CORRECTION: This version corrects the date of Mandel's conversion. It took place eight months after her “practice dunk,” not a year and eight months later. The correction appears in paragraph 10
When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikvah prior to her formal conversion to Judaism, the whole request seemed a bit odd, she says.
For one thing, Freundel instructed her to skip the pre-mikvah checklist, which includes things like cleaning out one’s navel, trimming nails, and getting rid of excess hair and skin. For another, she had never heard of practice dunking.
But Mandel eventually bought the rabbi’s explanation: that women performing the ritual for the first time at their actual conversions might in their nervousness and confusion turn around and mistakenly expose themselves to the three rabbis present. Mandel said she, like other women who took practice dunks, actually found the trial run helpful.
But that was before last week when Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikvah’s shower room. He is believed to have clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before their practice dunks and the monthly immersions that married Orthodox women perform following menstruation.
Freundel has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his job.
Looking back, Mandel says, elements of the experience were deeply suspect.
“At first I was like, this was weird, but when he was waiting in the waiting room I thought this is just me being paranoid,” Mandel said. Now, she says, “It makes me ill.”
Peeping was not the only form of abuse that converts said they experienced at Freundel’s hands. The rabbi also demanded that conversion candidates perform clerical duties on his behalf and donate money to the Washington Beit Din, or rabbinical court. These candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.
Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.
“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke with JTA on the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”
Mandel, too, had no idea when her conversion would be complete. After her practice dunk in October 2010, it took another eight months for Freundel to green-light her actual conversion.
“You’d meet with him and he’d at some point arbitrarily decide that you were ready to go to the beit din,” Mandel said. “There was no clear outline or timeline or requirements. I didn’t go to classes or study.”
The peeping Tom revelations, while the most extraordinary of the allegations against Freundel, have helped pull back the curtain on what may be a far more common problem in the Orthodox world: the abuse of prospective converts by the rabbis who convert them. In Freundel’s case, the rabbi allegedly abused his power both for sexual and non-sexual purposes.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which rebuked Freundel two years ago for misusing conversion candidates for clerical work, says it is reviewing its procedures to better safeguard against such exploitation.
For the women whose privacy was violated by Freundel’s alleged actions, the revelations have been shocking — but in retrospect, they said, not out of character with a man many deemed “creepy.”
One female candidate for conversion who declined to be identified for fear that her 2012 conversion could be challenged said Freundel made her ride with him to Towson University near Baltimore, where Freundel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, to do secretarial work. The woman, who was single at the time, said the rides were uncomfortable and the work was onerous, particularly because she worked nights and needed her days free to catch up on sleep.
But she didn’t dare say no to Freundel because he held the prerogative to declare her ready for conversion.
“When you’re going through conversion, you don’t know the timeline of when you’re going to finish — there’s so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim you’re in limbo,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where you’re converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.”
She said Freundel made comments that struck her as strange and inappropriate.
“He made a lot of comments that didn’t sit right for me about my appearance, about how attractive he thought I was, about whether guys were pursuing me, about my clothing,” she recalled. “I found it quite uncomfortable to be around him for long periods of time alone.”
Mandel said her own conversion process was terribly disjointed even though Freundel was part of the committee that established conversion policies and standards for the Rabbinical Council of America. Freundel was also known for being an advocate of opening up certain leadership roles in Orthodoxy to women, such as synagogue presidencies.
The RCA, which suspended Freundel’s membership following his Oct. 14 arrest, says it has appointed a committee to review its entire conversion system to determine if and where changes are needed to prevent rabbinic abuse. The organization, which serves as the main rabbinical association for centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States, also said it would appoint women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, said in an interview that it’s difficult for the RCA to police its members closely.
“Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight,” he said.
The appointment of female ombudsmen, Dratch said, is meant to address this problem.
“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” he said. “We want to support a healthy conversion process.”
