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.”

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.”

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.

DiCaprio converting to Judaism?


Leonardo DiCaprio is rumored to be considering converting to Judaism for his longtime girlfriend, Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli.

The possible conversion by DiCaprio, a non-practicing Catholic, is a sign that the popular American actor and Refaeli will marry, the Daily Mail reported Sunday.

“Leo’s sudden intense interest in Israel, its culture and religion is the clearest sign yet that he intends to marry Bar,” said an anonymous source quoted in the London newspaper.

DiCaprio has visited Refaeli in Israel several times, most recently in November. It has been rumored for months that the couple are engaged.