RCA must stand behind the conversions performed by its members


Let us begin with the facts: Converts whose conversions were conducted according to halachah, or Jewish law, are 100 percent Jewish.

In the eyes of God and Torah, they are full Jews, just as Jewish as any born Jews. Their Jewishness is not contingent on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate or anyone else. Halachic converts are Jewish, their children are Jewish, they are obligated to fulfill the mitzvot like all other Jews.

Anyone who casts aspersions on the Jewish status of these converts is in violation of one of the most important laws in the Torah: not to oppress the convert.

Yet there are those who raise doubts about halachic converts. With a heavy heart, we note that modern Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America is doing just that. (The RCA is a national organization that includes in its ranks several hundred synagogue rabbis.) Indeed, new information that has come before us leads us to believe that Jews who were converted by RCA rabbis prior to its institution of a centralized conversion system in 2008 known as GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) should beware – their conversions are now being questioned by the RCA itself. This affects not only them but their progeny as well.

Let us explain:

Prior to GPS, members of the RCA routinely convened a beth din, or Jewish court, and performed conversions. Converts who desired to marry in Israel would turn to the Chief Rabbinate there, through which all Israeli marriages are performed. To assure that an RCA rabbi’s conversion was valid, the Israeli Rabbinate would consult the RCA leadership to ascertain the conversion’s validity. The leadership of the RCA would pro forma verify that the RCA rabbis who performed the conversions were members in good standing, knowledgeable and reliable.

This would be good enough for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In America, too, when leaders of synagogues and day schools were unfamiliar with the converting rabbi, they would seek similar confirmation from the RCA.

As rabbis of large synagogues for many decades, scores of our conversions were approved over the years by RCA leadership. We know firsthand that there are countless other rabbis whose conversions were similarly approved.

This longstanding process was shattered when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate proclaimed in 2006 that even if an RCA rabbi’s conversion was confirmed by the RCA leadership, it would not be sufficient.

A few of us urged the RCA to challenge this decision. We urged the RCA to uphold the honor and integrity of its members and, more importantly, affirm the validity of their conversions. Regrettably, the RCA chose to “make peace” with the Chief Rabbinate by establishing the GPS system of centralized rabbinical courts in 2008. No longer would the RCA vouch for conversions performed by its members. Only those conducted by rabbis from the newly formed courts would be approved by the RCA.

In an article we wrote here in March 2008, we argued that the new system would raise questions concerning conversions done prior to GPS. It read: “What is most troubling is that conversions, done years ago with the informal backing of the RCA, are now being scrutinized. This, we believe, strikes at the very ethical fabric of halachah. Over the years, thousands of people have been halachically converted, and now they and their children, and for that matter their marriages, will all be questioned. The pain that this will cause the convert, a person whom the Torah commands to love, will be unbearable.”

The RCA, clearly stung by this criticism, responded a day later, dismissing our concerns.

“Public written statements over the last few days have raised questions regarding the status of conversions performed by RCA rabbis in the past, and whether all such converts would be subject to special re-evaluation or scrutiny by the RCA or by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” the organization wrote in a statement. “There is nothing in the RCA/GPS protocol for conversions that implies or states such a thing, and there was and is no intention to review or scrutinize, much less nullify, previous conversions. All conversions performed by RCA member rabbis that were considered valid in the past will continue to be considered valid in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

Rabbis Marc Angel, left, and Avi Weiss are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Photo courtesy of the IRF

Therefore, it was with deep pain that we read a statement issued recently by the current chairman of the GPS conversion program responding to media reports that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel had rejected several conversions done by leading Orthodox rabbis associated with the RCA beth din. The chairman explained that the RCA had an understanding with the Chief Rabbinate that all GPS conversions were valid. The conversions in question were performed prior to the creation of the GPS system, concerning which the Beth Din of America issued a ishur, a legal attestation, confirming their validity.

The statement went on to say that the RCA was taking “affirmative steps … in consultation with the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to provide greater assurances to those who converted outside of the GPS network of Batei Din and received ishurim from the Beth Din of America.”

Summing up the RCA position, the chairman wrote: “The Rabbinical Council of America stands behind every GPS conversion as well as every ishur issued to converts by the Beth Din of America, and recognizes all such converts and their children to be an integral part of the Jewish people, no less than every other Jewish person, including the community of RCA Rabbis and our families.”

This statement makes the position of the RCA clear: It will not stand behind the conversions performed by its members prior to the establishment of the GPS system unless those conversions receive an ishur by the heads of the Beth Din of America.

This is a major deflection from the RCA’s prior promise. Conversions done prior to the GPS system never involved the RCA Beth Din. Now an ishur from the Beth Din of America is required. For the RCA, this ishur will not only be necessary to prove the bona fides of conversions for the Israeli Rabbinate, but for Orthodox synagogues and schools in America, as well.

One wonders what the Beth Din of America will require from the rabbi to issue the ishur. Will it investigate the religious bona fides — as they now define them — of every converting rabbi? How far will the court go back and how deep will it dig? There were RCA rabbis in the 1950s whose synagogues hosted mixed dances. There were rabbis who were sent by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the era’s revered leader of modern Orthodoxy, to mixed-seating congregations in the ’60s and ’70s. Will all of these conversions be invalidated?

And how about the convert? Will non-observance nullify the conversion retroactively? Suppose the convert seeking the ishur is no longer observant. Or suppose the convert’s grandson or granddaughter who is not observant is seeking the ishur. The RCA has a responsibility to be fully transparent and answer these questions.

Unfortunately, the concerns we expressed in 2008 were entirely valid. Any pre-GPS convert will not be pro forma accepted as a valid convert. If the Beth Din of America feels the convert does not meet its standards, for whatever reason, the ishur will not be issued.

With this development, many thousands of people who were converted by RCA rabbis and are fully halachic Jews are now having their status as Jews thrown into doubt. This is a great travesty. Converts with whom we have had contact feel betrayed.

Even RCA rabbis who support the GPS system should stand up with courage and vigorously demand that those who converted with RCA rabbis prior to the GPS system be recognized as the halachic Jews that they are – without an ishur from the beth din. Applying GPS standards to pre-GPS conversions that had previously been accepted is immoral. Members of the RCA must let their leadership know how disappointed and outraged they are by the RCA’s change of policy.

It must also be added that not only is the RCA casting doubt on conversions done prior to GPS, it is also sending a message that conversions done today by modern Orthodox rabbis outside of GPS are questionable. This is precisely what happened in the recent case of the highly respected Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York, when a conversion he performed outside of GPS was turned down by the Israeli Rabbinate, resulting in grave anguish not only to one of the great modern Orthodox rabbis of our time, but to the convert herself.

By invalidating halachic conversions, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate continues on the path of alienating the masses of Jews in Israel. In linking itself to the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA undermines its credibility as an honest broker relative to conversions, placing power politics ahead of its responsibility to the Jewish people.


Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Angel is rabbi emeritus of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is also a past president of the RCA. Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.

Shalom, Amar’e Stoudemire: Goodbye to the NBA’s Jewish star


For those obsessed with the search for Jewish big-time athletes, Amar’e Stoudemire, 33, was an unexpected dream and predictable heartbreaker — in short, the perfect punchline for a Jewish jocks joke.

Finally, here was a bona fide NBA superstar who publicly identified with the Tribe — one of the most explosive, fiercest dunkers no less — and he suddenly turned into one of the zeydes shooting around at the Jewish Y.

Bad knees. Aching back. Eye problems.

Stoudemire’s up-and-down NBA career came to an end this week with his retirement announcement on Tuesday.

A first-round pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Stoudemire — who was extremely athletic for his 6-10 frame — teamed with Steve Nash to turn the Phoenix Suns into the league’s most electrifying offense.

He missed virtually the entire 2005-06 season after undergoing knee surgery, but returned to peak form for several more campaigns. Stoudemire then signed a $99.7 million, five-year contract with the New York Knicks in 2010.

Soon after joining the Knicks, he excited the passions of Jewish sports fans when he told the New York Post that he had become “spiritually and culturally Jewish.” The All-Star said he was keeping kosher and would celebrate the High Holidays. (In 2013, he told JTA that he considered both of his parents “Hebrew.”)