Critics say the RCA is not up to the task, as demonstrated by its failure to identify Freundel’s alleged misdeeds despite at least two prior complaints against him. One was about using prospective converts for clerical tasks and soliciting the beit din donations, as well as maintaining a joint bank account with a conversion candidate. In the other, Freundel was accused of sharing a sleeper compartment on an overnight train with a woman who was not his wife.
The RCA says it appointed a committee to investigate the first complaint and concluded that while the behavior was inappropriate, there was no malicious intent. Dratch says Freundel asked many congregants, not just converts, for clerical help and donations, and the joint checking account was intended to help a prospective convert. Freundel was reprimanded and agreed to stop.
As to the train incident, the RCA says Freundel was confronted and provided a “reasonable explanation,” and there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior, but did not elaborate.
“A delegation was sent to Washington to speak with Freundel,” Dratch recalled. “They came back with a recommendation that didn’t rise to a level where he had to be dismissed.”
Among those tasked by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America with investigating Freundel were two attorneys who now lead major Jewish organizations: Allen Fagin, now the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, now CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Goldstein declined to comment to JTA; a representative for Fagin said he was unavailable for comment.
A rabbinic critic interviewed by JTA said the RCA’s approach to Freundel was “totally incompetent.”
“The organization should have seen a red flag and they didn’t,” said the critic, who declined to be named because he said he did not want to be a distraction. “This is a story of a Jewish institution missing the warning signs because they answer to nobody.”
The critic compared the RCA’s handling of the Freundel allegations to the failure by Yeshiva University to reign in the inappropriate behavior of Rabbi George Finkelstein, a teacher and administrator at Y.U.’s high school for boys who over the course of three decades allegedly wrestled and hugged boys inappropriately, and the failure of the Orthodox Union to put a stop to the abuse of minors by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was exposed by reports in The New York Jewish Week and eventually was convicted in 2002 of two counts of child sexual abuse.
Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris of the Washington firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke L.L.P., did not return a call seeking comment. Freundel’s next court date is Nov. 12.
The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.
Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s board president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the address she delivered to her congregation on Oct. 15, on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a day after Freundel’s arrest, wasposted on the synagogue’s website.
“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation, and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment,” she said. “Our trust has been violated. Mikvah is an intensely sacred, private ritual space. It is also supposed to be a sanctuary — a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy, where we go to cleanse ourselves and reckon with ourselves and our aspirations to a right Jewish life. But these sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. I am a woman; I know it could have been me.”
David Barak, a Kesher Israel congregant and former president of the mikvah, said Freundel long had been a polarizing figure even within the congregation. But Barak, who converted under Freundel in 1998 and teaches a practical Judaism class for converts, was one of Freundel’s defenders.
“Nobody came to me afterward and said hey, the rabbi’s being weird,” Barak said. “But clearly there was a whole world I didn’t see.”
He says the synagogue is handling the scandal well, noting that the Simchat Torah holiday last week was one of the synagogue’s most spirited ever.
“I think the sense at the shul is we were here before the rabbi and we will be here after the rabbi,” Barak said.
An Israeli advocacy group filed a lawsuit seeking the recognition of all Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.
The Jewish Advocacy Center for ITIM: the Jewish Life Information Center petitioned the Supreme Court last week calling on the Interior Ministry to recognize the conversions, specifically those performed in private Orthodox rabbinical courts.
The petition urges the government to create a conversion process that is fair and accessible.
“Interior Ministry officials are now determining ‘who is a Jew’ against the decisions of Israel’s rabbinical courts,” Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM, said in a statement.
Since 2004, Israel’s conversion programs have been under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, but according to some estimates, nearly 10 percent of Orthodox conversions take place independent of the state system, ITIM said in a statement. The center claimed that in the past four years, Israel has implemented policies that reject converts because of their status as tourists, students or spouses of Israelis.
The petition was filed on behalf of converts to Judaism who completed the conversion process headed by two Orthodox rabbis, Nissim Karelitz and Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. Though the conversions were certified by the rabbinical court, the Interior Ministry did not recognize them.
