Service Reaches Out to Jews by Choice

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.