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.”

For ex-CNN anchor who converted, Judaism sharpens focus on kids

“The public school system in this country is broken,” says Campbell Brown, education-reform advocate and former NBC and CNN news anchor.

It’s this sentiment that led Campbell to create The Seventy Four, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational news site launching Monday. The name refers to the 74 million school-age children in the United States.

In January, New York magazine dubbed Brown “the Most Controversial Woman in School Reform.” Through her nonprofit, Partnership for Educational Justice, she has helped parents file lawsuits against New York State challenging teacher tenure. She has been critical of the teachers’ union and vocal about her rejection of the status quo.

“Every education law should be based around the question, ‘Is this good for children?’ And it’s not,” she tells JTA.

Brown sees herself as both a journalist and an advocate for the powerless. Critics describe her as a union-busting, pro-charter school mouthpiece for the 1 percent.

“The critics are going to say what they want,” she says. “But I’ll let our journalism speak.”

The site launches with an inspirational profile on Chris Bonner, a search-and-rescue pilot for the Coast Guard who traded military life to become a second-grade teacher at a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. Pulitzer Prize-winner Cynthia Tucker’s debut column is about how presidential candidates should address the relationship between educational inequality and income inequality.

Campbell says that most of her detractors “are part of the education system and the status quo.”

“They have vested interests and don’t want us calling them out — but that’s our jobs as journalists,” she says.

Her opponents — pointing to the fact that her two children attend private school, a Jewish day school in Manhattan — say she is disconnected and not qualified to argue on behalf of the country’s public school students.

“On the contrary,” she says. “I’ve had opportunities that many others don’t have and was able to choose my children’s school. I’m fully aware that many people are stuck with their failing neighborhood school.”

“I care deeply about Jewish education and Jewish values, and chose a school with those values,” she says, but declined to name the school. “But every mother should have a choice when it comes to education.”

Brown was raised Catholic in Louisiana but converted to Judaism more than a decade ago. Her husband, Dan Senor, grew up modern Orthodox in Toronto. (Senor was a political consultant to the George W. Bush White House, former chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and is the author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.”)

The decision to convert was a difficult one, Brown says — she didn’t know much about Judaism growing up.

“It was something I struggled with — trying to understand why it was so important to my husband and to my mother-in-law that I do it,” she says. “I asked her to try and tell me. I’m a journalist, after all, and I ask a lot of questions.”

Brown’s mother-in-law recounted her family’s story of fleeing Poland during the Holocaust.

“While they were on the run, every Friday night they’d cover themselves up long enough to light Shabbat candles. That was the length they went to to preserve their traditions,” Brown recalls from the story. “How could I not raise my kids with the tradition they worked so hard to uphold?”

Brown underwent a Reform conversion while at NBC. Every week for about six months, her rabbi would come to her office, close the door and study with her.

“I never closed my door, and that was the one time during the week that I would,” she says. “The rumors were flying. People thought she must be my shrink or something.”

That “was one of the most rewarding times of my life,” Brown says.

The family lights Shabbat candles every week and observes many aspects of Judaism.

“We don’t do it to my mother-in-law’s specifications, though,” Brown jokes. Her mother-in-law now lives in Israel (the family visited her there last Passover) and “she is still a mentor to me.”

Asked about her favorite part of Jewish culture, Brown doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s the sense of community,” she says. “My kids went to Jewish preschool, they go to Jewish day school and I’m involved in our Jewish community center. It’s all very kid-centric.”

And so is her professional life, of course. Brown — along with her The Seventy Four co-founder Romy Drucker, who worked at the New York City Department of Education on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transformational “Children First” reforms — say they are looking to put children’s education at the forefront of the national conversation, something that’s especially important ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The Seventy Four, they hope, will be a forum where people with different opinions and viewpoints present solutions to what Brown describes as the “current crisis in our schools.”

“Too many children in this country are falling behind at an early age and are never given the help they need to succeed,” Drucker says.

“Research shows that the most significant school-based factor in a child’s learning is the quality of his or her teacher,” she adds. “We must make it a priority that every child, regardless of their ZIP code, background or skin color, has a high-quality, effective teacher in the classroom.”

But The Seventy Four isn’t all doom and gloom. Brown and Drucker also plan to feature success stories, like Bonner’s.  Stories will be both long- and short-form, with a large video component. Brown will contribute editorially.

“I think this is the direction journalism is going in: news sites that go deep on specific issues,” Brown says, pointing specifically to Bill Keller’s The Marshall Project, which covers the American criminal justice system, and the single-topic news site Syria Deeply.

And if there’s controversy, so be it, Brown says.

“That just means we’re relevant and in the heart of it all,” she says. “The role of journalists is to hold people in power accountable.”

Conversion celebration takes a surprise turn — into a wedding

Helen Rados showed up at the Bedford Post Inn north of New York City to celebrate the conversion of her friend Angela Gold.But as she approached, Rados spotted a chuppah on a hill behind the building.

She figured someone else had booked a wedding. Then she saw Angela wearing a white dress with pearls and beading.

Howard Lebowitz, meanwhile, noticed a piece of paper with Hebrew and English on it. He looked at it more closely: Wow, it’s a ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, for Angela and her husband, Sam. “This is not just a conversion,” Lebowitz realized. “They’re getting married.”

Some 50 people came to the May 7 party, having been invited to celebrate Angela’s conversion and the conversion of her and Sam’s two young sons. It wasn’t long, though, before some of the guests were buzzing about a wedding about to take place.

“It was a big surprise and very exciting,” said Rados, one of Sam’s first cousins.

A week earlier, Angela, 34, had appeared before a beit din, or rabbinical court, and dunked in the mikvah’s ritual waters to complete her conversion; he son Jacob, 2, joined her in the mikvah (6-year-old Haden had pink eye and had to wait a week for his immersion).

Shabbat morning before the surprise wedding, the Golds, who live in Carmel, N.Y., were called to the Torah at the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in nearby Mahopac as kallah and chatan (bride and groom).

Angela was given her Hebrew name.

Angela had considered the possibility of converting when she and Sam, 62, married seven years ago in a civil service with just a handful of people in attendance. But way too much was going on at the time.

“There were so many changes, leaving my job, leaving my family, moving to another country,” said Angela, who immigrated from the Netherlands to marry Sam. The two had met 11 years ago when she was vacationing in Florida where he lived at the time. Friendship, then a romance, followed.

As for Sam, he says he never wanted to pressure her to convert. “It just fell into place naturally,” he said.

“I couldn’t be more happy for myself; I’m going back to my roots,” said Sam, the son of Holocaust survivors.

The couple had bought a new house a couple of years ago. They joined Beth Shalom about a year ago and then Angela enrolled in an introduction to Judaism class, studying for conversion.

The Golds gradually shared with close family and friends the news that Angela would be converting. All the while, she says, they were thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great to invite people to celebrate the conversion and then have this wedding … Everybody can just show up thinking they’re coming to a brunch, wear whatever they feel like wearing.”

After milling around at the inn (co-owned by actor Richard Gere), guests were directed outside and up the hill where chairs were set up in front of a chuppah. Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Eytan Hammerman welcomed the guests.