In May 2011, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate agreed to recognize all official Jewish conversions undertaken in the country, which are all Orthodox.
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.”
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.”
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.
Nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe that non-Orthodox converts to Judaism should be considered Jewish, a new Israeli government survey reveals.
The survey released Monday, which was commissioned by the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to gauge Israelis’ perceptions of the Diaspora, found that 63 percent of Israeli Jews believe that those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis should be regarded as Jews. Some 30 percent believed they should not be seen as Jewish.
The findings put the general public at odds with religious authorities in Israel, which only partially recognizes conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis inside the country. Those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside Israel are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews.
Also, the survey found that 68 percent of Israeli Jews believe intermarried Jews should be considered part of the Jewish people, to 21 percent disagreeing.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said he hoped the findings of the survey would bring the two communities closer together.
“Maybe following this in the political system, we can convince more people that whoever chose to go through a conversion in their community overseas in a Reform or Conservative manner and chose to join us here, we should choose to bring them closer and not push them away,” he told Israel Radio, according to Haaretz. “If we want to bring about unity … we should not boycott or strong-arm anyone.”
The Reform and Conservative movements were among those fighting the Israeli parliament’s attempt this summer to pass a measure that would have tightened the Orthodox-run rabbinate’s control over conversions.
Last month, I was eating dinner alone at a neighborhood pizzeria when I overheard a conversation that made me stop mid-tongue burn.
“I’ve never dated a Jewish man,” a waitress on break said.
“Really?” said her friend. “You should try it. In fact, I’m becoming a Jew.”
At that point, I had to interrupt.
“It’s none of my business,” I said, “but, in a way, it kind of is my business.”
I took out my card, offered it to the woman converting, and told her she had to write her story for our new issue of TRIBE. She said she would, and now Olivia Gingerich’s personal essay is on Page 30.
The truth is, I am somewhat obsessed by conversion journeys.
My mentor and forerunner in this is Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. A pioneer in so many areas of Jewish life, Rabbi Schulweis was among the first mainstream rabbis to accept and welcome converts. He broke the taboo against appearing to proselytize — a taboo, he pointed out, that is based on myth, not law. He led services for converts and, more importantly, integrated them into the shul’s larger congregation, making sure they were offered a warm hand instead of the all-too-common cold shoulder.
Rabbi Schulweis even wrote a book about it, which has just been re-released.
“Not our births, but our becoming defines our being,” he writes in “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker” (Ktav). “Not the origin of ancestry, but the character of our progeny, defines us.
“To the spiritual seekers who would enter the gates of Judaism, let the synagogue open its portals wide and welcome our growing family of inherited history and faith.”
Much of the rabbi’s book is devoted to converts telling their stories, and for all the differences in the details, the stories have much in common. At some point, the convert, pushed on by an inner need, a mysterious leaning, makes a choice. It is never easy. It requires leaving behind what is comfortable, acquiring new knowledge and new habits, swimming against the tide.
The reward is a new way of understanding the world and one’s purpose in it, a new community, a new heritage and tradition.
That trade-off is at the core of the convert’s journey, but, to be frank, isn’t it at the heart of each of our journeys? In a world that doesn’t force us into ghettoes or brand us according to our faith, in a society that wholly accepts us, welcomes us, and allows us to pick and choose from a marketplace of traditions and beliefs, we, too, must choose. We must feel in our hearts and know in our minds the tradition that speaks to us, the rituals that move us, the values that matter to us. And then we must decide, for ourselves and, as Rabbi Schulweis points out, for our progeny, if, and how, we are to live our faith.
In that sense, Olivia Gingerich is hardly alone: We are all converts.
Misty Zollars knew she wanted to be Jewish ever since she was 13, when her best friend invited her to her first Passover seder.
“I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew,” said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. “The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn’t really a trip out there for people like me.”
So Zollars helped create one.
Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called “Jews by Choice.” The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.
“This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish,” said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. “There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They’re too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they’re young and they’ve never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them.”
