seminary years, my teachers prepared me to escort men and women who wished to
become Jews through a comprehensive and carefully sculpted process of Jewish
discovery: there were books to be read, classes to be taken, practices to be
observed, museums to be visited, holidays to be celebrated. Whenever a
congregant said, “Rabbi, I would like to convert to Judaism,” I would be
prepared to respond.
But what was I to do with those congregants who would not make such a
Just weeks into my first job as a rabbi, I was called upon to co-officiate at
a bris and naming service for a baby boy born to the Weingartens, active
congregants at our temple. This was their third child. The father, Steve, was
Jewish; the mother, Sally, was not. Steve and Sally embraced the reasons for
circumcising their son le’shem gerut (for the purpose of his ritual
conversion), and yet a mother who wasn’t a Jew would still raise him. “Perhaps I
should offer Sally an opportunity to pursue conversion,” I thought. “Maybe she
needs me to raise the subject.” But I could not bring myself to do it. An inner
voice said: This is not your process to start.
Over the next few months, I discovered the distinctiveness of Sally’s Jewish
soul. Having never been pressured by Steve to convert, she was freed to explore
Judaism organically and inquisitively. It did not take long for Sally to surpass
even Steve as the clear driving force for their family’s spirited engagement in
Jewish observance and learning at our temple. A frequent Shabbat worshiper, she
sang the words of the siddur (prayer book) with joyous conviction. As a
regular student in our weekly Torah portion class, she offered incisive comments
that often echoed the teachings of our greatest sages. She was wholly committed
to synagogue voluntarism as well. Sally was everything a rabbi could want in a
congregant. She just didn’t happen to be a Jew.
While Sally and I were still getting to know each other, her mother died.
Quickly, a spontaneous "shiva" gathering unfolded at the home of this
Episcopalian woman who had lost her Episcopalian mother. Our congregants, young
and old, came to fulfill the commandment of nichum avelim (comforting the
mourner). I remained in the house until the other visitors departed. As the
embers in the fireplace died down, Sally and I sat in the living room and talked
about her childhood home, her mother’s parenting, her Christian upbringing in
numerous towns and cities in the U.S. and abroad. And then, finally, I could no
longer resist asking her the question.
"Sally, do you ever think about converting to Judaism?"
Her answer came quickly. "Not really."
I could hardly conceal my surprise. "You’re so deeply immersed in our Jewish
community," I said. “Look at this turnout tonight. Don’t you feel like you just
ought to be a Jew?”
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be honored to be a Jew,” Sally explained. “But it
doesn’t feel right to me. I hold the Jewish people in such high regard—almost in
awe. It’s such a remarkable heritage…such a deeply meaningful history. It
doesn’t feel to me like something one can rightly choose. I’m proud to live
among the Jewish people and to bestow Jewish identity upon my children. I don’t
know, however, if I could ever imagine feeling as though I am, in fact, a Jew.
Does that make sense?”
“Of course…that’s fine,” I said, not wanting to seem like a proselytizing
bully, but wondering whether her statement actually did make sense.
Over the next few years, Sally’s Jewish worship, study, and family practices
intensified. She even became a key participant on a temple task force that
created and shepherded a variety of new experimental models for lifelong Jewish
education. Sally’s "non-Jewishness" seemed increasingly incongruous, yet I
couldn’t bring myself to revisit the conversion question.
Then, one afternoon, four years after our conversation, Sally poked her head
into my office and said, “Rabbi, do you have a second? I’d like to know what’s
involved in the conversion process. I think I want to convert to Judaism.”
Stunned, I asked, “You once told me that conversion was really not an option
for you—what changed?”
“It’s hard to describe,” Sally replied. “This past Friday at services, a
wonderful feeling of home washed over me. During L’cha Dodi, I
looked over at Marge Miller [a past temple president], who was singing her heart
out. She’s there all the time, just like me. This is our place; Shabbat is our
time. We smiled warmly at one another and I had this compelling feeling of
profound communion and solidarity. It somehow reopened the conversion question
in my mind. Perhaps, I thought, I am no longer with the Jews…I am now of the
Jews. Judaism isn’t a choice for me to consider anymore; I have already chosen
it. So what’s the process for me to convert?”
As my heart filled with joy for Sally, her family, and our community, I
focused on her question. It was different than the one my teachers had prepared
me to answer. What should be the conversion process for someone like
Instinctively, I took my cue from her. “Agreed,” I said. “You have already
chosen Judaism. So I’m not going to send you to a class or ask you to read a
book that you’ve probably already read. What’s the ‘process’ for you to convert?
The past 20 years have been your process. Let’s study Hebrew names together and
make a good choice for you, and then let’s book a date for beit din and
Sally was overjoyed. And so was I.
Through the years, I’ve frequently reconsidered Sally’s question: “What is
the process for me to convert?”
In many ways, she and our congregation had instinctively forged a natural
path for her becoming a Jew without the “product-driven” direction of a
conversion process. Sally’s—or any congregant’s—interest in discovering Judaism
did not dictate a change in formal religious identity. Our congregation welcomed
interfaith families sensitively and enthusiastically. The presence of other men
and women like her strengthened her willingness to seek religious community for
herself, and not just for her children. No one thought of her or treated her as
a disappointment because she was disinterested in conversion; and neither did
anyone seek to make her choice not to convert irrelevant by treating her
ritually as a Jew. Because she was respected and honored for exactly who she
was, she knew that she would also be respected and honored as a Jew if ever she
chose to become one.
Sally’s “process” also included a rabbi who asked
her directly—albeit perhaps too sheepishly—if she might be interested in
conversion. While it would be wholly inappropriate for a Jew to pressure
non-Jews to choose Judaism, so would refraining from asking at all. Silence
might convey that we don’t care about them, that we don’t notice them, that
their conversion doesn’t matter to us, or even worse, that we’d rather they
refrain from joining us.
Today, when social identity categories are more
fluid than ever, an increasing number of trajectories may lead to the choice of
Judaism. We, as a Jewish community, need to be ready to create the
conditions—the conversion “process”—that will meet the moment.
Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Templein Los Angeles. At the time
he was serving as assistant rabbi at Westchester Reform Templein Scarsdale, NY.
This article is adapted with permission from Judaism: Embracing the
Seeker, edited by Michael Halperin, copyright © 2010 Valley Beth Shalom,
published by KTAV Publishing House, Inc.