“There was whistling and clapping,” Sam said. “I wish I had a camera to snap some of the faces of the people.”

Angela was escorted down the aisle by her mother and Jacob, Sam by his adult daughter, Bari, and Haden.

“It was just a fantasy,” Sam said. “You couldn’t write it any better than it happened.”

Conversion: An Irish Catholic comes ‘home’ to Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Converting: The best decision of her life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example to her children

Fourteen years ago, Catherine and Bruce Penso’s oldest daughter, Leah, was ready to become a bat mitzvah. But before her big day, Leah told her parents that she wanted to go to the mikveh and formally convert. 

Catherine and her younger daughter, Rebecca, decided to join Leah in the ritual. 

Catherine, a native of San Francisco who now lives in Westchester, holds a master’s in social work and volunteers with a variety of charities as well as for her synagogue. She grew up Catholic, but started questioning those beliefs when she was in college. Then she met her Jewish husband-to-be. 

“Because the foundations of Catholicism are built on Judaism, it wasn’t hard for me to incorporate the aspects of the religion into my life,” she said. “It would have been a lot harder for Bruce to accept Catholicism. I’ve never felt that strong relationship with Jesus Christ that some Catholics and Christians do. It was a gradual moving away from Catholicism and moving toward Judaism.”

Before Catherine married Bruce, she took an Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), as well as a Jewish holiday workshop class when she was a newlywed. The couple both decided to raise their children within the Jewish religion. Prior to the conversion, Catherine and Bruce were already members of Temple Akiba and committed to raising their children — Leah, then 12, Rebecca, 5, and Daniel, 10 — in a Jewish home. All of the kids had attended nursery and religious school at Akiba. 

“The conversion was a formalization of what I’d been living, but it seemed finalized,” Catherine said. “It was very special to do it with my daughters, and it made it that much more meaningful.”

Because Catherine had taken courses and was already living a Jewish life, all that remained for conversion was to step into the mikveh and to meet with the beit din (Jewish court of law). She converted through the Conservative movement. 

Bruce had never pressured her to convert, but Catherine remembers that his sister had, at one point, brought up the fact that his daughters wouldn’t be considered Jewish by some people. 

“She had actually suggested [to convert] to my daughter, because in the future if she met someone who was more religious, [he or she] might not recognize her Judaism,” Catherine said. 

“At first I was kind of insulted because they were raised Jewish, but Judaism is through the mother, so there was a sense of formalizing it and having it recognized by other Jews and other sects.”

Although Catherine’s parents died before the conversion, Catherine said they had been very accepting. Her mother, she said, had a hard time with the fact that the babies weren’t going to be baptized, but her father said he was just happy that she had religion in her life. 

In the 14 years since her conversion, Catherine has become increasingly involved at Akiba, and spends upward of 25 hours per week devoted to volunteering. She chairs the mitzvah day committee, planning how the congregation devotes a special day to tikkun olam (repairing the world). The Jewish principle of giving back and being the best person one can be resonates with her: “I just try to be mindful of being a good person with the work that I do,” she said. “I try to live my life as an example to my children. I try to be kind to people and speak well of people.”

Catherine and Bruce’s children also continue to lead Jewish lives as well. Leah is the most active: She teaches religious school, and next summer she plans to run the synagogue’s youth group and direct its resident camp.

Being a member of Akiba for the past 30 years has reinforced the Penso family’s — and Catherine’s — love of Judaism. 

“There’s a real community,” she said. “I never feel alone. A lot of that has to do with the temple I belong to. It really feels like a home away from home. I’ve made some wonderful friends. I just know that Judaism is something I believe in. It’s something I want to be a part of.”

Challenges and celebrations

When Andromeda Stevens, 46, found herself falling in love with Judaism, she knew it was time to convert.

She and her husband, Glenn Stevens, who live in Beverlywood, started living a Jewish life together years before they were married, and Andromeda converted after the wedding. “I liked the traditions, and the meaning behind the traditions,” she said. “The symbols were very logical to me and very supportive of humanity and living a justified and good life. I found that really appealing. It was very contrary to my Catholic education.”

In 2010, Andromeda decided to take the leap and begin studying for her conversion. The formal process involved an 18-week class at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, attending a Shabbaton, participating in a mock seder with Rabbi Spike Anderson at Stephen S. Wise Temple, writing a journal entry every week, attending Shabbat services at a variety of synagogues and taking a formal written exam. The exam included 18 questions, covering everything from why she wanted to convert and how her family felt about it to facts about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the destruction of the First and Second Temples. 

Glenn’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and his father was thrilled when Andromeda told them she was planning to convert. Andromeda’s own mother, who lives in Sherman Oaks, became so fascinated with Judaism that she took an introduction course at a college. At Andromeda’s bachelorette party, her friends gave her Jewish-themed gifts in anticipation of her conversion. 

Andromeda took her final test under the guidance of a family rabbi and met with a beit din in Palm Springs last April. But she didn’t complete the process and go into the mikveh until May, when she traveled to Tel Aviv with Glenn. There, however, she found it wasn’t easy to convince the people running the mikveh to let her in. “They didn’t want to do it, because it was a Reform conversion,” she said. “It felt like a huge bummer. I had gone through all this trouble. Israel was set up as a place [of] refuge for people coming from all walks of life. To turn around and shun somebody for any reason seemed like an oxymoron and didn’t make me happy.”

With determination and the help of a friend who lives in Israel and speaks Hebrew, Andromeda nevertheless found a mikveh attendant who would do it. “The mikveh was an amazing experience,” Andromeda said. “It wasn’t like anything else. I don’t even know what to compare it to. I don’t know if I can put that into words. People overuse the word awesome, but it was awesome.”

Although the conversion process was a positive experience, Andromeda said she still faces her share of challenges. “It’s very hard to follow services when everything is in Hebrew,” she said. “I’m slowly learning, but sometimes I feel kind of shut out.” 

And completing the conversion process didn’t make Stevens automatically feel like a new person either, she said. “It’s kind of a process for me to actually feel Jewish. I expected to feel different or something magical. Obviously that didn’t happen. It’s been a process for me to identify. I think that it’s going to take some time.”

These days, Andromeda celebrates Shabbat every week and attends services at Steven S. Wise Temple. She continues instruction with Rabbis Anderson and Yoshi Zweiback. Last fall, for their first time, Andromeda and Glenn put up a sukkah for Sukkot, and they participate in all of the holy days. Last year she lit Chanukah candles with her mother, and this will be her first year giving up Christmas. 

Andromeda said she hasn’t grasped all of Judaism’s traditions and rituals yet, but she continues to try her best. With the help of Glenn, who she said supports her 100 percent, Andromeda has been able to maintain her optimism: “Glenn was never dating Jewish girls,” she said. “He liked the shiksa girls. Then all of a sudden, that’s not what he ended up with, was it?”

Finding Judaism through music

For Chris Hardin, converting to Judaism was a family affair. 

In November 1994, Hardin, then 38, stepped into the mikveh. That day, his daughter and wife did the same. 

Hardin’s conversion process began when he met his future wife, Jennifer, on a cruise ship. He was directing the music, and she was one of the singers. They were both Lutheran, but she told him that she had the desire to be Jewish. 