Stoudemire delivered in his inaugural season as a Knick, leading the team to the playoffs for the first time in years and bringing the cool back to Madison Square Garden. But his final three seasons in New York were characterized by a slew of chronic injuries that often prevented him from playing and sapped the juice that had made him one of the best.

He would bounce to the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Stoudemire announced his retirement as a Knick, signing a symbolic contract with the club.

Reb Amar’e deserved better for exciting and embracing those who longed for a Jewish basketball star. But to be clear, this is not a takedown — it’s a lament.

We’re hoping those rumors about Stoudemire signing to play in Israel are for real. While we wait, let’s celebrate our favorite stories about him over the years.

Is the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire Jewish? (2010)

Stoudemire went to Israel on a spiritual quest. In a TV interview with an Israeli sports network, he sported a large white yarmulke, spoke a few words of Hebrew and conditionally committed to fasting on Yom Kippur and avoiding chametz on Passover.

Knicks’ Stoudemire says he is practicing Jew (2010)

In addition to telling the Post that he is a Jew “spiritually and culturally,” he said his trip to Israel was inspired by his finding that his mother was ancestrally Jewish.

Stoudemire staying in U.S. after mulling Israel move (2011)

Amar’e considered playing for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team during the NBA lockout.

Is Amar’e Stoudemire opening a Hebrew school? (2011)

The New York Daily News reported that Stoudemire was interested in opening a Hebrew school that would “focus on teaching the language and Jewish history.”

King of the Hebrew: Shaq or Amar’e? (2012)

JTA compared the Hebrew speaking skills of Amar’e and fellow NBA great Shaquille O’Neal, who dropped some Jewish phrases on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

Amar’e Stoudemire ties the knot in yarmulke, tallit (2012)

The star was married, Jewish style, on the roof of his Manhattan apartment.

Knicks’ Stoudemire becomes part owner of Jerusalem basketball team (2013)

Stoudemire purchased a stake in the Hapoel Jerusalem team. ESPN reported Tuesday that he could potentially play for the team after retiring from the NBA.

Amar’e Stoudemire scoring for United Hatzalah (2014)

Stoudemire set up a campaign that helped children donate a certain amount of money to the volunteer Jewish ambulance service for each point he scored for the Knicks during the 2014-15 season.

Jenna Jameson on her new spiritual journey to Judaism


In a cozy apartment near The Grove, in the heart of Los Angeles, lives an unlikely couple. He is Lior Bitton, 41, an immigrant from Israel and a diamond broker. She is perhaps the world’s most famous porn star, Jenna Jameson.

Since her June announcement that she is converting to Judaism, Jameson has embraced the religion with gusto, reading all the material about it she can find and shopping at kosher markets. The proof is all over Twitter and Instagram (of course):

“Finished with my grocery list for my latest menu for Shabbat,” one tweet says.

“Made Challah again last night (love trying new recipes), turned out fantastic,” says another. An Instagram post from mid-June shows a photo of a Shabbat table with homemade challah and candles with the caption, “Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” She has even tweeted a couple of times in Hebrew.

Bitton and Jameson, also 41, moved in together a few months ago. On a recent Thursday evening, the dining table in their apartment was already set for Shabbat dinner. The scent of challah baking in the oven filled the air as a barefoot Jameson opened the door, dressed in a long, sleeveless dress revealing her fully tattooed arms. Her long, blond hair was tied back in a ponytail; numerous earrings adorned her earlobes. 

“I love cooking,” Jameson said as she opened the oven to introduce two perfect challahs. “I’m Italian, and we love to cook and feed others.”

Since she got engaged to her Israeli fiancé, she has learned to cook many Israeli dishes, including cholent — which Bitton is proud to say is exactly how his grandma used to make it — and Moroccan dishes such as chraimeh (spicy Moroccan fish). 

Bitton said he never asked Jameson to convert. 

“It was her decision completely,” he said.

“I was raised Catholic by my father, who was always on a religious journey. He was a very devout Catholic and he instilled that in me — not necessarily being Catholic, but the faith.” Jameson said. “However, from a very young age, I doubted this religion and had many questions [for] my father. He told me, ‘What you need to do is study all religions and see what talks to you and your heart.’ … I loved the spiritual aspect of Judaism. Therefore, I started studying and researching Judaism by myself and decided to convert. I didn’t even tell Lior about it until I made up my mind a few months ago.

“I love every aspect of Judaism,” she continued. “It goes hand in hand with bettering myself and my spiritual growth. I had a very rough four years, and I finally found my path. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for me.” 

Those rough times would refer to her breakup with the father of her twin boys, MMA fighter Tito Ortiz, and the resulting custody battle and financial hardship.

“Here is a little image from last Shabbat!!! I made homemade Chilean sea bass chraimeh, potato pancakes, Israeli salad and yummy challah!” Jenna Jameson posted on Instagram. Photo from Instagram

Jameson met Bitton about a year ago in an apartment complex in Huntington Beach. It was a year after her split from Ortiz, and Bitton also was in the process of a divorce from the mother of his three young children. They lived across from each other, her balcony overlooking his from across the yard. 

“I was finding myself again, trying to find happiness, being a bit solitary,” Jameson said. “I noticed this cute guy in the balcony across from me. He was also by himself, always with his computer, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we are living parallel lives.’ ” 

Jameson introduced herself, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“For the first month, we talked for hours every single day,” Bitton said. “We were like shrinks to one another. We told each other everything, we spoke of our problems, cried on each other’s shoulder and got to know one another well.”

What Jameson said she found most endearing is the fact that Bitton was not judgmental and seemed a little clueless about her fame as “The Queen of Porn.” 

“He said, ‘I don’t think they know about you in Israel,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, I think they just might,’ ” Jameson recalled, laughing. “Everyone is very judgmental and has misconceptions about who I am and always has something to say, and Lior only goes by what he knows and learns about me, and that’s a beautiful characteristic. I really like it about him.”

Bitton’s three children, who are all under 7, were born in the United States but now reside in Israel with their mother. Jameson’s twins are 6. Together, they hope to have more children.

Jameson’s father died a few years ago, but she believes that he wouldn’t have frowned on her decision to convert. 

“My father served in Vietnam, and he loved the way Israel had always protected herself from her enemies with lots of courage and dignity,” she said. “When I was growing up, I remember that I always had a great appreciation for the State of Israel, thanks to my dad. 

“What I didn’t know,” she continued, “was that the Israeli men are such hunks and that the Israeli women are so beautiful.” 

Her memoir, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” hit the top of The New York Times best-seller list and rocketed Jameson into the mainstream spotlight. Now she is working on the sequel, which will include fewer sexual anecdotes and talk more about her spiritual journey, finding Judaism and the new love in her life.

Her new persona as a Yiddishe mama has been accepted well by her fans. “I’ve been interacting with so many Israelis, and they are all so welcoming and supportive,” she said.

Jameson’s — well, unorthodox — life might seem great material for a blockbuster movie and, indeed, she confirmed that numerous producers have approached her with offers to turn her memoir into a movie. Who would she like to see playing her on the big screen? 

“Scarlett Johansson,” she said without hesitating. “She is a great actress. And she is Jewish.”

In rural Uganda, small Jewish community splits over conversion


On Fridays at sundown, the Jewish residents of this village set amid the lush hills of eastern Uganda gather in the synagogue to greet Shabbat.

The room is bare, the light is dim and the Conservative prayer books are worn. But the spare surroundings do little to diminish the enthusiasm of the men, women and children who sing psalms, clap and dance while a few in the front strum guitars and play drums.

Two days later and an hour away in the village of Putti, a handful of men wake at sunrise and trudge into a narrow room lit only by sunbeams streaming through the nearby banana trees. Those who have tefillin wrap them, while the rest sit on hard benches behind oblong wooden desks reading from traditional Orthodox prayer books with crumbling bindings. A sheet hung by a string demarcates an empty women’s section. At the front of the room hangs an Israeli flag.

Until the early 2000s, the two communities were one. Known as the Abayudaya, the 2,000-member group has practiced Judaism for about a century, owing to a former community leader who read the Bible and adopted the religion.

Now, despite being led by cousins and sharing other ties, the communities are split and barely speak to each other. Even in the mountains of rural East Africa, there’s the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t.

