Rabbis and Converts: A Sacred Relationship

November 17, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Many people take my class because they are quietly checking out Judaism. Something has led them to consider conversion, and they are doing research. Actually, that’s a great reason to take the class.

Eventually, I will get a call or an email: “Rabbi, how do I convert?” That’s when I break the news that (1) they have to get a rabbi and (2) it can’t be me.  I believe people are better off working with congregational rabbis, because they come with a Jewish community.

Rabbis are the gatekeepers to the conversion process. That is the tradition. We shepherd people through the process of getting to know the Jewish People, getting to know a little of the tradition, and in getting a sense of whether they will be happy being Jews. Some people have an intellectual attraction to Judaism, but when they encounter real Jews they are less comfortable. For others, Judaism is fascinating, but giving up what they loved about their past affiliation is too difficult. Some people are on a spiritual journey, and Judaism is a stopover or a necessary side trip. It is the rabbi’s job to discern what’s really going on and to help the candidate navigate it, whether the ultimate destination is Judaism or something else. That kind of discernment can only take place over time, in a relationship between rabbi and candidate.

Recently, there has been a lot in the news about a particular rabbi who abused the trust in such a relationship. He behaved as a predator, taking advantage of the trust of those in his care. I am glad that his congregational board immediately reported him to the police. I am glad that the rabbinical association to which he belongs promptly began changing their process to put better protections in place against such abuses. Horrible as the situation was, my hope is that it will lead to better process in the future. I hope and pray for support and healing for the victims of that rabbi’s dreadful behavior.

The vast majority of us take the process of shepherding converts very seriously, and regard it as one of the greatest trusts of the rabbinate. A vulnerable person trusts us to guide them towards Sinai. The Jewish People trust us to nurture Jews who will flourish as members of Am Yisrael. 

If you are considering conversion, realize that nothing can really begin until you find a rabbi. Not every rabbi is the right one: you need to find your rabbi. Anything before that is a preliminary, no matter how many books you read or classes you take.  When I approached a rabbi about conversion, I had read everything I could find, and I had an academic background in religion, and I thought I had little more to learn. The truth was that the journey to real Judaism was only beginning; all that I had learned was theoretical.

If you are on that journey, good luck to you! I wish you a fruitful trip, wherever it takes you.


Conversion Manifesto

October 21, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.

Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.

Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:

  1. Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
  2. I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
  3. My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
  4. If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
  5. If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
  6. Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
  7. If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
  8. If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
  9. If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
  10. Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.

The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.

Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.

 


‘Twas the Night before Class

September 14, 2014
Circle of Chairs

“Circle of Chairs” by Chris Campbell

I’m up late tonight, because I can’t sleep.

I’m too excited about tomorrow: the new cycle of Intro classes starts promptly at 10:10 tomorrow, when I meet a new roomful of strangers. Over the next eight months we’ll get to know one another very well as we wade through Jewish holidays, Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish texts, Jewish history, and a bunch of other topics. More than anything, I’ll try to equip them for living in Jewish community.

Some were born Jewish, but never got a Jewish education. That can generate a lot of shame, but it really isn’t their fault. I love seeing them realize what they know, and what they can learn.

Some are considering conversion to Judaism. I’ll try to equip them for this journey. They need not just facts and “how to” directions, but some clues about the context of American Judaism today, and their own Northern California Jewish community. They need some help in navigating this new Jewish world they seek to enter.

Some are there because they love someone Jewish. They want to understand the language and crack the codes. If I can help with that, their families will be stronger and Judaism will be the better for it.

Some will say they there because it’s Sunday morning, their kids are in Religious School, and someone (their rabbi?) suggested they take the class while they’re waiting. Later in the year I may (or may not) find out what they are hoping to get from the class.

Some will be shy. Some will be full of questions. Some will want to talk all the time, and others will be loathe to talk at all. Some will be easy to love, and some will challenge me to find the tzelem Elohim [image of God] in them.

I have my bag packed, my handouts at the ready. I really need to get some sleep.


Are You Curious About Judaism?

September 11, 2014
A Jewish group studying text together

Class with Rabbi Adar

Are you curious about Judaism? Interested in getting a basic introduction to the subject? Considering conversion, or just want to figure out your in-laws?  It’s that time of year again, folks – “Intro” classes are beginning in many synagogues!

I teach two such classes in the East Bay Area of CA: “Exploring Judaism” starts this Sunday at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. The class meets for an hour each Sunday, starting at 10:10am. For more information, click on the link which will take you to the registration page. My other class “Intro to the Jewish Experience” will begin October 22 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. That class meets for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30pm. For more information or to sign up, check out the class page in the online Lehrhaus Judaica catalog.