After the birth of their daughter, Calah, Hardin started attending classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) out of support for Jennifer. He admired how the rabbis would allow questioning, unlike the pastors with whom he grew up. “I had no intention of converting, but by the second class I was hooked,” he said. “Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a way of life.”

As a child, Hardin went to church and Bible study every Sunday. After his parents divorced when he was 11, church was no longer a regular event. “I fell away from any kind of organized religion,” he said. “But I never left my feelings and thoughts about God.”

When he decided to convert, Hardin chose to be a member of the Conservative movement. Orthodoxy was full of practices that he and Jennifer did not wish to partake of, and Reform wasn’t enough for them. After going to more than a dozen shuls, they settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where they’ve been members for 18 years. He’s also the music director. “Every time I write some new music for our synagogue, I learn more about Judaism, and I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”

By the time Hardin was Jewish, his mom had already passed away. His dad, a music director for Lutheran churches, said that if it made his son happy to practice a different religion, then he was fine with it. The only member of his family who had a huge issue with the conversion was his younger sister, an Evangelical Christian. “She didn’t speak to me for a few months,” he said. “She thought I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my savior. Then her priest said we were going to the same place, but we were just taking different paths. Now we’re tighter than I am with my other sisters, because she and I are the only ones with any observance at all.”

Today, Hardin brings Judaism into his family’s life by keeping a kosher home, learning Hebrew, observing all the holidays, and playing music at shul most Friday nights and Saturday mornings. It took him eight years to balance Shabbat and his work schedule, but he is now able to enjoy his day of rest. Calah, who is 20, was the president of United Synagogue Youth at her high school, and Hardin’s 15-year-old son, Benjamin, is now active in the same organization. 

Much of Hardin’s enthusiasm for Judaism can be attributed to Valley Beth Shalom and the community he’s been a part of there for nearly two decades. “In shul, you want your kids to have freedom and fun,” he said. “All the people in shul, I trust with my kids. You don’t find that in very many places. We have a community that’s helped us raised our kids.”

Hardin continued, “The community is unbelievable. My wife just lost her mom, and we got phone calls and e-mails from people. Everyone was coming up to me at shul asking what they could do. I’ve watched it with other deaths. Even if people in the community don’t know you, they come to you and support you and let you know they’re here for you.”

The only regret Hardin has about his conversion, he said, is that he didn’t do it sooner. “Judaism is the best-kept secret in the world. It makes one happy. But I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve seen people who are not so optimistic, who don’t even know why they came to shul but leave feeling uplifted, and that is beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing, and I wish more people could find it.”

Stories of Jewish Conversion: Frank Siciliano

Hearing the name Frank Siciliano, you would probably not immediately think “Orthodox Jew.” But this Jew by Choice, who has lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past three years, is as passionate about his religion and his people as one can get. 

Siciliano, a 30-year-old insurance broker, is a born-and-bred Italian from New York. His family was Roman Catholic, and with that came trips to church every Sunday, and celebrating the religious aspects of the mainstream holidays. Christmas was about Jesus, as was Easter. There was “no real ‘pressure’ to keep the faith, as it is assumed you just will,” he said. “You went to church, [and] that was the end of it.”

However, Siciliano said, he never quite clicked with his inherited religion. “You don’t start your studies with the New Testament,” he said. “You start with Genesis, Exodus, etc. I couldn’t reconcile that if you started with all these books in the first half, why did God change His mind in the second half? If Christianity teaches that God is infallible, why would He have to adjust His rules in a whole new set of books?”

His lack of enthusiasm for Catholicism, and an ever-growing zeal for Judaism, emerged after college, when Siciliano began working at his uncle’s grocery store in the Five Towns of Long Island, where there is a strong presence of Orthodox Jewish life. “I learned that the delivery truck had to be loaded by 1 p.m. on Friday,” he said. “As my exposure to Judaism and frum communities grew more and more, I started to say to myself that this makes sense, and where I’m at does not. I wasn’t sure how to proceed with all of that, but I knew that was where I wanted to wind up.”

At the grocery store, Siciliano learned the rules of kashrut, which would help him later on. After he left the store and found a new employer, he met Kelila Green, a co-worker who lived nearly 3,000 miles away, in California. Green, as it turns out, was Jewish. He fell in love, packed his bags for the West Coast a year later, and moved to Wooster Street in West Los Angeles to be closer to his future wife. “I had been with a few girls, and they just weren’t right for me,” he said. “Kelila made sense. Judaism made sense. And, luckily I had a supportive enough community to make that happen.”

As Green and Siciliano’s relationship blossomed, the topic of conversion came up. “I wanted to make sure [Frank] was doing it for himself and not for me, so I didn’t really say much at the beginning,” Green, now a stay-at-home mom, said, adding that they “were planning on getting married whether he converted or not; we knew it would be difficult, but we also knew we were meant to be together. When I realized he was serious about converting, it was like a weight was lifted, and we both knew that a life together with kids was going to be much easier coming from the same beliefs.” 

While settling into his new neighborhood, attending his first Shabbat dinners and going through a full festival cycle, Siciliano decided to meet with Rav Yosef Kanefsky at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox shul, to discuss what he needed to do to convert. After a few meetings, Kanefsky became his sponsor and introduced him to Beit Din Los Angeles. The whole process was put into motion soon after he set foot on California soil, in March 2009, and by the end of the year he would be able to apply for conversion. “The L.A. beit din asked me how serious I was and why I was there,” he said. “They laid out a very detailed syllabus and told me what I needed to know. Conversion, I’ve learned, is not a finish line. It’s getting to the starting line.”

Daily exercises Siciliano was required to learn included saying the brachot (blessings), which Green taped to the walls; keeping kosher; and, of course, studying. He took private lessons and a course with Judaica teacher Adaire Klein. Early in the process, Siciliano and Green got into a car accident on Shabbat, which they interpreted as a sign to end their driving on the day of the rest. 

To this day, the act of wrapping tefillin still trips Siciliano up, he said, and Hebrew has been hard for him to grasp (along with any foreign language, for that matter, he said). Going from praying once a week for 45 minutes at church to praying every day was not easy to schedule at first, either. 

“Along the way, as anxious as I was to finish, and as important as I knew it was to take my time, the predominant feeling was, ‘This is right,’ ” he said. “Not once did I think I was headed in the wrong direction. I was determined to make this work. Every Shabbat, every yontif, every meeting with the rabbis was one step closer, and I’d take as many steps as was needed to get it right.”

During the conversion process, the rituals and practices became second nature, and Siciliano blended into the community. “You have to change a lot, and you want to get it changed in a relatively short amount of time,” he said. “I put the cart before the horse many a time. Patience was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. I wanted to get it all done quickly, and that’s just not smart.”

As Siciliano grew into his newfound lifestyle, Green, for her part, was coming back to Orthodox Judaism. As a child she had attended an Orthodox day school, though she was raised in a Conservative/Reform household. “I remember many times learning something in school and being confused as to why we didn’t do that at home,” she said. “The Modern Orthodox lifestyle and beliefs always made sense to me; I just needed a push in that direction.” During the process, the couple learned from each other. Green’s strength was Hebrew, and Sicilano’s kashrut. 