In the late 1990s, Conservative movement leaders began to visit the Abayudaya and, in 2002, many community members underwent conversion by a Conservative rabbinical court. Gershom Sizomu, the Nabugoye group’s American-trained rabbi, calls it a “confirmation.”

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Keki Maniah, soon learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative conversions, so he and a handful of followers declined the confirmation, opting instead to practice Orthodoxy. In 2003, they left Nabugoye for Putti.

“The goal of our grandparents were not [just] to be here as Jewish people but to be known as Jewish people,” Maniah said. “All along, our grandparents had a dream to go to Israel.”


The central synagogue of the Abayudaya Jewish community in rural Uganda. Most of the 2,000-member community is Conservative, but a small faction has chosen to practice Orthodoxy. (Ben Sales)

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/03/23/news-opinion/world/in-rural-uganda-small-jewish-community-splits-over-conversion#ixzz2wuRcQdWZ

Although the communities are a short distance apart, they have mostly lost touch. Sizomu and Maniah used to share a home, but aside from attending a recent wedding, Sizomu no longer visits Putti. Nor do the Putti Jews come to celebrate Jewish holidays in Nabugoye, where some of them once lived.

The group in Nabugoye models its practices on those of the liberal Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has received material support from Conservative Jews in the United States and Israel, as well was from the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports far-flung Jewish communities.

“Our children are growing with interest in Judaism, with love for their tradition,” Sizomu told JTA. “I only hope that my people get access to the outside world, where they’ll get more Jewish experience.”

Even with support from the Diaspora, the community remains poor. All the members are farmers, including Sizomu, who despite his rabbinical degree from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, grows plantains to support himself.

The smaller community in Putti relies on private donations from abroad and lacks some of the amenities of Nabugoye, though it is building a new synagogue, health clinic and a school named for Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli commando who died in a 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.


Enosh Keki Maniah is hoping to move to Israel.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/03/23/news-opinion/world/in-rural-uganda-small-jewish-community-splits-over-conversion#ixzz2wuRs4EXf

Still, accessing world Jewry is the group’s top priority. Only a handful of members have converted under Orthodox auspices, but the community of about 100 practices Orthodoxy and, after conversion, hopes to move en masse to Israel.

“I would go around each community telling them if you want to be considered by the Israeli state, it’s better to follow the Orthodox route,” Maniah said. “We didn’t have any grudge with anyone. We knew it was our choice.”

Maniah’s dream of conversion and immigration to Israel is inching forward. Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has visited Putti twice and brought two of its residents to study at his yeshiva, where he converted them to Orthodoxy. Maniah’s family also converted under Riskin’s auspices.

“I was amazed with what I found, the old shul and the new shul,” Riskin told JTA, referring to the Putti community’s new synagogue. “The whole town came out. They sang Hebrew songs. They’re learning, teaching, keeping mitzvot.”

Under Israeli law, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize Riskin’s conversions because he doesn’t sit on any of its official rabbinical courts. But a law expected to pass the Knesset later this year would give Riskin that authority and set the community on the path to conversion.

In the meantime, Riskin has converted only the few community members he knows well. One is Moshe Yashirah Madoi, who studied at Riskin’s yeshiva and has returned to Uganda, where he lives with his family in a small house a short drive from Putti. It is his home, but Madoi says he longs to live a Jewish life in the Jewish state.

“It is my dream, my goal because Judaism is a very strict faith,” Madoi said. “The environment has to be favorable. In Israel it is the most favorable environment. Sometimes we are forced to eat in restaurants that are not kosher. Everywhere you walk [in Israel] there is kosher. Shabbat everyone is observing.”

Like his Conservative counterparts in the United States and Israel, Sizomu rejects the Chief Rabbinate’s injunction that Conservative conversion is somehow insufficient to establish Jewishness. But though he’s proud to be Conservative, he regrets that denominational battles have splintered the once united community.

“Inside us we still think we are a unique African-Jewish community,” Sizomu said. “We don’t want to amplify our association to any of the Jewish movements. We feel bad that these Jewish movements have the effect of dividing up the Jewish people. We don’t have to compete with others.”

After much searching, she finds hope in adopted faith


Growing up in Colorado, Laura Waller wasn’t raised with a religion. She knew nothing about Judaism, save for the Torah — which she read as a teenager — and her community’s negative attitudes toward it.

“I didn’t exactly grow up in a town where being Jewish was acceptable,” she said. “I remember seeing anti-Semitic billboard signs in front of one of the churches I used to drive by. I remember one said, ‘Observers of the law are condemned by God, but the cross redeems you from your sin.’ Another sign said, ‘The Torah sends you to hell, the Cross saves you from hell.’ And another said, ‘The Jews forsook the Messiah and forfeited their inheritance.’ They were directing it at the small Jewish community that I later learned about in my hometown.”

The operations manager, who now lives in Encino, spent much of her adult life searching for meaning and a spiritual home. 

As an adult, she enlisted in the Army, which took her to places like Tennessee, Mississippi, New York and Maryland. In all of these states, she explored Baptist, Mormon and Catholic churches, but none of them stuck. 

“I did everything that the normative religious seeker would do,” she said. “I was asking questions, but rather than getting a welcoming response, pastors at the churches would get mad at me instead.”

Waller said she didn’t feel welcomed at the churches because she was a divorced and single mom. “I always had this stigma,” she said. 

During her time of religious exploration, Waller walked into a Jewish community center in Pueblo, Colo., and stumbled upon a Chanukah celebration.

“I thought I’d be fashionably late so no one would notice me,” she said. “When I entered there were only six people in there, so everybody noticed me come in and sit in the back. But, for the first time in my life, I was home. I felt at peace. I felt like everything I needed to know about my life suddenly made sense. All of my answers were right there.”

After that fateful Chanukah, Waller realized that she wanted to be Jewish, and slowly began to keep kosher, learn about the holidays, celebrate Shabbat and read books about the religion. Because she was still traveling as part of the military, however, she didn’t feel like she had the option to convert. She directed her questions to rabbis, whom she corresponded with over the Internet. 

Things were further complicated by her second husband, who was Christian and disliked that she wouldn’t eat bacon. While they were married, she said she had to deny her inclination to practice Judaism. When this marriage also ended in divorce, she returned to Judaism. 

Over time, she became more immersed in her practices and, in 2010, moved to Los Angeles. In fall 2012, after spending some time researching prices and places to study, she reached out to Rabbi Adam Greenwald at American Jewish University (AJU) and decided to take conversion courses there. 

Part of Waller’s Conservative conversion process entailed telling her friends and family about her decision. While some Christian friends disapproved, her Jewish friends said they knew it was destined to happen eventually. Her stepfather supported her, too, unlike her mother. 

“When my mom found out I was converting, she was kind of ticked off,” Waller said. “I’d already been practicing for about 17 years and keeping kosher. It was always an argument. When I’d go home, she told me she’d made some pork stew, but I wouldn’t eat it.”

Waller decided to go ahead with the process nonetheless. On June 7, 2013, she stepped into the mikveh at AJU and officially converted.

“When I went in, it was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Waller, whose Hebrew name, Tikvah, means “hope.” “I was letting all my experiences, hurt and anger go. I started to climb out of the mikveh, and everything was pulling me back into the water. My past didn’t want to let go of me even though I wanted to let go of my past. I felt like I was leaving black tar.”

She added, “I felt human for the first time in my life. [I thought], ‘I am not a single mom, divorced twice, terrible past, a problem child, a betrayer of the faith, the sinner, the person with issues, etc. I am just ‘human.’ No other religion has done that for me.”

After she visited the mikveh, her youngest son, Adrian (Yishai) Waller, 12, did as well. Her other son, 16-year-old David (Dovid) Sandoval, didn’t end up converting, but he did take classes with his mom to show his support. 

Waller said that in the Jewish community she has finally found the perfect philosophy for herself and her family.

“There’s something so beautiful in the humanity of Judaism and tikkun olam that you don’t find anywhere else,” she said. “It’s not just one person demonstrating it. It’s a whole community living it.”

Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute


A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Conversion: Erica Hooper


Falling in love with a Jewish man was Erica Hooper’s introduction to Judaism, but the religion’s ideals were ultimately what made her want to embrace it for life. 

Hooper, 30, grew up in East Los Angeles in a Catholic home. She attended Catholic school and considered herself religious — that is, until she went to college.

