While it might seem an unlikely setting for an influx of new Jews, Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico (www.tbspr.org) has been averaging six conversions a year.
Years ago, Rabbi Laurence Rubinstein noticed that many non-Jews were congregating at the synagogue. To engage them, he began to offer Introduction to Judaism, a 16–20 week Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) program that provides the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice (and is now available, through community partnerships, in 14 U.S. states; for more information visit urj.org/learning/classes/intro/). Held after services each Saturday, the San Juan class became popular, attracting about 80 locals. Gradually, some of the attendees expressed interest in formally converting to Judaism.
A number of Beth Shalom’s converts believe their families are descendants of conversos, Jews in Spain forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition who maintained Jewish practices in secret, such as lighting candles on Friday night or saying blessings before eating.
What brings these and other potential Jews to Judaism? “They are searching, whether they know it or not,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, New York (www.larchmonttemple.org), where about seven people convert to Judaism each year. What encourages them, he says, is the feeling of being part of a congregation “where every person has a place, where diversity is embraced, and where each story is affirmed.” Helping to foster those connections is the congregation’s Schindler Outreach Fellow, Andi Rosenthal, a lay leader and Jew-by-choice who has been specially trained by the Union for Reform Judaism to support those on the path to Judaism. Potential converts easily relate to her because she had voiced many of their questions, doubts, and hopes during her own conversion experience. Today, Rabbi Sirkman says, Rosenthal reads Torah on her father’s yarhzeit, leads shiva minyanim, and “helps model the…impact every Jew can have.”
At Temple Emanu-El in Dallas (www.tedallas.org), some 25 to 30 people convert to Judaism every year. Most conversion inquiries come from the temple’s website. “When you Google ‘Jewish conversion’ and ‘Dallas,’” says Diana Einstein, Temple Emanu-El’s Outreach Director, “the congregation comes up near the top.” Links to “conversion,” “outreach programs,” and “interfaith families” appear on the homepage, enabling potential converts to gather useful information—study requirements, resources, and personal statements from congregants who have journeyed to Judaism.
For those who are ready to take the next step, a “highly structured” and “personal” conversion process follows, so that “conversion candidates feel comfortable being part of the temple community,” Einstein says. Emanu-El matches up each conversion candidate with a trained mentor who shares some of the person’s other interests, such as cooking or bicycling. Mentors not only shepherd the candidate through the conversion process, but serve as teachers, explaining, for example, how to use the temple’s siddur (prayer book).
Jews-by-choice Bunny and Kevin Cotten became involved with Temple Emanu-El through friends. Though neither had any prior formal Jewish connection, their strong interest in Judaism prompted them to enroll in two temple-sponsored courses: “Stepping Stones to Jewish Knowledge” (largely developed by URJ Outreach and Membership Commission leader Rabbi Stephen Foster), which addresses basic Jewish topics including home, community, history, literature, and faith; and “Introduction to Judaism,” which provides opportunities to reflect on personal issues, such as feeling closer to God and creating a Jewish family. The courses “were very well done,” Bunny says, and “the staff and lay leaders were always available to answer questions.” As the couple continued on the conversion path, she says, “We enjoyed every step of the process, but mostly the one-on-one time with Rabbi Asher Knight.”
When the Cottens had to reschedule their conversion because their newborn son Graham arrived six weeks early, the process progressed from “a couple’s journey into a family’s journey,” Bunny says.” Several months later, Bunny, Kevin, and Graham visited the mikveh together as the culmination of their Jewish journey. Today, Graham attends the congregation’s pre-school; Kevin, who chose the Hebrew name “Asher” in honor of his rabbi and friend, serves on the Outreach Committee; and Bunny chairs its New Member Subcommittee, allowing her “to give back to a place that has given me so much.”
At Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey (www.bethel.urj.net), where five to ten people become Jews each year, Outreach and conversion are viewed in a holistic way, says Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck. We “consider every way the intermarried family and the non-Jew can come into contact with the congregation,” he says, “and make sure the message and spirit are welcoming and encouraging without being pushy.” The congregation involves non-Jewish parents in b’nai mitzvah study, incorporates conversion ceremonies into Shabbat services, and regularly offers the courses “Introduction to Judaism” and “A Taste of Judaism…Are You Curious?” (a free three-session URJ introductory class offered around the country, often sponsored by Union grants to a single congregation or a group of synagogues partnering in a city; for more information visit www.curiousaboutjudaism.org). Although Rabbi Gluck concedes that these endeavors demand a lot of his time, the investment, he says, “pays big dividends on many levels.”
At Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Arizona (www.emanueloftempe.org), “We don’t encourage conversion, per se,” says Rabbi Andrew Straus. “A lot of unchurched Americans are looking for a place, and seekers knock on our door. We have a really good product, and we’re proud to share what we have. Up to 20 ethnically diverse Jews-by-choice, including Hispanics who have discovered that they are Crypto-Jews and lesbians involved in interfaith relationships, join us each year. We are enriched by them as they are enriched by us.”
Rabbi Straus always meets with the people who call to discuss their interest in conversion. He encourages those who wish to go further to attend services, where the temple makes a special effort to connect them with other worshipers; to enjoy Shabbat dinners in congregants’ homes; and to participate in a mentoring program that matches them with members on the basis of age, children, shared interests (when possible), and other factors.
Those who become conversion candidates are invited to attend “New Beginnings.” This unique series of workshops and learning experiences, team-taught by clergy and trained lay leaders, engages potential converts in hands-on activities—such as lighting Shabbat candles, making challah, and visiting a Jewish bookstore—that facilitate their “becoming more involved in the life of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Straus says. Once they’ve converted, they receive further support by continuing in “New Beginnings” for another six months, selecting the activities and sessions that are most meaningful to them.
“Reform congregations have a real opportunity to be proactive,” says Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California (www.templeakiba.net), who takes to heart the “bold vision of Outreach” pioneered by former URJ President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z’l. Rabbi Shapiro simply and directly asks those in relationships with Jews whether they’ve thought about conversion. “When I sit with couples [planning a simcha], I’ll ask the non-Jewish partner: ‘Have you considered becoming Jewish?’ Once in a while, someone will respond, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but I was never able to make the first step.’” Rabbi Shapiro likens the relationship between the community and potential Jews-by-choice to that of the ancient Israelites during the exodus. “First, the Sea of Reeds had to open in order for us to enter. Then the Jews had to move forward for the Sea of Reeds to welcome them in. In the same way, individuals interested in Judaism need to take a step forward, and the Jewish community needs to embrace those people waiting at the edge.”
Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego (www.cbisd.org), which attracts 15 to 20 conversion candidates annually, uses website language that “invites newcomers to choose our programs for themselves,” says Bonnie Graff, the congregation’s program director. “‘Outreach’ implies something we do to others,” she says, so “we say our programming is designed for ‘those who are curious about Judaism, returning to Judaism, converting to Judaism, raising Jewish children, or sharing Judaism with loved ones.’” Complementing this language are “photos that represent the full spectrum of Jews at CBI and in the Jewish world, including interracial, mixed ethnicity, LGBT, and non-traditional looking Jews.”
CBI continues this “wide tent” approach during the conversion process. Recognizing that “people come to the process with different intellectual interests and ‘vigor,’” Graff says, “the clergy tailor the readings and topics to each candidate based on age, interests, and intellectual capacity.” The congregation also asks and makes sure to understand what motivates each decision, Graff says, to ensure not only that an individual is converting for the right reasons, but that he or she is being supported throughout the process.
The Union for Reform Judaism offers an array of resources to support congregations in welcoming and integrating those new to Judaism. The Belin Outreach and Membership Awards (urj.org//cong/outreach/belin) recognize outstanding Reform synagogue programming that invites and supports conversion. A program bank of additional conversion resources is available at urj.org/cong/outreach/programs. And the biannual Alexander Schindler Fellows Program for Conversion Certification trains synagogue lay leaders to work in partnership with their clergy to counsel, support, and welcome prospective Jews into the community. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.
—Jane E. Herman (JanetheWriter at rj.org), writer and assistant to Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie; and Vicky Farhi, URJ Lead Outreach Specialist