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!


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.


What Kind of Jew are You?

March 25, 2014

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?


A Personal Challenge

January 28, 2014

Challenger_explosion

A post on Twitter just reminded me that today is January 28, the anniversary of the Challenger disaster in 1986.

It’s a personal anniversary for me. I heard about the explosion on the radio as I was on my way to teach a class at Memphis Theological Seminary. I recall that my lecture that day was on the Iconoclast Controversy.

I was a teacher and student of the history of Christianity. Officially I was an Episcopalian, teaching Cumberland Presbyterian seminarians, and the fact that my contract specified that I was there to “teach, not preach” (using the language of Paul of Tarsus about  proper roles for women) was actually a comfort to me.  I was dimly aware that I could talk very confidently about history, but not so confidently about my own faith.

We began class with a prayer for the souls on the Challenger; I asked one of my students to lead the prayer, honoring my “teach, not preach” agreement. Then we dived into the intricacies of 9th century Byzantium and the fine distinctions between idols and icons, idolatry and worship.

A student asked me to clarify a detail of Byzantine Christology. As I gave him the proper answer, making the distinctions clear, a still small voice in my head pointed out the obvious: You don’t believe this stuff. Any of it. Why are you teaching it? I paused for a moment, reminded myself that I had a contract, and returned to the lecture.

Like the Space Shuttle, my sense of myself exploded that morning. I could no longer call myself a Christian. I finished out the term and spent almost ten years trying to figure out where I belonged, longing for a spiritual home I could not name.

Eventually I stumbled into a synagogue, long after I’d given up on belonging anywhere. That’s another story.


Why Does Conversion to Judaism Take So Long?

January 28, 2014

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“Why is it taking so long? I can’t wait to get to the mikveh!”

If I had a nickel for every time a student has said that to me, we could go get fancy espresso drinks. There is something about being “in a process” or “on a journey” that makes us long for the destination and impatient to “arrive.”

Here’s the deal: Conversion to Judaism is a very serious matter. It’s serious for the person making this change, and it is also serious for the Jewish People. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, and the repercussions could be terrible for the entire Jewish community. Today, it isn’t quite as dramatic, but what it boils down to is, once you are a member of the tribe, you are a part of us. We’re stuck with you, and you’re stuck with us. The saying is, Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh ["All Israel is responsible one for another."] So the time of study, the courtship, is long and slow.

It takes a year to experience each of the Jewish holidays, and to experience the feeling of being apart from celebrations that we leave behind. Your relationship to the old holidays will change. Your relationships to family members and friends will shift to include the changes in your life. You will also make new friends, explore new possibilities in the Jewish community.  None of this can happen quickly.

This is a very precious time. Congregational rabbis make an extraordinary investment of time and effort in candidates for conversion, because there is not only much to learn, but much emotional ground to cover. Most students meet regularly with their rabbi as they move through the year or more of study. The rabbi will not schedule a beit din or the mikveh until he or she is sure that this person is ready to move forward as an adult member of the Jewish community – that is, without the special support that a candidate receives.

So don’t get in a rush. Don’t worry about “when.” Studying for conversion is a special time, a time that, once over, will never come again. A new Jew is an adult member of the community, and they’re on their own: to work on committees, to choose classes or study, to be as involved as they want. But the days of being a baby bird will be over.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process: for most, it takes at least a year, and for some, more than that. The point is not to do it quickly, but to do it well. I wish you a challenging and rewarding process!


Thinking of Conversion to Judaism? 5 Things to Do

January 26, 2014

Interested in a place at the table?

Interested in a place at the table?

This is an update of a post I made two years ago. It seems like time to revisit the topic.

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, head for the exit. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

For advice about finding a rabbi with the proper credentials for your conversion, read Choosing A Rabbi.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is a religion embedded in a People. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different.  To find congregations, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

Lately there have been some websites offering conversion to Judaism online. Before you settle for that option, read my article Online Conversion, Revisited.  

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism. Keep in mind that not all books and not all online sources are equally good; some are downright poor, so choose carefully or look for recommendations from sources you trust.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. 

And if, along the way, you realize that what you wanted was to learn about Judaism, but that it was just one step on your spiritual journey, that’s OK. There are many paths to holiness; Judaism is only one of them. I hope and pray that you will find the right path for you.


Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

January 11, 2014
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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Government Press Office (GPO)


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