Many of the trip’s participants — who span all ages and are both single and married — are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.
The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.
“There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community — for people who have embraced Judaism,” Weinberg said. “Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support.”
Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience — going to Israel.
“I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this,” she said.
Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.
“I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I’d love to help,” said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. “Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing.”
Visiting Israel is “the big hook” that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.
Just ask Sperling.
“Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel — just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted,” said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. “For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”
Sperling, 44, took Weinberg’s Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple’s devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children — Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 — in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.
As an Israel “veteran,” Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. “Because I’ve already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they’re there,” she said. “This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish.”
Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism — both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.
“People often don’t think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel,” Weinberg said. “Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren’t brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”
The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip — $3,000, including the flight — was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.
Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.
“It’s almost like a graduation feeling,” she said. “It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me.”
To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail MistyZollars@yahoo.com or Sperling@pacbell.net, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.
It fit somehow that this recent Saturday service for converts to Judaism took place in a synagogue library. Because this gathering, at Temple Beth Am near Beverly Hills, was both an exercise in worship and in teaching. Maybe it even fit that this was a children’s library, because many of the 40 adults who sat in folding chairs are young in relation to their Judaism.
This program, called Judaism by Choice, is “a way of educating the people while they’re in the service itself, teaching it while they’re doing the service … the terms of the synagogue, the geography of the service,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the program’s creator.
Judaism by Choice moves converts out of the classroom and into a synagogue setting. Developed by Weinberg earlier this year, the explanatory Shabbat service is a helpful alternative to leaving would-be Jews to learn about Shabbat by sitting along in the back of a sanctuary trying to unravel a ritual’s nuances.
“The whole idea behind this is to get people integrated into the synagogue community,” Weinberg said. “Many times when people convert, we leave them dripping at the mikvah.”
In the midst of library book titles such as “ABC Dog” and “I Wish I Were a Princess,” the Conservative rabbi delivered a relaxed but focused instructional service-seminar.
“It goes at a slower pace, and Rabbi Weinberg really goes over every detail of the service,” said Emily Camras, a convert whose brother-in-law is Rabbi Richard Camras at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. “It’s not just any old regular service.”
An Aug. 6 debut gathering at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino attracted about 70 people, said Weinberg, who also runs the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles
The Beth Am service had the typical face of a conversion crowd: a few seniors; a younger Ashkenazic man walking arm-in-arm with a blonde woman; and several 20-something couples, mostly Jewish men with Asian or Hispanic fiancées.
People are free to interrupt the service to ask questions, something they can’t do at regular services. One woman asked if there’s a difference between “Shabbat Shalom” and “Good Sabbath.” There is not, Weinberg said. “We can explain these things to them,” Weinberg told The Journal. “Things we take for granted that aren’t obvious to people who are new.”
This fall, Judaism by Choice will hold services at five local shuls. Funded by anonymous donors in cooperation with participating synagogues, the program is on the verge of nonprofit incorporation.
Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said Judaism by Choice is sorely needed.
“The Conservative movement in particular has to wake up, that you have to reach out,” he said, adding that some converts perceive a typical synagogue as “not cordial” to outsiders.
Among the 80 participants at Temple Beth Am in late August was Fredya Rembaum, the wife of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Joel Rembaum — a sign that synagogue leadership is taking note of those who might be shul shopping.
The group will meet again Sept. 10 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.
“We hope that by exposing people to who we are, that those who agree with our philosophy will be motivated to join us,” Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe said. He wants the converts to see “all the things that make us special. You don’t only want to speak to people inside your walls.”
Weinberg described Judaism by Choice as “rigorous and consistent with the philosophy of Conservative Judaism.” He also has a slightly altered Shabbat service for the Reform temples he’ll visit with the converts this fall.
The immediate success of the program doesn’t surprise Weinberg, who said converts are eager to participate in religious life.