They scheduled their wedding for Aug. 29, 2010 — that was, if everything went according to plan. “The mikveh was set for Aug. 24,” Siciliano said. “A successful conversion would have resulted in a wedding, and a failed one would have resulted in a funeral. Our families would have killed me if they had to come out to a wedding that wasn’t happening.”

On Aug. 24, 2010, Siciliano sat before the L.A. beit din and was tested and asked to respond to their questions. They could see that he was committed. Afterward, he went into the mikveh and came out a Jew.

Transitioning from the life Siciliano used to know into one of an observant Jew did not come without its difficulties. “My family was, daresay, apathetic about the whole thing,” he said. “Obviously, they weren’t in a celebratory mood. They were relieved I was still in a God-fearing position, and my dad reassured me that ‘there wasn’t going to be any garment rending’ over my conversion.”

However, Siciliano said he always feels particularly welcome when he and his wife visit his uncle’s home. “When we are back on the East Coast, my father’s younger sister, the wife of my uncle who has the store, is so on top of Shabbat that by the time we get to their house, the food that she bought from the glatt kosher joint in Cedarhurst is there. Kelila knows where her candles go. My aunt has cleared out a space for our stuff. It borders on convenient.”

Green said her parents were happy either way, as long as their grandchildren were raised in a Jewish household. But when she told them that her partner was converting, “They were overjoyed, especially knowing how much easier it would be for everyone. When I told them he was converting through the Orthodox beit din, I think they were still thrilled, but there have been some challenges that we have all had to deal with — mainly stemming from a lack of knowledge or understanding of the halachah (Jewish laws).” 

Of course, throughout the process, Siciliano’s biggest cheerleader was, and still is, Green. Today, they have one child, Yoella, who is 15 months old. They continue to attend B’nai David-Judea, and Siciliano, who calls himself “the guy with the hat” at shul, is just as, if not more so, excited about Judaism as he was when he first dove into the conversion process. “When you love your job, you feel like you never work a day in your life,” he said. “It’s kind of like that.”

Israeli high court affirms conversions questioned by rabbinical courts

Israel’s high court reversed two annulled conversions to Judaism and affirmed thousands of others.

Two women had in 2008 appealed to the rabbinical appeals court annulments by lower rabbinical courts of their conversions, which came about because of divorce cases.

The rabbinical appeals court not only upheld the annulments but called into question thousands more conversions conducted through a network of conversion courts headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. The women then appealed to the high court.

In a decision delivered Tuesday and reported by Ha’aretz on Friday, the high court struck down the earlier rulings with especially harsh language.

“The Rabbinical Court of Appeals rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice,” Justice Dorit Beinisch wrote, according to Haaretz. “It demonstrated contempt for the special conversion courts, and above all, it hurt and did a shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children.”

In addition to reversing the two annulments, the high court affirmed all of the conversions in the system headed by Druckman.

The court left alone the authority of Israel’s rabbinical court system to decide conversions.

The decades-old conflict between the national religious Orthodox community, of which Druckman is a leader, and the Haredi community, which dominates the religious court system, has underpinned the conversion battle.

Priest, born Jewish, is ‘Torn’

In the opening scene of the documentary “Torn,” an official asks an elderly man for his name, and he replies, “Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel.”

This name encapsulates the fate of Jakub (Yankele) Weksler, born 1943 in Lublin, Poland, to Jewish parents during the Holocaust years and adopted by a Christian Polish family to save his life. At 17, the one-time Yankele enters a seminary and eventually becomes Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Catholic priest.

As his Polish mother lies dying, she tells the 35-year-old priest that — like thousands of other Jewish children hidden by Catholic families and in convents during the war — he was born a Jew.

In the remainder of “Torn,” Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner documents a man’s struggle to reconcile two faiths that he sees as one, but which the Christian and Jewish outside worlds view as mutually exclusive beliefs.

The man’s internal struggle is given external expression in his small bedroom, where a painting of Jesus is flanked by an engraving of the Shema prayer and a small menorah. Adjacent are faded photos of his Jewish and Christian mothers.

Over the years, the priest’s conviction grows that he must go to Israel to study Hebrew, and in his mid-60s he arrives at Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox kibbutz, to enroll in its ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language program).

But here, as in Poland, Weksler-Waszkinel’s insistence that he is both Jewish and Catholic stumps even the generally sympathetic kibbutzniks and Israeli bureaucrats.

For one, Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic entry to any Jew, does not apply to those practicing a different faith, and no Christian monastery in Israel will accept him in their own ranks.

Weksler-Waszkinel, now known as Yaakov, is at first indignant (“You mean secularists like Marx and Trotsky are Jews, but not me?”), then agrees to forgo saying Sunday Mass at a church in Tiberias, but he refuses to take the final step.

“I can deny everything [about Catholicism], but not Jesus,” he proclaims, but adds later, “I am convinced the God of Israel loves me, as I love Him.”

As Yaakov continues his struggle, his great friend is the American-born chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who becomes the mediator between Yaakov and his would-be Israeli compatriots.

One unforgettable picture symbolizes Yaakov’s duality. As he approaches the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he carefully adjusts his priestly Roman collar, and then his embroidered kippah.

Currently, Yaakov works as an archivist at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and appears happy, filmmaker Kertsner said. He has been officially classified as a “permanent resident,” which allows him three years to decide whether to apply for Israeli citizenship.

Kertsner said that of the many thousands of Jewish children saved by Poles during the Holocaust, she knew of no other instance of a born Jew becoming a priest.

She brings a special empathy to the subject of her documentary. “When I was around 35, I learned that I had been adopted as a child, and then I went through a severe identity crisis,” she said.

Her American parents moved after World War II to Israel, where Ronit was born in 1956. She started, and continues, her career as a film editor, partly due to the influence of her uncle, the American actor David Opatoshu. As producer of “Torn,” she decided to also direct it when no one else wanted the job.

Her other documentaries — “Menachem and Fred,” “I, the Aforementioned Infant” and “The Secret” — also deal with identity crises. Asked if she plans on doing any feature films, she answered, “Why should I, when real life is so fascinating?”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen “Torn” on Aug. 10 at the Museum of Tolerance as part of its “Midsummer Night’s Film Festival” series. The film starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; and director Kertsner. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, will serve as moderator.

For tickets or information about the screening, please call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org. For more background on “Torn” and its director, visit www.go2films.com.

Journey to Judaism

I grew up in Valparaiso, a predominantly white, Christian city in northwestern Indiana.  Brought up in a fervently Lutheran family, I attended a Lutheran parish (a church-run school) for eight years, went to church twice a week, and prayed before every meal and every night before bed.  Even with all of the influences around me that should have produced a dedicated young Christian woman, I did not feel like I was in the right place.