“There was this disconnect between things I learned in high school and the questions I asked as I got older,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting answers to certain things, and it made me feel disconnected from the religion.”

In 2007, she met and started dating Robert Mahgerefteh, 31, an Iranian-American Jew. Four years into their courtship, they got engaged and started to talk about the future. Although Hooper hadn’t considered conversion before, she and her fiancé were beginning to think about what their family dynamic would look like.

“That was really the first time we even started talking about conversion,” the Long Beach resident said. “I decided to give it a try and see what we thought. I ended up loving it, so it worked out.”

After researching various options, Hooper decided to enroll in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program, which is recognized under the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. When she stepped into that initial class one Sunday morning in the winter of 2012, she felt at home. 

“I liked what Neal said, which was that you’re not converting someone to something that you want him or her to believe,” she said. “You can talk about it, but it’s more about whether or not it resonates with a person when he or she hears it.” 

Hooper began to discover through the lessons that her beliefs were aligned with those found in Judaism.

“I remember saying that I wanted my funeral to be very simple,” she said. “I wanted to be wrapped in white cloth and buried in the ground. My family said I was crazy. Catholics have a fancy casket and get embalmed. I was sitting in that class and the rabbi started talking about the way Jews think about the approach to death and how you don’t put the body on display. I got chills because that was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about before.”

At that point, she knew she had made the right decision to take the class. 

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’ ” she said. 

The more she learned, the more Hooper realized her beliefs were aligned with the ideals behind Judaism. She especially enjoyed learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world), since she works at S. Groner Associates, a social and environmental marketing company that helps foster positive environmental change. 

“The focus [in Judaism] is what are you are doing now in the present moment to be a better person,” she said. “It’s about trying to make this a better place for the people around you.”

Although she began to feel more a part of the Jewish religion, there were some who were not very accepting, she said.

“I would tell some Jews that I was converting, and they’d ask why. The religion I came from before was about trying to actively get people to join them. It was come one, come all. I liked that very welcoming spirit to it. Going to Judaism by Choice was very welcoming, but as a whole it felt more like I had to work my way into becoming Jewish. Some people said that if I convert,  I’m not really Jewish.”

Fortunately, Mahgerefteh’s family was accepting, as was her own. 

“They said they trusted that I was going to do what was best for me,” she said.

In November 2012, Hooper made it official. She converted at the mikveh at American Jewish University, and then married Mahgerefteh in February. Both partners have taken an active role in their religion by partaking in fast days, joining Leo Baeck Temple and keeping a kosher home. Hooper said that celebrating Shabbat every week has added another layer to the couple’s relationship.

“When we do Shabbat on Fridays, we bless each other,” she said. “The rabbi told us the traditions that he and his wife do. They tell each other one of the things they appreciate about each other. That’s what we do. Even if we get into a spat beforehand, it’s Shabbat and it’s time to bless and tell each other what’s great about one another. You follow the rituals, and they bring you closer.”

Whenever Hooper participates in the holidays or goes through Jewish rituals, she knows that she is a small part of a bigger history, people and tradition. 

“It goes back through generations all the way from Moses to the slaves in Egypt,” she said. “I am now one little thread in the huge fabric that’s Judaism. It feels special to be connected to something bigger than yourself.”

Conversion: Kimia Sun


Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Convert: Rico Collins


Rico Collins, 39, was raised Southern Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., but could never relate to the messages he heard in church as a boy. “It’s very fire and brimstone,” he said. “I didn’t like it.” 

Collins said he didn’t fit in with the other kids at church and felt alienated because he was gay. “In the ’80s, there was a huge anti-gay movement, and at almost every sermon they were bashing” homosexuality, he said. “I found it to be so negative. I knew I was gay at a young age and that this wasn’t for me.”

Collins turned away from religion. “I always had my relationship with God,” he said. “I guess you can call it Ricoism, but I knew organized religion wasn’t for me. I thought that [religious people] needed rules, and they needed someone to tell them what to do, because they wouldn’t do the right thing on their own. I abandoned it.” 

In 1991, Collins, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles, and six years after that, he started dating Mark Goodman, who at the time was working as an actor and singer. Then, as Goodman went on to become a cantor and then rabbi at Valley Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sun Valley, Collins would attend synagogue with Goodman. Yet, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they were partners: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t put his reputation or job in jeopardy,” Collins said. “There were only a few people who knew who I was in reality, but it was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

All that changed in 2006, when the Conservative movement declared that gay people could serve as rabbis and that it would be up to individual synagogues to decide whether to approve gay unions. 

That same summer, Goodman convinced Collins to check out Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s conversion program, which at the time was based at American Jewish University. Despite Collins’ resistance to religion, he went along with the idea, enrolled in the class, and began to study Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish rituals. Over months of study every Sunday, he began to feel at home with Judaism. 

“I saw that it was something I really could be a part of,” Collins said. “It was something that was in me all along, and my resistance was just because I knew better. I knew better than what they were telling me in church.”

Following the class requirements, Collins began to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Because he was already a vegetarian, keeping kosher wasn’t too hard. “I was used to having restrictions on what I eat, so it was not that difficult a transition,” he said. “The thing that was hardest was Shabbat. I like to run, bike, lift weights and play on the computer on Saturdays. These are all the things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat. It is a constant struggle.”

Collins completed the program quickly, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to go before the beit din (rabbinical court) to complete his conversion, where he had to pass a written and oral Hebrew test. He said recently that he “aced it” and that, in the end, converting was “one of the most positive experiences of my life. There is an academic aspect to being Jewish. You have to know your stuff.”

Although he felt welcomed at Valley Beth Israel, Collins said that some of his own relatives were not so accepting. “I had some born-again Christians in my family. You have to be strong when you deal with them. … I was told I would go to hell, in a polite way.”

Collins’ immediate family, however, were fully accepting. “My mom and grandma were so happy I chose any religion,” he said.

Collins and Goodman have adopted three sons together, all of them now in their late teens. Two of the boys converted when they were children and now go to Hebrew school on Sundays. 

The family, who live in Burbank, are proud Jews. “I tell other people about it because they’re so curious, especially in Southern California. When you tell someone you’re Jewish, it starts a conversation,” Collins said. 

Through conversion, Collins said, he discovered his true identity. “I appreciate the fact that Mark led me to this point. I had to think about our relationship, and if he wasn’t in my life, would I still want do this? I think that’s why I hit the accelerator and went full throttle. I wanted to do it, regardless. This is who I am.”

Conversion: A big leap, one small step at a time


Jazmine Green’s Jewish journey began when she met the person with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. It wasn’t until a brief separation from her boyfriend, however, that she knew she was making the right decision — to convert.

“There was this assumption that since we were broken up, I didn’t have to be Jewish,” but, she said, “it made me realize Judaism was something I loved. I was brokenhearted, not just about our relationship, but for this spiritual path that I had already started to walk down.”

Six months later, when she and her boyfriend, Jeremy Aluma, got back together, she was ready to make the leap. “It was already a part of me,” she said. “Of course, I knew I would convert. I think I needed that time apart to know it wasn’t for him, and it was my path and something I wanted to do.”

Green, who had been attending services at Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, started to study with the rabbi there. However, she didn’t feel the Orthodox lifestyle was right for her, so she decided to pursue a Conservative conversion at American Jewish University (AJU), in May 2012. Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Introduction to Judaism program, sponsored her. 

Since she first started dating Aluma five years ago, Green, now 36 and a writer, had been observing the major holidays with him and participating in Shabbat dinners. She had fasted on Yom Kippur and gone to services, but it wasn’t until last fall, when she was weeks away from immersing in the mikveh, she said, that she truly sensed she was participating in Yom Kippur. 

“I felt like a Jew already, so it still had a lot of significance on me. It felt like my holiday, finally. Before, it was just going through the motions. Without the meaning, you’re just fasting. It was the first time it really had a deep significance for me.”

In October of last year, just after the High Holy Days, Green went into the mikveh. “I had no idea what an emotional experience it would be,” she said. “I feel like there have been very few moments at which I felt more connected to God than in that moment. It was really beautiful.”

Green grew up “loosely Catholic” in Corona, Calif., although she wasn’t practicing any religion when she met Aluma. Her parents have been entirely supportive of her conversion to Judaism, she said. “They adored Jeremy, and they were so happy to see me fall in love with a spiritual practice,” she said.

