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Choosing Judaism: Organic Conversion
by Ken Chasen

During my 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 declaration?

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 Sally?

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 mikveh.

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.




 


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