It was about a week before my confirmation in the Lutheran church, when I was 13, that I started to question my beliefs.  My doubts about Christianity initially manifested themselves in conclusions like, “Well, I must not believe in God.”  But the minute those thoughts surfaced, I knew they were wrong.  It wasn’t God I didn’t believe in — it was what Christianity was telling me about God. Why would God need an intermediary? Wasn’t God enough? Why would God only let people who thought a certain way into heaven, while everyone else was damned for eternity?  Didn’t God want us all to use the minds He gave to us rather than to have blind faith?  And shouldn’t we be focusing on living a great life this time around rather than centering our lives on being “saved” after we die?

So, in high school, despite having never once set foot in a synagogue and knowing only a couple of Jews — mostly nonpracticing ones — my official answer to questions about my religion became, “My family is Lutheran, but my beliefs are mostly Jewish.”  Honestly, I don’t think I even knew what I meant by that, as I knew close to nothing about the Jewish religion or community.  Here’s what I did know: I had a strong belief in the God of the Old Testament, I craved some type of organized religion, I gravitated toward Jewish friends and, in a trend that has endured over time, I gravitated toward Jewish men.  But most important, I had an unexplainable feeling that I simply was a Jew … without any reason to back it up.

It was in college at USC when I finally had sufficient autonomy to really do something about it. I went to the campus Hillel to meet with the rabbi, Jonathan Klein, and with full conviction told him I wanted to convert.  He smiled at me with a combination of support and acknowledgment of my naivete, and told me I had a lot to learn. 

After I spent months studying Jewish topics and Hebrew, Rabbi Klein became my sponsoring rabbi,  helping me enroll in a conversion program through the American Jewish University; I will be completing the program soon.

My reading and studying enabled me to articulate the reasons for so many of the feelings I had when I was younger. “For every three Jews in a room,” I learned, “you’ll hear four different opinions.”  To me, that was comforting: The expanse of this faith and its people, and how it manages to encompass a vast and diverse range of interpretations on pretty much every topic excites and moves me.  I feel free to have my own unique set of beliefs while still being part of a bigger whole.

Even with such passion, though, this conversion has not come easily.  In the beginning, the No. 1 one thing that ate me alive daily was the guilt (yet another sign that I’m a true Jewish woman).  I felt guilty for turning my back on the faith I had known my whole life, guilty for abandoning the God that my parents so deeply love and so badly wanted me to love, and guilty that I felt so guilty in the first place.  After the first Christmas Eve church service I attended with my family during my conversion, I cried. For days I couldn’t stop thinking that I was abandoning someone who had died for me.

Over time, this guilt subsided.  But after the guilt came a series of personal religious jabs — from both sides.  I had Christians asking me with disgusted faces why I would “ever want to be Jewish,” and others openly expressed their “shock” and “disappointment” at my not accepting Jesus.  A relative of mine came up to me once with a huge smile on his face. “I just saved a Jewish guy!”  he said.

And I had Jews tell me that even when my conversion is complete I still won’t be Jewish — that it’s not in my “blood” and never can be, no matter what I do. Upon hearing about our engagement, a relative of my fiance’s told him she was sending him a book — “Why Marry Jewish?” Apparently, to some, marrying a Jewish convert is nowhere near the same thing as marrying a Jew.
But most of my family and friends have been supportive or, at the very least, neutral and non-intrusive about my decision. It feels wonderful when my Lutheran grandmother sends me a “Happy Passover” card, or when my rabbi is always available to give me guidance over coffee, or even when my Jewish boss jokes, “She’s Jewish if I say she’s Jewish.” This support is important, but I’ve actually gotten through most of my conversion difficulty by reminding myself of a question I heard once on a TV show, of all places: “Do you want a safe life or an authentic one?”
It might be comfortable and pleasant to stick to what you know and to avoid controversy and people’s disappointment with you, but I can’t believe that’s how to live a life, including a spiritual one.  Sometimes you have to be a little bit brave just to get to where you’re supposed to be. 

Olivia Gingerich studied theater, law and society at USC. She is currently an actress living in Los Angeles with her fiance and her terrier, Moses.

My big fat Dominican Orthodox Jewish wedding

I wanted to elope. He didn’t. Actually, toward the end of our wedding planning, he did — but his family, which is much larger than mine, was expecting a big fat Orthodox Jewish wedding. What they weren’t expecting was a big fat Dominican Orthodox Jewish wedding.

My husband, a Jew by birth, had been to many Jewish weddings. As a Jew by choice, I had only been to one — ever. I remembered nothing except the feeling that I didn’t know when to stand, when to sit, where to lean, what to wear and where to look. It was uncomfortable, and that wasn’t the feeling I wanted my guests to have at my wedding.

The rabbi who was marrying us had us both read “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” by Maurice Lamm, but I was the one who needed clarification on some of the finer points of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Still, I found it fitting that Lamm should enter my life just then. He had taught me to become a Jew through his book, “Becoming a Jew,” and he was going to teach me how to be a Jewish wife, too.

Our rabbi was very hands-on. He wanted us to feel comfortable talking to him about tweaking different parts of the ceremony to suit our personalities and our relationship. My future husband found this hilarious when he realized that our rather understanding rabbi didn’t understand that I couldn’t imagine “tweaking” something that I had never experienced. I told them both that I just wanted “a regular Jewish wedding.” But as the wedding planning drudged on, I realized this wasn’t true.

I wanted my wedding to bring together both spiritually and physically two sides of my world: the Jewish world I had embraced and the Dominican world where I had been raised. It suddenly became incredibly, overwhelmingly important to me that people realize that they were coming to a Dominican Jewish girl’s wedding. And with three months to plan this shindig, we were at a loss for where to start.

The best way to start to incorporate our multicultural reality into our multicultural wedding would have been to make a list of all the parts and parcels of a wedding we could imbue with a Dominican flavor. But we weren’t organized, so we went with our intuition. What did we think of when we thought about how Dominican culture affected our lives?

Music! My husband had heard me rock out to enough Spanish-language tunes to start asking Jewish bands whether they could infuse their playlists with some Spanish blood. When one band started asking us for suggestions for actual songs, we were stumped.

Luckily, that same band came to our rescue, offering us a list of Spanish ditties that made me think of “home,” the culture that intertwined itself with my adopted American Jewish culture. We ordered some ballads, salsa, merengue and none of that loathsome bachata music my father loves.

Food! I wasn’t very optimistic about finding a kosher caterer who could cook my favorite Dominican dishes. “What would they know about Dominican food?” this Jewish bridezilla wondered.

Again, it was “ask and ye shall receive.” The caterer bombarded us with a list of delicacies from all over the Caribbean food palette. I did not have to sacrifice my love of rice, beans and plantains at my wedding. I hoped that discovering plantains and other surprises at the buffet would be a life preserver for Hispanic guests feeling lost in the sea of Jewish guests.

Favors! Since my first party, when my mother tied a bow with my name and the occasion’s date to a figurine, party favors have been synonymous with Dominican fiestas. But I couldn’t think of anything that I could give away to my guests that would be cost-effective without being touristy.

In desperation, I pondered having my cousins in the Dominican Republic ship 200 maracas. In the end, the maracas weren’t meant to be. Instead, Jewish and non-Jewish guests alike walked away with benchers, the book of Jewish blessings given away at Orthodox Jewish weddings.