Green’s mother plans to take the Introduction to Judaism course at AJU, and her father is going to make the chuppah for the couple’s wedding in September. After the ceremony, they plan to spend their honeymoon in Israel.

Because Chabad is only two blocks away from their home in downtown Los Angeles, Green and Aluma continue to attend services there on Shabbat and the holy days. They have begun to kasher their kitchen and have chosen to follow Sephardic traditions because of Aluma’s father and Green’s Mexican heritage.

Green said one of the reasons she chose a Conservative conversion was to allow her to move at her own pace with her practice. Through observing Shabbat, she’s taken on more and more traditions. 

“It’s more comfortable for me when it’s a gradual thing,” she said. “On a practical level, it’s easier to go in step by step. Shabbat is the biggest thing that helps the transition, because it’s something that happens every week. The planning for Shabbat every week is a beautiful process.”

Green teaches yoga at Yoga Vibe in Los Feliz and Yogala in Echo Park. She also likes to go to the theater with Aluma, who directs and produces plays. The two enjoy having over friends and cooking for them as well. “Jewish holidays are the perfect time to do that,” she said. “We end up hosting many Shabbat dinners.” 

Above all, since she started her journey, Judaism has changed Green’s life for the better. “Not only has Judaism strengthened my relationship to God, it has taught me how to be a good partner, a good friend and a good person,” she said. “It has enriched my life by giving small moments of the day meaning.”

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh


Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 


Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”

Mikvah

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.”

Conversion: Michael Pershes


Throughout his conversion process, Michael Pershes claims he was an “obsessive superstar Jew.” The 42-year-old real estate developer and fashion designer studied Torah and the laws of kashrut, learned modern Hebrew at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, volunteered for the first time at Jewish Family Service, wrote monthly essays, celebrated Shabbat every week and joined his synagogue’s choir in the two-and-a-half years it took him to convert.

Three years ago, Pershes’ dog, Ellie, was getting old. He was trying to cope with the fact that his beloved pet was going to die, which brought up memories of his sister, whom he had lost at age 16 to cystic fibrosis. Growing up Catholic, he said, there was no way to get out of the mourning process for her. “I didn’t know where to go. All I knew is the religion I grew up with didn’t work for me, and I needed a deeper connection with my life. I was floating around in the universe with no connection to anything.”

While Pershes’ sister was alive and dealing with her illness, their mom brought in different religious leaders to try to find a cure for her. “It was like a spiritual quest in the house,” he said. “My mom would do anything to find a cure for my sister, and at any given time in my youth, you may have found a rabbi, a priest and a swami in my home.”

Years later, Pershes found he was taking a cue from his mom in trying to figure out where he belongs in terms of religious practice. Through his research, he found Judaism. He started attending classes with Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism course, then studied with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “I just kept trying to learn as much as I could and engage in Judaism as much as possible,” he said. “I never felt lost, but I always felt like I needed more information. One question always led to another. I have never been so engaged and so comfortable as I have been studying Judaism.”

Pershes, who is gay, chose to become a Reform Jew because of the movement’s liberalism and attitude toward homosexuality. He also felt at home at Temple Israel, he said, and valued that he could follow along with the services. “I felt comfortable with my partner [at synagogue],” he said. “It was a nice experience to feel so welcome and embraced. I never experienced that with religion. No one [at Temple Israel has] ever made us feel uncomfortable or looked at us differently.”

Pershes and his husband, Clifford (who shares the same last name), live in Silver Lake and have been together for 19 years. Clifford also happens to be Jewish, but Pershes said before he began his own pursuit, he never experienced much of his partner’s culture and religion. “In all that time, we went to three seder dinners in Boca [Raton, Fla.], and that was it. He did not sign up for this. This is not the person he got together with. But he has embraced it. In a weird way, he’s remembering all these things from when he was a kid, like Shabbat and his bar mitzvah. Now he’s experiencing Judaism without all the baggage.”

When Pershes decided to convert, it strengthened the relationship between him and Clifford’s family. “They were ecstatic,” he said. “After I started the process, I got the ‘I love you’s’ on the phone.”

Although Pershes’ mother had a tough time at first, by the time the process was completed, she had accepted her son’s conversion. His father was supportive from the start, downloading the Jewish calendar onto his phone to keep up.

Pershes stepped into the mikveh in November 2011 and said he felt truly like he was being reborn when he emerged from the water. “There is an educational and spiritual process and building up of this foundation all for this moment,” he said. “When I came out of it, I felt like it was a new beginning for me. It really felt new. When that cold water comes out of the little spout, it has this kind of spiritual connotation to it, and it really transforms you. I felt different from that moment I got out. I felt like a Jew.”

Next May, Pershes will become a bar mitzvah, which he is planning and preparing for now. He and Clifford are also in the process of adopting a child. And even though his partner didn’t “sign up” for a Jewish mate, Pershes said it has brought them closer together. Every week, they observe Shabbat and they continue to attend services at their spiritual home, Temple Israel. “I made a promise when I converted to continue to study and engage [with] Judaism,” he said. “I love the process of learning and challenging myself. I think it’s important for me to create my own Jewish history since I do not have a memory bank filled with Jewish moments. I am so happy to have found Judaism and cannot wait to see what is next for me.”

Pershes said what he values most about Judaism is “the sense of questioning. It’s so liberating and free not to have answers. Growing up Catholic, that was all there was. Judaism allows you to keep asking and growing instead of feeling like stopping. It means always moving forward and evolving, and I love the sense that it evolves with community instead of being stagnant. It’s really lovely. 

“I also love the food. C’mon. I can’t be Jewish without saying the food.”

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.”

Ben-Aharon


My childhood best friend was Billy Thein. We met at Encino Elementary School in Mrs. Bernstein’s third-grade class, and were pretty much inseparable after that. Billy was funny and smart and cool — and in a public school packed with the striving, anxious, gawkward spawn of suburban Jewry, cool stood out.

So did handsome and blond and tan — Billy was a young Glen Campbell when there really was a young Glen Campbell. He once brought his guitar to class and sang “Blackbird,” hitting all the high notes. I swear I saw the teacher tear up.

Billy lived in a ranch house on a large lot, just a few blocks away from mine. The year we turned 11, his father died of brain cancer. His mother struggled to raise Billy and his little brother. As we grew into teens, I loved going to Billy’s house. There weren’t as many rules, and once we walked up his long driveway, I felt free.

Billy, on the other hand, liked my house. My mom and dad made Billy part of the family, and they were well aware of our comings and goings. There were family meals and holiday celebrations. At my house, Billy felt secure.

In college, Billy converted to Judaism.  It was more a confirmation, he explained, than a conversion. “As I grew into my Judaism, it felt akin to my innate sensibilities and beliefs.” While a student at UC Berkeley he also lived and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Judaism fit the soul of the man he had become, and it provided guidance for the man he hoped yet to be.

And when it came time to choose a Hebrew name, Billy took Aharon — my father’s name.

I understood why. My father is devoted to family, deeply engaged in his work and his community, a fun companion and a wise adviser. Like the biblical Aaron, he is a man who leads through kindness. The name, Billy explained to me, was, a “touchstone, inspiration, comfort.”

If you want to be the kind of Jew who scolds and cajoles and lays down the law with an outstretched arm and a mighty sword, pick another name. But if you want to raise people up by drawing them close to you, by setting an example, then, as the sage Hillel said, be like the disciples of Aaron. 

Many years ago, Billy met a very nice, smart Jewish woman. He and Sharon now have two children. This past Saturday, I sat in a pew at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and watched their son, Adrien Thein-Sandler, become a bar mitzvah.

I don’t know Adi well, but unless his parents, friends and rabbi are lying, he is not only a top student and athlete, but also a kind soul. He is — surprise! — tall and blond and cool, and watching him now at the age his father and I once were made time seem both painfully fast and reassuringly cyclical: sunrise, sunset and sunrise again.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, in his blessing to Adi, told him to look at his parents’ faces, beaming — tearing — with pride and joy. Remember those faces, the rabbi said, and try always to act in a way that will inspire and honor the look you see now.

Adi spoke about the Ten Commandments, which he read as part of his Torah portion. What, he asked, is the most important commandment of them all? “Honor thy father and thy mother,” he said, echoing the wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel. If you strive to do that, you will naturally keep the other commandments as well.

