

Then, about the time I read that Prager and Telushkin book, I was playing a video game called “Morrowind.” In it, I played a freed slave brought to an island kingdom to perform work for the king, but the most amazing thing to me was a bit of a side quest: joining the native religion. I performed pilgrimages to holy sites and brought food to the poor and healing potions to the sick. Doing good for good’s sake triggered that childhood yearning in me that said “Life is for doing good and being good, in big ways and little ways.”

I had always tried to be good and compassionate, but I realized I wanted a path to lead a good life, and Judaism provided the right one for me. There’s where the story ends. Well, really, it doesn’t end at all. I’m a Jew now, trying to be a better Jew and bring more good to the world. I even dream of being a rabbi someday. That’s about as super heroic as I’ll get.

I also know that if you let your tallit blow in the breeze, it makes for a great cape.

Brendan Howard lives in Anaheim and is an editor for a video trade magazine.

Finding Their Way


Her husband, Christopher, a pianist and composer, agrees.

“Sometimes, when I play at Jewish weddings, I have to explain to them that the kiddush should come before the motzi, the blessing of the bread.”

Like most converts, the Hardins take the precepts of their adopted faith more seriously than many born to it, and they display an intense hunger for knowledge, as if to make up for what they missed during their childhoods.

The Hardins were among eight Jews-by-choice who spoke at recent services at Valley Beth Shalom; they brought along their infant son, Benjamin, to receive his Hebrew name.

Jennifer, a professional singer and actress, was raised in a largely secular home in Bakersfield but was baptized as a Lutheran at age 12. By her late teens, she started to question various dogmas of Christianity and defined herself as an agnostic.

In her mid-20s, she moved to Los Angeles and befriended a Jewish family, who invited her to a seder.

“I had never experienced a holiday so deeply, with such profound symbolism and emotions,” she says. Turned on, Jennifer started visiting different synagogues, enrolled in University of Judaism classes and read books on Judaism.

She hadn’t known one Jew in Bakersfield, but, in Los Angeles, “I started hanging around Jewish people, though I felt somewhat self-conscious about it,” Jennifer says.

She met Christopher on a “Love Boat” cruise to Alaska, where she was performing as a singer and he as a member of the band. When their relationship became serious, Jennifer told her husband-to-be that she was considering becoming a Jew.

Christopher, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, told her, “I would be supportive, but I had no wish to convert.”

His attitude changed when their daughter, Calah (Hebrew for bride), was born. “I felt that she would need some spiritual guidance and that I wouldn’t be able to give it to her,” he says.

Christopher attended his first Rosh Hashanah service, conducted by Temple Judea, and, while listening, experienced an “eerie feeling of connection,” he says.

Encouraged by Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea, the couple enrolled in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism. The six-month course, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, has served as a beginning to advanced training program for thousands of born and aspiring Jews for more than 30 years.

“The course was very intense,” says Jennifer. “In six months, we had to absorb 4,000 years of history, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Hebrew prayers.”

Classes ended with an extensive examination, which students had to repeat until they got all the answers right.

(Sample question: List in order, starting from the fall, the Jewish holidays on the Jewish calendar. Explain the meaning of each holiday. List some of the symbols or objects associated with the holiday.)

Jennifer passed the test on her second go. Christopher says proudly, “I nailed it on the first try.”

Next came the hearing before the beit din, a three-person rabbinical court; immersion in a mikvah; and, for Christopher, a symbolic bris (he had already been circumcised).

After some shul searching, the Hardins settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Jennifer sings in the temple choir, and Christopher serves on the Jewish Music Commission.

“We feel very comfortable and have encountered some of the kindest people we’ve ever met and who share our values,” Christopher says.

They fondly remember their initial contact. “When we first came in, we asked Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the executive director, if there were any programs for converts,” Christopher said. “He said there weren’t any, adding, ‘You’re as much Jews as I am.'”

There are some collective sorrows, such as personal ties to Holocaust victims or the sting of anti-Semitism, that lie outside the Hardins’ own experience, Jennifer acknowledges.

“We just feel an incredible sadness,” says Jennifer, who adds, “We would rather be with the persecuted than the persecutors.” — Tom Tugend

10 Ways to Welcome Converts


Rabbi Maller has written dozens of articles on conversion during his 30 years at Temple Akiba, Culver City. In “God, Sex and Kabbalah” (Samuel Weiser), he notes that many converts to Judaism were found to have Jewish ancestors. — Ari L. Noonan