As the Temple Beth am service came to a close, the rabbi included one last instruction. “Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”
Judaism by Choice services: Sept. 10, Sinai Temple in Westwood; Sept 24, Adat Ariel in North Hollywood; Nov. 5, Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air; Nov. 19, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills; and Dec. 17, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown.
Hey, Big Spender
The imminent mayoral election must have incumbent Jim Hahn feeling generous. In a sharp break from last year, Hahn’s 2005-2006 proposed budget increases city spending by $566 million.
This year’s proposed budget weighs in at more than $5.95 billion. Increasing the police department budget alone from $1.029 billion to $1.118 billion. Hahn has been stressing public safety throughout his re-election campaign; he promised to add hundreds of new cops to the force (additions that mayoral opponent Antonio Villaraigosa has faulted Hahn for not pursuing over the last four years).
The difference in rhetoric between the two budgets tells the tale. Last year, Hahn introduced “priority-based budgeting,” as he put it a year ago, against the backdrop of a $300 million shortfall.
But with an improving economy, spending is back up in a big way. The city collected $400 million more in property taxes over last year and saved money with a freeze on hiring. And, thanks to Proposition 1A, passed by California voters last November, the state won’t be able to usurp any local tax funds after 2005 as it did in the past.
The mayor proposes spending $280 million of this year’s large city reserve fund to pay for all the extra spending, leaving it at roughly the same level as last year .
Unsurprisingly, challenger Villaraigosa, an Eastside councilmember, was quick to speak out.
“This is just an election year budget that papers over our City’s fiscal situation and fails to present a long-term vision for our city,” Villaraigosa said in a statement.
His spokesman, Nathan James, piled on his own barb: “If I were running 18 points down in the polls I’d start handing out money to people as quickly as possible.”
The budget now goes to the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, which is chaired by another Hahn critic, Councilmember and former Police Chief Bernard Parks, who ran unsuccessfully against Hahn in the primary and recently endorsed Villaraigosa.
The Villaraigosa-for-Mayor campaign has released a list of 32 Jewish-community endorsements. Some, like 5th District Councilmember Jack Weiss, have been Villaraigosa boosters for quite some time, though the campaign insists most are new to the fold.
At least five had previously supported Bob Hertzberg, who is Jewish and finished third in the March primary, just out of the running. The Villaraigosa converts include businessman David Abel, former executive vice president of the Los Angeles American Jewish Committee; Stanley Treitel, board member of Agudath Israel of California; and Lee Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in Southern California.
Depending on whom you ask (and the amount of rainfall), the Los Angeles River today is either a concrete eyesore or an engineering marvel. In either case, the river, which runs through several Jewish communities in the San Fernando Valley, is on the cusp of a possible renaissance.
Author/consultant Joel Kotkin and Bob Scott, vice chair of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, spoke to the city council’s Ad-Hoc Committee on the L.A. River on April 18, recommending ways to fund revitalization.
“We were looking at how we might be able to use the river to provide connective tissue to the Valley — which it could use,” Kotkin said. “And the second thing would be to figure out a way [for it] to have consistent funding over a long period of time.”
Kotkin and Scott suggested that businesses that see their property values rise from the city’s efforts to build parks, bikeways or trails along the river should help pay for maintenance or more revitalization.
“The problem now is sporadic development of the river,” Kotkin said.
In August, Los Angeles will choose a contractor for an 18-month study on ways to revitalize the 32 miles of river within the city limits, including new parks and preserves, bikeways, restaurants, shopping and recreation — all while retaining the current level of flood control.
It’s a shame that in her zeal to pin the state’s budget problems on the Democrats, Jill Stewart attacks the community colleges and the disabled community in her opinion piece, “Math Problem” (March 19).
As a math instructor at community colleges and the father of a disabled child, let me help Stewart do the math. The purpose of the community college system is to provide education to all Californians.
For many, especially from culturally diverse communities, it is the entry point toward transferring to a four-year institution. For others, the colleges provide work force education leading to careers in nursing, office technology, etc., or retraining for those who have been laid off during the economic “recovery.”