All this wisdom came distilled for me in a single moment. When the cantor called Adi to the Torah, he used his Hebrew name: Adin Ben-Aharon, Adin, the son of Aaron.”

Long ago I understood why Billy had taken my father’s Hebrew name, but only then, at that moment, did I realize what it meant. 

My father hadn’t just inspired and set an example for my friend. He was, through this power of ritual, the continuity of community, passing that name — its values, its traditions, its expectations, its love — on to future generations.

My mother and father, thank God, were at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that morning, too. I watched my father watching Adi. How could he have ever imagined, when he was a man not much older than I am now, that my childhood friend would have a son, and that boy, whom he had never met, had never spent a moment raising or teaching, would one day be called to carry his good name into the world?

My father had earned the tears of joy that, at that moment, he shed.

People say they despise religion, and religion has done its best to earn their disdain. But how better, in an age — in a week — when private morality and public integrity are in such short supply, do we transmit and enforce the ideals of character? How else do we let our children know that it is not just their mothers and fathers whom they must face, but all the men and women who have come before them, whose lives and actions — whose good names — are a constant standard for their own?

It’s a truism of many religions that the tree we plant today will only bear fruit in the future. Of course it will: it’s a fruit tree. 

The real mystery, the real miracle, is we will never know, even in our lifetime, who will come and eat it.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

Jan Perry’s quest: Spirituality, pursuit of L.A.’s well-being


I asked City Council member Jan Perry, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, if she was on a spiritual quest when she converted to Judaism. “Right,” she replied. “Your question is a good way to put it.”

Perry, whose conversation offers a mixture of the spiritual and practical politics, is perhaps the most interesting of those planning to run for mayor in 2013.  She’s Jewish, African-American, a woman and an articulate challenger of the insider old-boys club that runs City Hall. She currently is the only woman on the 15-member City Council, which another woman, Pat Russell, once led as president and where, in the past, other female council members have had considerable power.

I found her discussion of spiritual values intriguing, considering all her years in a city hall where standards are governed mostly by campaign contributions and political deals. Perry, who is currently in her third four-year-term representing Council District 9, has taken part in those deals and has both won and lost.

She was victorious in her efforts on behalf of the downtown projects of AEG, the entertainment giant, pushing through city financial aid and favorable zoning for Staples Center, subsidies for new nearby hotels, and her support was crucial to the development of the entire AEG L.A. Live complex of theaters and restaurants. She also won city financial aid for the company for its proposed National Football League stadium in the area.

But she was a loser earlier this year when she went up against fellow Council member Herb Wesson and voted against him for the council’s top job of president. Wesson prevailed, then, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had the council pass a reapportionment plan that stripped development-rich areas of downtown from Perry’s district.  Wesson obviously believes in the political adage, “Don’t get mad, get even.”

Perry and I talked over lunch at the Omni Hotel on Bunker Hill, one of the areas removed from her district in the reapportionment. She was friendly, relaxed and confident. Even when she was lashing out at the council’s ruling clique — my words, not hers — her voice was modulated and her manner calm. She doesn’t seem much different now than when I met her during her time as top aide to Rita Walters, the council member who previously represented her district. The mother of an adult daughter, Perry is divorced from her husband of 17 years. “We were friends then; we are friends now,” she said.

She’s the first of the potential mayoral candidates I’ll interview over the next several months. Best known among the others are City Council member Eric Garcetti, City Controller Wendy Greuel, radio talk-show host Kevin James, developer Rick Caruso and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Of these, only Perry, Garcetti, Greuel and James have formally announced their candidacies.

We talked about her journey from the Protestant home of her politically active parents in Cleveland to her embrace of Judaism while a student at USC about 30 years ago. Her spiritual quest took her to Rabbi Laura Geller, who then headed Hillel at USC. Perry said she was “on the hunt for something big. Why am I here? What is my purpose, my role as a woman, my role in society?” She also studied with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Felder, director of UCLA Hillel, and then converted.

“The big moment for me in being Jewish was to be more community oriented in developing my observances, being part of a community,“ she said. For example, she said that on Yom Kippur, “When I was younger, I didn’t understand how important it is” on this day of repentance and atonement to pray “in a community,” among those who share her beliefs.

I can see something of her religion in her handling of one of her biggest and most complex issues, Skid Row, where she is following the Jewish imperative of reaching out and helping those in need. Politicians and the rest of Los Angeles avoids visiting the dangerous neighborhood, or even thinking about it. But, according to Jon Regardie, executive editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News, Perry has “spent more time addressing Skid Row than any other official had in decades.”

Skid Row, recently removed from her district in the reapportionment, is a wide area just east of the commercial heart of downtown Los Angeles, reaching eastward from around Main Street to near the Los Angeles River. It is filled with the homeless and other down-and-outers, many among them substance addicts, mentally ill, physically ailing and victims of the recession. Skid Row’s population also includes families with children, as well as a group of dedicated nonprofit organization workers who strive to provide housing, medical help, rehabilitation and other services, despite many obstacles.

Perry told me Skid Row should be a “recovery community,” where the homeless can find housing, make appointments with doctors, see therapists and drug counselors, a place “where they can rest” rather than live the risky life on the streets.

By coordinating efforts with the several nonprofit organizations in the area and helping them with the complicated task of obtaining public and private financing, Perry said she spurred construction of 1,200 units of permanent housing, with facilities for counseling and medical care. In addition, 5,000 units of low-income housing have been built within the boundaries of the area she represented in pre-reapportionment days.

As Perry sees it, Skid Row encapsulates the kinds of problems she would face as mayor. It’s poor. She dealt with conflict between property owners who want the homeless out of there, and with human-rights advocates who stand up for the poor and see her as a hard-hearted ally of business. She also worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, which tries to control the rampant drug dealing and other crimes on Skid Row, to enforce public health statutes and also comply with court decisions protecting homeless rights.

Also in her downtown district, Perry, in addition to supporting L.A. Live, is credited by council observers with helping developers build the condos and apartment houses that have upscaled parts of Skid Row and the areas around it. Critics have called her a handmaiden of AEG and other downtown developers, but she defends her support for the company, saying it’s a model for how to bring in more jobs and housing. She said she would “be a strategic job creator.” She wants more hotels downtown for conventions and would “promote jobs along transit lines and make sure housing is available.”

After our lunch, I wondered how she would do if elected mayor. Although I am more cynical than spiritual, I was impressed by her spiritual qualities, nurtured by her mentors, Rabbis Geller and Seidler- Felder, both of whom I respect. But being a student of practical politics, I was also impressed with her toughness. If she wins, the City Hall old boys may find out whether she, like them, follows the political rule of “Don’t get mad, get even.”


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

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.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate agrees to recognize all Orthodox conversions


Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has agreed to recognize all Jewish conversions undertaken in the country, JTA has learned.

ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, and the Chief Rabbinate have reached an agreement under which the rabbinate will recognize all conversions conferred under the auspices of Israeli conversion programs, including the military. The agreement was made available to JTA.

The center had filed a lawsuit against the rabbinate in the Israeli Supreme Court in May 2010 after the rabbinate refused to recognize the conversions of some couples who had come to register for marriage.

Under the agreement, local rabbis are obligated to open a marriage file for any convert that comes before them. If a local rabbi does not feel he can open the file, he can send the paperwork to a national office, which must return the paperwork to the original office within two weeks. The file then must appear on the local office’s letterhead.

The Chief Rabbinate had offered to open a separate registration bureau for converts in three cities, which ITIM turned down as discriminatory.

“I am a little skeptical whether the local rabbis will follow as directed because they have already demonstrated that they have no respect for the Chief Rabbinate,” Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM, told JTA.

Farber said ITIM is set to respond positively to the state’s offer on May 8—the deadline for the organization to respond to the offer. He said the organization will not withdraw the complaint, only freeze it, giving the Chief Rabbinate one month to implement the new system and six months to see how it works. If it is not successful, the group can unfreeze the complaint.

“We see in the state’s response a victory for the converts and the justification of the righteousness of this struggle,” Farber said. “From now on, converts can again feel like an integral part of the Jewish people and not feel inferior. We must continue to be vigilant to ensure that such incidents do not repeat themselves in the future and that the state’s policy decisions are actually implemented.”