If it had been up to me, there would have been little Dominican caricatures on the book’s soft cover (a girl can dream, right?). A non-Jewish co-worker later surprised me by pulling out my bencher at a mutual friend’s wedding. He thought it would be helpful at his “second Orthodox Jewish wedding ever.”

OK, when I think of Dominicans, I think of the Dominican Republic. And I flirted with the idea of dragging all the New Yorkers and all the Angelenos out to the Caribbean for a destination wedding. It would have helped my relatives bypass the need for visas.

But my husband’s baby blue eyes pleaded with my saner attributes. We finally settled instead on honeymooning in Santo Domingo and visiting most of my relatives then. But I promise you, folks, if I have my way, I’m renewing my vows barefoot on a beach with merengue and salsa in the background.

When planning your big fat multicultural wedding, it’s best to follow your heart and keep your guests in mind. Thoughtful wedding helpers created a pamphlet so that all our guests could follow along with the Jewish wedding ceremony.

But a bride and groom could easily draw up a similar informative pamphlet to explain any traditional aspects of their wedding. We kept the guests on their toes at our wedding. Jewish and non-Jewish guests alike never knew what to expect, but we wanted everyone to feel a part of our big day.

With flowers, colors, invitations and cakes, there are plenty of ways to incorporate some ethnic style into any wedding. A little birdie informed me that I could have ordered “white groom and brown bride” cake toppers: Jewish groom and Hispanic bride figurines to dance on my creamy cake.

With that kind of creativity out there, there’s no stopping us from putting together my daughter’s own big fat multicultural Jewish wedding. Well, except that she hasn’t been born yet.

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator. This article was originally published by InterfaithFamily.com.

Don’t build walls to keep out non-Jews

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans are switching religions more than ever. As many as one of every two adults does not practice the religion in which they were born or raised.

Evangelical and nondenominational Protestantism are the winners. Catholicism and mainline Protestants are the losers. As an aging religious group, it is time for Jews to take heed of the changes affecting religion in America because they are Americans, too, and no major trend passes them by.

Pew refers to the “marketplace” of religions in the United States, and that is exactly right. People shop around for the religious theologies, practices and communities that suit them. Some may try on a number of faiths until they find the one that fits.

This is one of the great benefits of the nonestablishment clause of the First Amendment, freedom from the government sanctioning any particular religion and allowing many faiths to thrive. The result has been a healthy competition, a country relatively free from the religious strife that plagues so many societies.

At a time when other religious groups are seeking adherents and promoting their religious faiths, Jewish organizations and institutions generally are so afraid of decline and loss that they turn inwards. The result, is that these very insular approaches end up ensuring that decline and loss occur.

The reason is that Jews, like other Americans, crave free choice. We are more likely to retain more people because they feel they want to be Jews, not because they have to be.

The Jewish communal response to this expression of religious freedom is locked somewhere in another time or place — Europe and North Africa in the 1700s, for example. We keep having the same tired discussions about “preventing intermarriage” or “strengthening Jewish identity” or saving the Jews from assimilation with the right kind of, or enough, Jewish education.

Again and again we respond with rhetoric, ideas and programs that circle round and round in the same orbit — how do we keep Jews in? Hundreds of years of discrimination, violence and murder take a huge toll. They create a psychology of fear that results in Jewish isolation, a construct of us and them, insiders and outsiders, Jews and enemies. And with unabashed and straight-faced boldness, as if no one else is listening, we ask how do we keep strangers — meaning all non-Jews — out of our families, out of our synagogues. Out.

We don’t want to be part of the marketplace of religious ideas and practices, thank you, we just want to be left alone to marry each other and keep everybody inside, safe and secure.

This, of course, is an illusion.

Still, we fantasize that if we inoculate our young people with enough Jewish education, then they will reject the 98 percent of other Americans they might fall in love with or not be attracted to Zen Buddhism. What nonsense. We all have seen the numbers to prove that the head in the sand, return to the ghetto and hope the non-Jew will go away strategy is not going to work. No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition.

It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm. We still question people’s sincerity — do they really want to be Jewish?

Yes, of course we need standards and procedures — and to say that making Judaism more accessible means abandoning rules of admission is a straw argument to cover up how suspicious, off-putting and unfriendly we often are to those who want to be part of the Jewish people.

Openness and excitement do not mean that learning and ritual requirements to become a Jew should be abandoned. Just the opposite is the case. Spiritual seekers are looking for meaning, content and purpose. Becoming a Jew can be a deeply intellectual and emotional experience, and spiritual seekers are willing to engage in rigorous education about Jewish life, rituals of conversion and rites of passage to become a Jew.

Some rabbis do a great job in dealing with potential converts; many do not. Our synagogues often are less welcoming than we think. And our newspapers, sermons and sociological literature are filled with hysterical reprimands and dire predictions about the demise of the Jews that result from gentiles breaking through our traditional walls.

We have a theology that has no intermediary between the individual and God. That is appealing. We have a set of daily, monthly and yearly rituals that provide guidance and purpose. That is appealing. We have rich liturgy, beautiful prayers, deep roots in Israel, a strong communal system. All appealing. By being attractive to others, we will also be more attractive to born Jews. What are we afraid of?

We are checkmated by our own notion of ourselves that Jews don’t do that — we don’t compete for newcomers. Maybe Jews in 18th century Poland did not — and with good reason. It brought the wrath of the church and the state on them.

But this is 21st century America, not 18th century Poland or 20th century Germany. Pew tells us that Americans are switching religions like never before. Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000-year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage and our dwindling numbers?

Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy and passion. And born Jews who choose to embrace their Judaism in an open marketplace also will enrich Jewish life. It is time to embrace the America in which we live. We must abandon the paradigm that our children and grandchildren are potential gentiles and promote the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco and writes frequently about American and Jewish philanthropy.

Michael Richards: still not a Jew

Michael Richards is not a Jew.

As Cosmo Kramer in “Seinfeld,” Richards played one on TV. But he himself is not Jewish — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Richards lashed out a heckler at the Laugh Factory last Friday, spitting out the “N” word without humor and with abandon. Audience members booed, several walked out, then Richards himself walked off stage.

The incident was caught on a cellphone camera and posted at the TMZ.com Web site, where it ignited a firestorm of criticism against Richards. Richards apologized on “The Late Show With David Letterman” Monday night. “I was at a comedy club trying to do my act, and I got heckled, and I took it badly and went into a rage,” he said. “For me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I’m deeply, deeply sorry. I’m not a racist. That’s what’s so insane about this.”

Fellow comedians and fans have been quick to criticize Richards — and misrepresent his religious background. Comedian Paul Rodriquez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks. He shouldn’t, but he also isn’t Jewish.

“Someone needs to tell Rodriquez that Michael isn’t a Jew,” said a television director who has known Richards for years. The two worked together in 1980 on ABC’s “Fridays” television show and have remained in touch ever since.

According to sources familiar with Richards, the actor was raised I no specific religious tradition. “He does not have Jewish blood,” said New York publicist Howard Rubenstein, who Richards retained to help manage his PR nightmare.

Rubenstein created some confusion over Richards’ heritage when he told the press that the actor is indeed Jewish. “He’s Jewish,” Rubenstein is quoted as saying to Yahoo news.

