Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din Honoring Rabbi Stephen Einstein

“The way he responded to each question and person made them feel valued.”
March 5, 2021
Screenshot from YouTube/jewishoc

In 1976, Rabbi Stephen Einstein started teaching an Intro to Judaism class in Orange County. Although some of the students were people who were born Jewish and wanted to learn more, there were a large number of prospective converts taking it as well. At the time, conversion was a delicate topic, and many were wary about welcoming converts. However, Einstein persisted and taught the class to thousands of students and mentored hundreds of converts for the next 41 years.

Now, the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din, where Einstein serves as a member, is celebrating him at their 2021 gala, taking place over Zoom on Sunday, March 7. “It’s a really nice honor,” Einstein said in a phone interview with the Journal. “A lot of people are going to be part of this. I’m very much looking forward to it.”

The event is also going to feature the rabbi singing the Shema with a chorus of converts, renowned liturgist and poet Alden Solovy reading his rendition of the prayer, composer and cantor Natalie Young and Professor and Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College.

Arlene Chernow, outreach specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime colleague of Einstein, said that the rabbi “deserves to be honored for the number of individuals he’s welcomed to the Jewish people. He should be honored for the courage to be articulate about welcoming new individuals 41 years ago. He really had an influence on other rabbis and on the Reform Jewish community as well.”

One of the individuals whose life Einstein changed is Michelle Matusoff, who took his class in 2011. She wanted to convert to Judaism so that her kids would have a cohesive religious upbringing, and she hoped Einstein would be her sponsoring rabbi.

At first, she wasn’t thrilled that the class took place on Monday nights 30 minutes from her house, but she grew to love it so much that it became the highlight of her week. “The class would always go by so quickly,” Matusoff said. “Rabbi Einstein is very informative and engaging to listen to. He had a wise answer to everything, and he’s a wonderful storyteller and speaker. He was the perfect person to teach a class like that.”

When Chernow observed Einstein teaching his class, she noticed his dedication to his students, no matter where they were coming from. “I was always touched by the way he valued every question and every contribution,” she said. “Sometimes there were as many as 60 people in the class, and yet the way he responded to each question and person made them feel valued. That was particularly moving to people who came from other traditions where asking questions was not positive. He responded to people with so much love and humanity.”

“The way he responded to each question and person made them feel valued.”

Einstein, who was a founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, past president of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis and co-chair of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Outreach, Membership and Sacred Community, officially retired in 2012, but said he’s still working here and there.

“My retirement has been in shifts so to speak. I’ve continued certain things and took new things on, so I’m in stage seven or eight of retiring.” He said he dedicated much of his work to helping converts because it’s a mitzvah that goes back to Biblical times, when Avraham and Sarah welcomed strangers into their tent and taught them monotheism.

“This is as old as Judaism itself,” he said. “There are periods where we’ve been more comfortable to be open [to converts] and other periods, particularly [in] times of persecution, where we’ve hunkered down and kept to ourselves. But I thought it was important to keep this work going.”

Years ago, when the class first began, Einstein said that conversions were done privately, but now, in the Reform community, it’s common for converts to have a welcome Shabbat at synagogue where they light candles, are called up to the Torah for blessings and carry around the scrolls.

“The person who converted would go around the congregation with the Torah, and people would reach out and hug them. It was a very warm and welcoming moment for everybody.”

As one of the first members of the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din, Einstein said he believes in its philosophy because it ties into the important notion of klal Yisrael. “When someone converts, that person isn’t joining one synagogue or movement,” he said. “They become part of the entire Jewish people.”

To register for the 2021 virtual gala, visit the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din website.

Kylie Ora Lobell is a writer for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, Aish, and Chabad.org and the author of the first children’s book for the children of Jewish converts, “Jewish Just Like You.”

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