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids


In December, Patty Lombard and her husband, Bill Simon, took their two daughters to Florida to celebrate Christmas with her family, as they do every year. The children received presents, strung popcorn and decorated the tree — a Yuletide tradition they would never allow in their Los Angeles home.

That’s because the girls are Jewish, just like their father. When Lombard, a Catholic, and Simon married 18 years ago, they decided to raise their children in one faith: Judaism.

Such arrangements reflect a growing trend among interfaith families that feature a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner who isn’t planning to convert. And despite the Jewish community’s decades-long panic that shrinking population figures are a direct result of intermarriage, recent studies and anecdotal evidence are finding that interfaith families could be more of an asset than an enemy.

Many interfaith couples are raising their children to be Jews, even without conversion of the non-Jewish parent.

One reason for this radical shift in understanding: the release late last year of a new, groundbreaking study.

In Boston, the majority of children among interfaith households — almost 60 percent, far above the national average — are being raised as Jews, according to the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community. The study was carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Many observers say that the results of this study are due in large part to the Boston federation’s intense outreach efforts to interfaith families — more so than to independent decisions within the families themselves. Some suggest that communities that replicate the Boston federation’s efforts can bring about similar results.

Another study about the “December Dilemma” by online magazine InterfaithFamily.com showed that 75 percent of interfaith couples with children say they are raising them Jewish, as compared to 33 percent reported in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. The InterfaithFamily.com survey covered a small, self-selecting sampling. The Web site reports that 759 people responded to the survey in 2006, nearly twice as many as had the previous year. The survey also explores how interfaith families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, as well as what exactly those celebrations mean.

For example, while 44 percent of respondents said they planned to decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, only about 5 percent planned to tell their children the Christmas story. By contrast, among those same families, 99 percent of those said they were also lighting menorahs, and 63 percent of those were going to tell the Chanukah story. In other words, most of these families considered their Christmas celebrations to be secular (79 percent, according to the survey), while only 23 percent said that their Chanukah celebrations are secular).

These studies do not offer not hard evidence with any single conclusion, but the results do indicate that intermarriage will not destroy the Jewish community, as once was thought. What emerges from speaking to interfaith families is how committed many non-Jewish parents are to raising their child or children Jewish, even when they themselves have no intentions of converting.

Lombard was raised Catholic. She went to parochial schools through high school and attended Mass regularly.

“I’m not a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I still identify myself as a Catholic.”

But Lombard and her husband did not want to make religion a deal-breaker.

“I didn’t want to say I can’t marry you because you’re not the same religion as me, because that seemed crazy,” she said.

So they agreed to raise the children Jewish — although she admitted that at the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into: “Initially you think, ‘I really love this person, and I want to make it work,’ and then you think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?'”

Lombard began taking classes at Temple Israel of Hollywood to learn about Judaism, but in general she said she lets her husband lead the family in matters of Jewish identity. On Christmas, Simon doesn’t want a Christmas tree in their house.

“I don’t care at all, it’s one less thing to put away,” Lombard said.

For her, Christmas is about spending time with her parents.

“As long as my parents are around, that’s all that matters. I feel in some ways that Christmas has very little meaning,” she said.

Lombard believes celebrating Christmas and attending church with their grandparents doesn’t make her daughters any less Jewish.

“They feel like they’re very much part of that holiday,” she said. “Just like my sister’s family would participate in Passover — it’s a kind of acceptance of where everyone is at.”

Neither does having a non-Jewish mother change the reality. When her older daughter, Emily, was younger, she said, “Oh mommy aren’t you sorry you aren’t one of us?”

But now, at 13, having just celebrated her bat mitzvah with all sides of her family, Emily understands more.

Lombard said she never felt the need to convert: “I felt like I was doing enough; the agreement to raise them Jewish was enough.”

She said it helps that about one-third of the families in her congregation are interfaith and that Rabbi John Rosove, the senior rabbi, is very accepting. “He’s always done his best to make me feel like I was a part of this place … he never made me feel like I had to convert.”

The Lombard-Simon family is evidence that a positive atmosphere toward interfaith couples can help bring the children into the fold, as the Boston study indicates. This year, Boston’s Jewish community invested $321,000 — 1.5 percent of its annual budget — into outreach for interfaith families and individuals, for programs run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.

“If you make the effort to be welcoming then it pays off,” said Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com. “Why is that happening in Boston? What could Los Angeles do to emulate Boston’s success?”

Finding their way home to Judaism: three same-sex couples share their conversion stories


“My parents were old hippies,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, who grew up in the Bay Area. “They were very suspicious of organized religion and anything else smacking of authority.”

When Park-Rogers, 35, met Rachel Timoner, her partner-to-be, in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she was thrilled to be falling in love but suspicious of her new lover’s involvement with Judaism.

Timoner was raised in a Reform community in Miami. Although the lavish bar and bat mitzvahs at her parents’ shul had turned her off, she still felt drawn to Jewish spiritual life. When she found a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, the seed of her faith began to take root.
“And she began to drag me to holiday services,” Park-Rogers said.

The couple’s once-in-a-blue-moon joint appearances at shul evolved into a weekly return engagement at Shabbat. Then, about a decade ago, Timoner was out of town during the High Holidays, and Park-Rogers found herself with a decision to make.

“I went to Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on my own,” Park-Rogers recalled. “After that experience, I said, ‘I have my own relationship to this.'”

Park-Rogers finished her conversion about four and a half years ago, just before she gave birth to Benjamin, her first son. She and Timoner now have a second son, Eitan, who just celebrated his first birthday.

Same-sex couples confront the same choices that are issues for most straight couples. To live together or not to live together? To marry — or at least to formalize a partnership — or not to marry? To have kids or to have a second house in Palm Springs?

Spiritual decision-making is also frequently a factor in the calculus of gay life. In fact, finding a religious tradition that affirms gay experience and offers the support of a vibrant community can be one of the most important aspects of self-realization for gay men and lesbians — especially for people who see being in a committed relationship as a natural extension of their spiritual lives.

That kind of deep introspection led Ron Paler, a 40-year-old pathologist, to convert to Judaism five years ago. Mike Loya, Paler’s partner for more than a decade, will finish his own conversion in the next couple of months.

” border = 0 alt=””>
David Fyffe, left, and Arlan Wareham show off piece of a Katyusha rocket that landed near their Tsfat home in August.

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

Lights Were Last to Go


My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know
more.

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â


Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion


Controversial syndicated radio-show host and public advocate of Orthodox Judaism Laura Schlessinger — "Dr. Laura," as she is known to her 12 million daily listeners — confessed on air this month that she will no longer practice Judaism.

Although Schlessinger — who very publicly converted to Judaism five years ago — said she still "considers" herself Jewish, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity — that has ended," she said on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" on Aug. 5.

Syndicated nationally since 1994, Schlessinger has won over listeners with her hard-edged advice and razor-sharp tongue. Yet her brash style, not to mention her espousal of a strict "moral health" code — including controversial condemnations of homosexuality as "a biological error" — put her at odds with wide swaths of the Jewish community. Many found her moralist, black-and-white, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance to be more representative of evangelical Christians than of Jews, who were often among her most outspoken critics.

Schlessinger’s office said she was unavailable for comment.

In her 25 years on radio, Schlessinger said she was moved "time and time again" by listeners who wrote and described that they had "’joined a church, felt loved by God’ and that was my anchor."

Schlessinger even hinted at a possible turn to Christianity — a move that, radio insiders say, would elevate her career far beyond the 300 stations that currently syndicate her show.

"I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God," she said. "They use the name Jesus when they refer to God … that was a mystery, being connected to God."

Of her conversion to Judaism, Schlessinger said, "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired. Trust me, I’ve talked to rabbis, I’ve read, I’ve prayed, I’ve agonized and I came to this place anyway — which is not exactly back to the beginning, but more in that direction than not."

Born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Schlessinger was raised in Brooklyn in a home that was without religion. Approximately 10 years ago, prompted by a question from her son during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary, Schlessinger, 56, began exploring her Jewish roots.

She underwent a Conservative conversion in 1997, and later decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion instead.

"I still see myself as a Jew," Schlessinger said on the air. "But the spiritual journey and that direction, as hard core as I was at it, just didn’t fulfill something in me that I needed."