In a telephone interview with The Jewish Journal, Rubenstein clarified that Richards was not born Jewish and never converted to Judaism. “He believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself,” said Rubenstein

According to traditional Jewish law, a Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.Liberal streams of Judaism also recognize as Jewish a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. By any of these definitions, Richards is not technically Jewish, as Rubenstein acknowledged. “He identifies strongly with [Judaism],” the publicist said.

A biography of Richards on the Wikipedia web site lists no religion, but does say Richards is very involved in the Masons. Masonry is not a religion but Masons do subscribe to a set of ethical precepts.

“Seinfeld” was Richards’ first big break after a long and unlikely rise to stardom.

According to Wikipedia, Richards was born in Culver City to Phyllis (nee Nardozzi), a medical records librarian. He was raised by Nardozzi and William Richards, an electrical engineer. “Richards attended California Institute of the Arts but received a bachelor’s degree in drama from Evergreen State College in 1975.

He was drafted during the Vietnam War and stationed in Germany, as one of the co-directors of the V Corps Training Road Show. He produced and directed shows dealing with race relations and drug abuse. He then spent two years in the Army developing educational skits and a couple more years ‘finding himself’ at a commune in the Santa Clara Mountains. He drove a bus and developed a stand-up comedy act in 1979,” according to the Web site.

In “Seinfeld,” which aired from 1989-1998, Richards played Kramer, a character based on show co-creator Larry David’s former across-the-hall neighbor, Kenny Kramer. The real Kramer is indeed of Jewish heritage — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Richards did appear Sep. 14 at the Laugh Factory’s evening of Jewish comics, called, “The King Davids of Comedy.” However, the management made it clear at the time that Richards and the other major comic at the event, Louis CK, were not part of that evening’s themed show, and that no photography would be permitted during their sets.

Following Richard’s racist remarks, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada posted this message on the company’s Web site: “We do not support or condone the inappropriate, hurtful and offensive comments that Mr. Richards made on Friday night at the Laugh Factory.

“Mr. Richards was scheduled to appear on Saturday night and had informed management of his intention to apologize for his hurtful and unprofessional outburst from the previous night. He failed to do so and disappointed us.

“We have made it clear that Mr. Richards is no longer welcomed here. The Laugh Factory is a comedy club not a forum for personal attacks.”

Laugh Factory owner Masada is Jewish.

Confusion over Richards’ heritage grew after the Anti-Defamation League issued a press release Monday denouncing the actor’s tirade.

“Richards’ repeated use of the ‘n-word’ and apparent reference to lynching is offensive in any context. There is no excuse for such insensitive and bigoted language. It has no place in a comedy club and no place in America and must be clearly repudiated,” the release said.

“We hope Mr. Richards will now take a public stand against appeals to racism and bigotry and publicly apologize for his poor judgment in shouting them from the stage.”

The release did not address Richard’s own religion. In the past, the ADL has regularly taken public stances against instances of racism unrelated to anti-Semitism.

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.

A Second Wake-Up Call

It took nearly 10 years, but now the other shoe has dropped. In the early 1990s, the American Jewish community was jolted by findings of an intermarriage rate exceeding 50 percent during the previous five years. Now, a new survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) sheds light on the profound social and psychological consequences of widespread intermarriage.

The new study indicates that American Jews are rapidly accommodating themselves to the new realities. Only 39 percent of the people questioned agreed with the statement, “It would pain me if my child married a gentile.” In the judgment of merely 25 percent, the best response to intermarriage is “to encourage the gentile to convert to Judaism.” Half claimed “it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.” And 56 percent were either “neutral” or “positive” about marriage between a Jew and a gentile.

Equally startling were responses to questions about how rabbis ought to deal with prospective interfaith marriages. Fifty-seven percent want rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, side-by-side with gentile clergy; only 15 percent would like rabbis to refuse to officiate at any interfaith wedding.

What has caused this apparent wholesale abandonment of long-standing Jewish norms? Certainly, trends within American society at large play an important role. Marriage between individuals of different religious and ethnic groups has become the rule, rather than exception, and is widely regarded as a symptom of growing tolerance within our society. American individualism as applied to religion, moreover, encourages people to “follow their bliss,” making up their own rules as they go along. And the new “pluralism,” which celebrates blurred boundaries, now teaches that multiple religious or ethnic allegiances are better than one.Undoubtedly, American Jews are influenced by all of these social trends. But the AJCommittee data also make plain that many respondents are reacting not only to changes in the wider culture, but to the reality of intermarriage close to home. Among members of this sample who have a married child, nearly two-thirds claim at least one of their children is currently intermarried. Given the ubiquity of intermarriage, few American Jews with unmarried children can confidently expect all their offspring to marry Jews. The AJCommittee data suggest that American Jews are coping with these painful realities by defining the problem away. Rather than risk friction with intermarried children, they have come to accept interfaith marriages, and they turn to their rabbis for help in keeping relations with their offspring free of tensions – at any cost.

This conclusion seems inescapable in light of an otherwise puzzling pattern of responses to the survey: Jews over age 60 were considerably more tolerant of intermarriage than were younger Jews, even though the latter are presumably more in touch with current cultural trends. One can only assume that the resistance of the over-60 population has been weakened by the actual incidence of intermarriage within their own families and in the families of their peers.

For those of us who are unwavering in our commitment to endogamy as a Jewish religious imperative and strategy for ethnic survival, the findings of the AJCommittee survey are undeniably heartbreaking. Indeed, the news is so bad that one can only hope these grim findings may actually serve as a catalyst for increased Jewish unity among our religious leaders. For with a few exceptions, even the most ardent champions of outreach to the intermarried reject the views of amcha, of the Jewish masses. Rabbis of all stripes regard the conversion of a gentile married to a Jew as the ideal Jewish choice. And only a small minority of rabbis who co-officiate at interfaith weddings do so without setting at least some conditions. On these issues, rabbis across the religious spectrum have far more in common with each than they do with their own congregants.

A unified campaign is also in order because the survey indicates that all sectors of the Jewish community are affected by intermarriage and its social consequences. True, Orthodox Jews are consistently the most likely to oppose accommodation, but even in the Orthodox camp resistance is eroding. Moreover, while the incidence varies considerably from one group to the next, intermarriage hits home within every religious stream.

We are all in this together, and we had better engage in the battle of ideas quickly and forthrightly. Ten years ago, Jewish communities mobilized to fight for “Jewish continuity” by redoubling their efforts to strengthen Jewish education. Unfortunately, this campaign was not matched by an explicit confrontation of intermarriage. Rabbis, religious educators, and communal leaders may have believed that improvements in Jewish education and positive Jewish experiences would deter Jews from intermarrying. Perhaps they were reluctant to talk about the vital necessity of inmarriage because they feared alienating the swelling population of intermarried Jews and their families and friends. But unless we are certain that all the past rules of Jewish survival ought to be suspended because “America is different,” we had better engage in this cultural battle – and a battle it is when large numbers of Jews regard opposition to intermarriage as “racist.” It is inconceivable that for fear of giving offense, we are not articulating the Jewish case for inmarriage at time when growing numbers of our people are embracing views antithetical to Jewish values and interests.

