Conversion celebration takes a surprise turn — into a wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela was given her Hebrew name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges and celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Judaism through music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories of Jewish Conversion: Frank Siciliano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli high court affirms conversions questioned by rabbinical courts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My big fat Dominican Orthodox Jewish wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Second Wake-Up Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Their Way

Her husband, Christopher, a pianist and composer, agrees.

“Sometimes, when I play at Jewish weddings, I have to explain to them that the kiddush should come before the motzi, the blessing of the bread.”

Like most converts, the Hardins take the precepts of their adopted faith more seriously than many born to it, and they display an intense hunger for knowledge, as if to make up for what they missed during their childhoods.

The Hardins were among eight Jews-by-choice who spoke at recent services at Valley Beth Shalom; they brought along their infant son, Benjamin, to receive his Hebrew name.

Jennifer, a professional singer and actress, was raised in a largely secular home in Bakersfield but was baptized as a Lutheran at age 12. By her late teens, she started to question various dogmas of Christianity and defined herself as an agnostic.

In her mid-20s, she moved to Los Angeles and befriended a Jewish family, who invited her to a seder.

“I had never experienced a holiday so deeply, with such profound symbolism and emotions,” she says. Turned on, Jennifer started visiting different synagogues, enrolled in University of Judaism classes and read books on Judaism.

She hadn’t known one Jew in Bakersfield, but, in Los Angeles, “I started hanging around Jewish people, though I felt somewhat self-conscious about it,” Jennifer says.

She met Christopher on a “Love Boat” cruise to Alaska, where she was performing as a singer and he as a member of the band. When their relationship became serious, Jennifer told her husband-to-be that she was considering becoming a Jew.

Christopher, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, told her, “I would be supportive, but I had no wish to convert.”

His attitude changed when their daughter, Calah (Hebrew for bride), was born. “I felt that she would need some spiritual guidance and that I wouldn’t be able to give it to her,” he says.

Christopher attended his first Rosh Hashanah service, conducted by Temple Judea, and, while listening, experienced an “eerie feeling of connection,” he says.

Encouraged by Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea, the couple enrolled in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism. The six-month course, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, has served as a beginning to advanced training program for thousands of born and aspiring Jews for more than 30 years.

“The course was very intense,” says Jennifer. “In six months, we had to absorb 4,000 years of history, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Hebrew prayers.”

Classes ended with an extensive examination, which students had to repeat until they got all the answers right.

(Sample question: List in order, starting from the fall, the Jewish holidays on the Jewish calendar. Explain the meaning of each holiday. List some of the symbols or objects associated with the holiday.)

Jennifer passed the test on her second go. Christopher says proudly, “I nailed it on the first try.”

Next came the hearing before the beit din, a three-person rabbinical court; immersion in a mikvah; and, for Christopher, a symbolic bris (he had already been circumcised).

After some shul searching, the Hardins settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Jennifer sings in the temple choir, and Christopher serves on the Jewish Music Commission.

“We feel very comfortable and have encountered some of the kindest people we’ve ever met and who share our values,” Christopher says.

They fondly remember their initial contact. “When we first came in, we asked Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the executive director, if there were any programs for converts,” Christopher said. “He said there weren’t any, adding, ‘You’re as much Jews as I am.'”

There are some collective sorrows, such as personal ties to Holocaust victims or the sting of anti-Semitism, that lie outside the Hardins’ own experience, Jennifer acknowledges.

“We just feel an incredible sadness,” says Jennifer, who adds, “We would rather be with the persecuted than the persecutors.” — Tom Tugend