Even Schlessinger’s detractors were shocked by the news. "I can’t tell you how significant this is," said fellow Jewish media star and "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has sparred with Schlessinger over her comments on homosexuality.

"Dr. Laura always equated her morals and ethics with Jewish morals and ethics," he said. "That placed the American Jewish community in a real fix; on the one hand, she made Judaism very popular, on the other, she made it vilified and hated by many people."

"It seems incredible that an ethicist and moralist of her standing would invoke such shallow arguments," added Boteach, who was en route to an appearance on the syndicated television show "Blind Date." "I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community — but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."

Ziering Dominates With Blonde Ambition


"People are shocked to discover I’m Jewish," Nikki Schieler Ziering said.

In her red, white and blue string bikini on the cover of July’s Playboy, the blonde model-actress looks like a sexier version of the all-American girl. She is better known for playing bombshells in films such as "Serving Sara" than, say, making a brisket.

But on radio’s "Loveline" recently, Ziering — who plays a campy dominatrix stripper in "American Wedding" — revealed that she cooks brisket and practices Judaism. When co-host Adam Corolla countered, "You’re not a real Jew," she said she converted before her 1997 wedding to actor Ian Ziering and that she’s continued practicing since they separated in 2001.

"People always ask me, ‘Are you still Jewish?’ and I say, ‘Of course,’" she told The Journal over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I fell in love with Judaism because it’s all about family values and having good morals. It’s something I made a commitment to and that I take seriously."

So seriously that she easily beat Corolla at an impromptu "Jew off" game featuring questions such as, "How many candles are there on a menorah?"

"I had you at ‘Shalom,’" she said.

Ziering, 31, didn’t know many Jews growing up in a mostly Christian area of Brea, but her own household wasn’t religious. Her Norwegian American mother, who had rebelled against her own strict, Protestant upbringing, didn’t baptize Nikki or require her to attend church.

During a period of adolescent soul-searching, Ziering, then 15, had herself baptized and started frequenting a hip, Orange County church.

"It was a phase," she said.

By the time she graduated from high school, she was more focused on jump-starting her career — which began when a modeling scout discovered her while she was working as a dental assistant around 1993. Ziering went on to model for companies such as Frederick’s of Hollywood, to pose nude in Playboy and to be one of "Barker’s Beauties" on CBS’ "The Price is Right."

In 1994, she met her future husband while playing a bit part on his series, "Beverly Hills, 90210." "I had never had anyone close in my life who was Jewish," she said.

As she fell in love with Ian Ziering, she also fell in love with his religion.

"The family aspects appealed to me, because my parents divorced and I didn’t have that," she said. "Initially, I worried that his parents would reject me as ‘the shiksa,’ but they were totally accepting."

Although there was no pressure to become Jewish, Ziering decided to enroll in the 22-week conversion class led by Rabbi Jonathan Aaron at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. "I think it’s important to raise your children with something, so I just went in with an open mind, not specifically to convert," she said.

Studying Judaism changed her mind. "I loved that on Yom Kippur, you are not only supposed to ask for forgiveness, but also to forgive," she said. "I love how you cover the challah when you say the blessing over the wine because you don’t want to ‘hurt its feelings.’ That’s such a great way to teach children compassion; it’s just such a sweet thing."

On the morning of her conversion, Ziering felt nervous. "It was that residue of what you’re taught as a Christian — that everyone else is going to hell," she said. She relaxed while answering questions in front of the bet din (the rabbinical court): "I just felt so accepted, I started crying and I knew I was doing the right thing."

Ziering then immersed in the mikvah; in the temple that evening, she carried the Torah, "which was quite an honor," she said.

When she got married under a chuppah at the Beverly Hills Hotel in July 1997, she said it was the first Jewish wedding she had ever attended.

Over the next few years, observing rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles proved easier for Ziering than mastering some cultural aspects of Judaism.

For example, she said, "I learned how to not use the word, schmuck."

Then there was the Rosh Hashana dinner for 20 guests she prepared as her mother-in-law guided her by phone from New Jersey. "I hung up before she told me what to do with the gefilte fish, but as I’d been cooking for two days, I was feeling all confident, and I figured, I’ll just pop them in the oven for 20 minutes,’" she recalled. "My guests laughed hysterically that I not only cooked the gefilte fish, I burned them."

Ziering has continued to observe the holidays since separating from her husband — and to field questions about being Jewish. When people ask why a nice Jewish girl is appearing topless in films such as "American Wedding," (her Officer Krystal dominates the outrageous bachelor party sequence) she says, "I have no problems being naked because the human body is beautiful."

When they ask if she’s really Jewish, she tries to maintain her sense of humor. As she told Corolla: "I used to be a ‘shiksa,’ but now I’m a Jew."

"American Wedding" opens today in Los Angeles.

Literary Look at the ‘Jewish Experience’


This Shavuot, as we read about Ruth’s decision to convert, we should examine our own religious connection: To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?

In fact this question touches upon the much larger issue of what it means to be a Jew. "The Jewish Experience" is mentioned frequently and can refer to bagel brunches as easily as it can to surviving the Holocaust. That both of these are cultural references is not a coincidence; Judaism has traditionally emphasized actions and American society echoes this approach. There is however, a component beyond The Jewish Experience. There is an experience of being Jewish. There is a unique way of seeing life that informs all of our cultural practices and associations. This distinct worldview is what we embrace on Shavuot.

Three books in particular directly address the experience of being Jewish, each from a slightly different vantage point.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s work, "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life" (Basic Books, $18.50), is often at the top of the reading list for people considering conversion. It begins with an overview of the basic tenets of Jewish thought, then elaborates upon these tenets by showing how they manifest in Jewish practices. And while it can certainly function as a practical handbook, it differs from one in that it constantly engages in a discussion of "why". Donin explains early on that the Torah was given in order to bring sanctification to the world. He continues, "The purpose of holiness permeates all of Jewish religious law, and encompasses every aspect of human concern and experience." Even if the reader gets no farther than page 35, orienting oneself to this concept alone can be life-altering.

The book is highly informative, with facts brimming on every page. It can be read in its entirety or consulted as a reference. Discussions are authoritative without being preachy. And where there is the possibility of controversy (e.g., birth control), Donin is remarkably adept at focusing on areas of common ground among rabbinic opinions.

"Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith "(Basic Books, $27.50) by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (of Kosher Sex fame) incorporates imagery and language from popular culture, especially the realm of New Age. The book contains a great deal of social philosophy, a fair amount of theorizing on contemporary life by the author and some very cogent articulations of the Jewish perspective on life. By packaging traditional Jewish thought in Bodhi Tree wrapping, potentially daunting ideas are made accessible to an audience that might not otherwise be reached.

Among the book’s most compelling points are the contrasts between Judaism’s views on life and those of the ideological competition. Jackie Mason jokes that Jews don’t have a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the understanding that "we’re not goyim." In this age of cross-cultural pollination, it is useful to know where ideas originate in order to better recognize what is the essence of our own.

Divergent approaches to suffering place Judaism in opposition to Christian thinking as well. Boteach notes that the message of the crucifixion to Christians is: "Without suffering there can be no redemption." On the other hand he writes, "In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive…. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance." As a supreme example of this view he cites the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The response to death is life." Though it borders on the melodramatic, no one familiar with Jewish history would argue with this statement.

The most profound distillation of what it means to be Jewish can be found in the pages of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels" by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Books, $14). The book is written with a poetic sensibility that belies an appreciation of life so rare in academic circles it is almost nonexistent. Cahill’s scholarship focuses on history as "the narratives of grace."

The Jewish gift referred to in the title is the introduction of linear thinking. Prior to Abraham, all people conceived of life as a circle or spiral, with events simply repeating themselves into infinity: "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing … so much that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."

The text illustrates how choice and decisionmaking could not exist without the shift from the circular to the linear. The Ten Commandments could not exist, nor could the capacity for morality, nor, ultimately, Western civilization.

It seems ironic that the book that best encapsulates the Jewish contribution to society was written by a non-Jew. Then again, perhaps it is appropriately heartening and in keeping with our role as the standard-bearers for a more perfect world. Maybe we’re doing something right after all. And maybe, the more we internalize our gifts as a people the better able we will be to share.