Yet fees have jumped from $11 per unit to $18 per unit during the last year — a 64 percent increase. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget has proposed that these fees be raised to $26 per unit, another 44 percent increase or a total increase of 136 percent in two years. Rather than subsidizing students as Stewart suggests, it seems we are trying to balance California’s budget on their backs.
Stewart also takes a cheap shot at the disabled community for advocating for their rights to be productive members of our society. The disabled community is already at a disadvantage in pursuing their dreams.
I invite you to meet my daughter who requires a power wheelchair for mobility. Witness the occupational and physical therapy that she endures as part of her everyday life. Most importantly, witness her positive outlook on life.
Rather than balancing the budget on their backs, I suggest we applaud these vibrant members of our society and help them achieve their goals, just as we do with the able-bodied community. If you really want to do the math Ms. Stewart, please advocate that those who have benefited from large tax breaks pay their fair share, rather than trying to further marginalize these two dynamic communities.
David H. Senensieb, Calabasas
Jill Stewart responds:
California students pay a cost students elsewhere haven’t seen in years. The $12 hike per unit, less than a CD or a pizza, does not bring California close to what other students in other states pay. Students will absorb the mild sticker shock, as they did elsewhere.
It’s a shame big bureaucracies use the disabled as props. Instead of frank talk about which programs don’t deliver, legislators facing those wheelchairs — one does not see the blind or less-impactful props — rarely get there. They rarely discuss how poorly our programs compare to other states. Bureaucracies squelching frank discussion hurt everyone.
The Other Shiites
Rob Eshman’s article titled, “The Other Shiites” (April 9) is a true depiction of Muslims. Contrary to the fanatical, turban- and beard-adorned gunslingers making headlines on Fox, this article and the event that led to it reflects the educated, all-embracing and common Muslim. I am one of them, and I felt pride in the editor’s words. Thank you for such a beautiful piece.
Faisal Laljee, via e-mail
Either writer Catherine Siepp misquoted Rick Orlov, or he took a wrong turn down a City Hall corridor (“A Walk in Rick Orlov’s City Hall,” April 9).
Wendy Greuel is not Jewish, although she is married to a Jewish man, and Eric Garcetti is Jewish. Journalists should check facts. Additionally, it was not necessary to mention that Jan Perry is a convert to Judaism. She is Jewish, period — and a committed Jew at that.
Valerie Fields, Los Angeles
The Jewish approach to converts is to welcome them and treat them with full equality to born Jews. Once they have become Jews-by-choice, referring to their status as converts is discouraged. In spite of this tradition, The Journal’s article on City Hall reporter Rick Orlov contained a very inappropriate reference to City Councilwoman, and Jew-by-choice, Jan Perry.
The article makes matters worse, ending the paragraph with a reference to Perry not as “the councilwoman,” but as “the African American.” What does Perry’s race have to do with anything? Orlov, Seipp and The Jewish Journal owe Perry and all other Jews-by-choice a big apology.
Joel and Fran Grossman, Los Angeles
Chaos in Town
I was excited to see that Leora Alhadeff wrote “Chaos Comes to Town” (March 19) about my cousin, Merhav Mohar, an emerging professional Israeli boxer, and his recent arrival to compete at the Olympic Auditorium in an Oscar De La Hoya-sponsored boxing event.
Well, the follow-up is that Merhav won his match. We were so excited. He’s now 10-1 and will be invited back to compete in the U.S. again.
Despite all the Palestinian-Israeli news you read about in Israel, there are still young people like Merhav who love Israel and have found they can realize big dreams in Israel, too. Merhav’s father grew up on a kibbutz and his grandparents were real chalutzim (pioneers) in founding one of the few financially successful kibbutzim, Givat Haiim Ichud. We’re looking forward to his visit again.
Daniel Wachtenheim , Los Angeles
In “The Other Shiites” by Rob Eshman, Ali, the progenitor of Shiite Islam, should have been referred to as the Prophet Mohammad’s nephew and son-in-law, not his grandson.