Fortunately, the AJCommittee survey offers evidence that a pro-endogamy message will not fall on deaf ears. For with all their open-minded views on this issue – and perhaps their despair about how to cope with intermarriage occurring all around them – more than two-thirds of the people in the AJCommittee sample nonetheless agree with the statement, “The Jewish community has an obligation to urge Jews to marry Jews.” (This figure, we should note, holds steady for all age groups.) Despite their personal accommodations to the reality of intermarriage and their desire to have their rabbis make interfaith marriages kosher by officiating at ceremonies, American Jews still want their communal institutions and leaders to affirm the tradition-al ideal. Here is the foundation on which to rebuild communal consensus on what Jews until recently long took for granted, namely, that a Jewish marriage is a marriage of two Jews.

Power, Politics And People

Israeli lawmaker Alex Lubotsky was having a bad day on Jan. 29. Hehad come to Jerusalem’s Ramada hotel to address a visiting group ofOrthodox Jews from America, to plead for their support of thecompromise conversion plan authored by Finance Minister YaakovNeeman.

He didn’t have much luck. The visitors, leaders of the Union ofOrthodox Jewish Congregations of America, displayed more skepticismthan an Arkansas grand jury. Most, witnesses said, looked as thoughthey would rather be anywhere but in that room, being asked to standup and do the right thing. Rabbi Beryl Wein, a transplanted NewYorker sharing the dais with Lubotsky, reportedly captured the moodwhen he said that he was glad he wasn’t the one who had to make thedecision.

The decision — whether the Neeman plan will become reality –rests with Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbis. The plan requires them tolet Conservative and Reform rabbis help train would-be converts toJudaism. Orthodox rabbis would still perform the actual conversionritual. Non-Orthodox rabbis would be junior partners — less thanthey wanted, but much more than the Orthodox rabbinate wanted to givethem. The non-Orthodox movements have accepted. The chief rabbishaven’t decided, but all signs are negative.

Lubotsky, an ally of Neeman, was hoping that the Orthodox Unionwould help nudge the chief rabbis toward compromise. As the mainAmerican voice of centrist, or “modern” Orthodoxy, the OU has longfavored keeping lines open to the non-Orthodox world. That’s also thephilosophy of Modern Orthodox Israelis such as Neeman and Lubotsky.It’s supposed to be the view of the chief rabbinate too.

Modernity is not what it used to be, however. Nowadays, thedecisive force in Orthodoxy is the relentless gravitational pull ofthe right-wing or “ultra-Orthodox” rabbinate, which rejects allcompromise with sinners. Fearing the purists’ wrath, nobody wants tocross them. Not the Orthodox Union in America, not the chief rabbisin Israel. In contemporary Orthodoxy, bridge-building is out.Fence-building is in.

Three days earlier and 7,000 miles west, the top leaders of Reformand Conservative Judaism held a press conference in New York on Jan.26 to give their own view of the Neeman plan, which had gone to theprime minister the day before.

They planned to lament the chief rabbis’ anticipated rejection ofNeeman. This, they figured, would prove who is ready to makesacrifices for Jewish unity and who isn’t. To their surprise, theliberal rabbis woke up that Monday to find themselves outflanked bytheir own troops. While they slept, their negotiators in Israel weremeeting with a representative of the chief rabbinate, at the home ofJewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg, to concoct a competingcompromise. It was the only way, Burg explained, to avoid a blowupwhen the chief rabbis reject Neeman.

The Burg plan lets the chief rabbis off the hook. Instead of aunified conversion process, each movement would continue its ownconversions. All converts would be registered as Jews by Israel’sstate population registry, with a notation of the date they becameJewish. But only Orthodox converts would be recognized by the chiefrabbinate, which still controls marriage, divorce, adoption andburial. This way, the non-Orthodox movements get governmentrecognition, just as they wanted, while the Orthodox retain the powerto ensure it doesn’t do them any good.

Gone is the immediate danger of conversions causing a governmentcollapse or an Israel-Diaspora explosion. Instead, look for anexplosion next year over marriages, as a growing army of non-Orthodoxconverts battles discrimination.

Both the Neeman and Burg plans could defuse, at least for now, theincendiary tensions fracturing the Jewish world. Community leadersare hailing them as nearly interchangeable, the Burg plan merely anarrower, more “technical” fix than Neeman.

In fact, as some top rabbis admit privately, the two plans arepolar opposites. Neeman, by creating one intermovement conversionprocedure, would strengthen the role of the Israeli government as acentral, unifying voice in Jewish life. Its champions see it as astep — albeit a baby step — toward healing the historic breachesdividing Judaism’s streams.

The Burg plan does the reverse. By getting the Israeli governmentout of the business of deciding whose conversions are legitimate, itis a decisive first step toward separation of synagogue and state.The rest — removing marriage, divorce and burial from Orthodoxrabbinic control — is just a matter of time. Each movement would befree to go its own way, without regard to others’ standards.

Already, the two proposals have begun to redraw the map of thereligious pluralism debate. Up to now, the struggle has dividedOrthodox Jews from non-Orthodox. With the arrival of the Burg plan,the debate is between the center and the edges.

On one side are the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements,which enthusiastically favor Neeman. They view it as a historic steptoward recreating a common code of Jewish law, modified formodernity, which all Jews could begin to accept. That’s exactly whatthey stand for.

On the other side are the Reform and ultra-Orthodox movements,which are happiest with Burg. Both groups would just as soon get theJewish state out of the business of determining Jewish law — theReform, because they don’t believe in the idea of a binding Jewishlaw; the ultra-Orthodox, because they don’t fully accept the Jewishstate.

Reform and Conservative leaders alike insist that there is nochance of a near-term breakup in their strategic alliance. Bothmovements are still denied any recognition in Israel. They’ll fighttogether until they get it. For now, both have endorsed both Neemanand Burg, with varying enthusiasm.

Both sides admit, however, that the latest twist has brought theirdifferences to the surface quite sharply. It’s no longer hard toimagine the two allies on opposite sides in the not-too-distantfuture.

Which side will come out on top — centrism or fragmentation? IfAlex Lubotsky’s experience last week means anything, don’t bet moneyon the center.

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power: Inside the AmericanJewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The JewishJournal.

All rights reserved by author.

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

Converts to Judaism Can Now Find Each Other Online

Converts to Judaism can now find each other — and counsel from several rabbis — on line.

On America Online, for example, there are currently 489 postings in a “Jews by Choice” area. Just click on keyword “Jewish” to get to the Jewish area called Jewish Community Online. There, click on the “chat” icon and find topics such as “Conversion to Judaism: Some Real Stories,” “Should I Convert to Judaism?” and “Why the Jewish People Should Welcome Converts.”

One of the most popular areas on JCOL is “Ask a Rabbi,” in which potential converts can ask real rabbis questions about Judaism. The most frequently asked questions can be accessed in a “Conversation Q&A” area.

Lastly, AOL has web links to several conversion-related sites on the World Wide Web, including “The Conversion to Judaism Homepage” and “How Does One Convert?” — Teresa Strasser, Contributing Writer