Don’t live in Berkeley or Lafayette? Check with your local synagogue or Jewish Federation to find out what classes are starting in your area.

Some concerns I hear every year:

  • Will you expect me to convert? [No]
  • Will you burn me at the stake because I’m L, G, B, or T? [No, I'm a lesbian myself.]
  • Will you be mad if I don’t believe in God? [No, we'll talk about the many different Jewish ideas about God.]
  • What are you “selling,” rabbi? [Nothing other than a learning experience.]
  • This class is very expensive! [If it is too much for you, say so. Financial aid is often available.]

If you have questions or needs, speak up. This is your first lesson in Jewish community.

My classes have multiple entry points. If not now, maybe then! Get in touch for more information.

I hope that you find an “Intro” class in your area! If you will be taking one of mine, feel free to leave a comment and say “Hi!”


Resource for Conversion to Judaism

August 9, 2014
Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett

Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett of BecomingJewish.net

Are you interested in conversion to Judaism? Did you recently become a member of the tribe?

BecomingJewish.net offers support and information for anyone seeking conversion or recently become Jewish. It has additional resources for users living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

They have solid information about the process of becoming a Jew and about conversion outside the U.S. They also have first-person accounts by Jews by Choice about their own experiences.

Their directory of rabbis is a resource for anyone “shul shopping” [looking for a synagogue] because it includes stories by people who have converted with each Bay Area rabbi, and who have gotten to know their rabbi well. If you want to get a taste of what the rabbi at Beth Somewhere is like, this is a great way to do it.

Full disclosure: The site is staffed by my dear friend Dawn Kepler (who mentored me through conversion) and my spouse, Linda Burnett. But seriously, even if I didn’t love the people running it, this is a great resource!


Mapping Our Jewish Journeys

July 23, 2014

liftarn_Compass“These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt” – thus begins the last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. The books of Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the Israelites from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. This final Torah portion pauses to review where they’ve been before they cross into the land of their ancestors, the land they have been seeking all along. Their journey did not end with the river crossing, though. In truth, the journey of the Jewish People was only beginning.

Where are you on your Jewish journey? Are you a tourist, checking us out? (That’s OK, by the way – you are welcome to learn all about us.) Are you on a journey toward Judaism, seeking to connect with the tradition and perhaps convert? Are you already Jewish, but looking for a deeper connection with your people and your tradition?

My guess is that if you’ve come looking for this website, you’re on some sort of a Jewish journey. To get the most out of it, and especially to get where you want to go, it’s wise sometimes to stop and take your bearings.

Do you have a Jewish community? Traveling through the wilderness alone is miserable, if not impossible.  Joshua ben Perachyah, one of the most ancient rabbis, used to say, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.” In other words, don’t journey alone. Whether your Jewish community is a class, or a congregation, or a club, or a chavurah, you need other Jews. Otherwise you’ll lose your way.

What’s your immediate goal? If your goal is conversion to Judaism, there are specific steps to take. If your goal is to learn more about Judaism, find a class! Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer “Intro” classes that are appropriate for a wide range of learners. If your goal involves making a Jewish choice, like how to raise your children, or how to manage within an interfaith relationship, local Jewish institutions can point you to resources and there are also websites with good information. Or you may have a very specific goal. There also your Jewish community can come into play: look for Jews whose path you admire, and learn from them, whether it is how to make bagels or how to speak Ladino.

Where have you been already? Just as Moses paused to recount the journeys of the Israelites, you may want to make your own map of where you’ve already been. What worked? What was a good experience? What was difficult? Was something both difficult and a good experience? What was worthwhile? What wasn’t?

Where are you afraid to go? The Israelites often stopped in their tracks to wail that they were scared, they hated the wilderness, and that slavery seemed like a pretty sweet deal. They were afraid to enter the land, they were afraid of the wilderness, and in their fear, sometimes they did dreadful things. But sometimes the things that scare us the most turn out to be the best journeys of all. If something looks scary, or feels too difficult, that might be a sign that it’s exactly your best next step, whether it’s learning Hebrew or calling a real, live, offline rabbi.

I am on my own Jewish journey, too. Mine started, improbably, in Catholic school back in Nashville. Today I’m a 59 year old rabbi pursuing new challenges. Thank you for including me in your journey!

 

 


Scouting Conversion

June 9, 2014
Mikveh, Oakland, CA

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.


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