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The Pleasures of Converting

Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, z"l

Originally published in Masoret, Spring 1994

Last year I received a call from a woman who reminded me that I had taught and converted her almost 15 years before.  In case I couldn’t recall who she was, she told me to think of the tallest woman I’d ever converted. With that tip, I located her in my memory.

Why the call? Her son, a yeshivah student, was celebrating his bar mitzvah the following week, and she wanted me to know how her Jewish commitment had flourished.  More immediately, she hoped I might be able to attend the bar mitzvah, even at this last-minute notice; she had searched and finally located me.

Unfortunately, my schedule prevented my going to the service, which was held on a weekday morning in a Brooklyn Orthodox congregation—but that call made my week.

Teaching would-be Jews-by-choice through the Center for Conversion to Judaism, which I founded and direct, frequently brings that sort of satisfaction – the awareness that a life has taken on new meaning with the discovery by the non-Jew, or rediscovery by the Jewish partner, of Judaism.

In fact, one of the special attractions of this work is that it frequently brings back people with Jewish roots who seek to reconnect and embrace a heritage abandoned a generation, or even centuries, ago.

A few years ago, a recent college graduate named Stacy came to see me.  Bright, alert and charming, she told me she was raised in a Catholic family.  Her mother had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in the High Bridge section of the Bronx some 30 years before. The mention of High Bridge brought back memories of its public library, to which I would take the bus for my monthly dose of reading.  I recalled how the mixed Catholic-Jewish neighborhood was dominated by the enormous Catholic church a block from the library.  Did it dominate the mind of this young girl’s mother as well?

When Stacy was about 13, her maternal grandparents came to live in their daughter’s Catholic home for two years. An aura of the Jewish Sabbath appeared with them.  This beauty and calm enchanted their grandchild, and when they moved to reside with another still-Jewish daughter, my student was doubly bereft.  But the memory of that time never left Stacy; she studied and became a most committed Jew. I often think how much comfort their granddaughter’s return would have provided the grandparents had they lived to see it.

Most conversions stem from people’s relationships with Jews.  While the majority take place before a marriage, some of the most meaningful occur many years later.  Karl Bertrand, for example, welcomed the chance to leave Mississippi for Vassar. Almost as soon as he arrived he met his wife-to-be, a bold Brooklyn Jew with a strongly Zionist background.  They married, and Karl went on to receive a social work degree.  In his professional life, he has dedicated himself to helping those in need by serving as a consultant to not-for-profit organizations.

For 17 years, his Jewish feelings grew as he was warmly welcomed into his wife’s boisterously exuberant Jewish family.  In his measured speech still laced with the tang of the South, he told me of his growing desire to share fully the life of his family and the Jewish people.  His daughter had just begun to study at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, and he thought it was time to begin the process.

Slowly he grew in commitment to Jewish life.  When he related that his home had become kosher but that he still ate shrimp on the outside, I suggested that this was a somewhat less than optimal approach.  He looked straight at me and said, “Mississippi is famous for violence, prejudice, ignorance and shrimp.  I gave up violence, prejudice and ignorance.  I thought I could keep shrimp.”

Karl, his wife and I continued to study together.  When I asked him at the mikveh, in the presence of his sister-in-law, who had flown up from Miami, and his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who had driven up from Philadelphia, if he accepted the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel and his membership in the people Israel, his response, “with all my heart,” was expressed with as much feeling as one could imagine.

Jews-by-choice are found throughout American Judaism as rabbis, synagogue and communal leaders and as just plain Jews, with the same varying levels of commitment that mark their born-Jewish brethren.

But my little part-time synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Ridgefield Park, N.J., is probably unique.  At least half of its worshipers on any Shabbat morning are Jews-by-choice, their partners and children. Four of its six officers are Jews-by-choice and one of the two born-Jewish officers is married to a convert.  I’d like to think that the Jewish commitments of converts are more explicit and articulate than those of born-Jews, but I’m also proud that they live their lives as Jews unobtrusively and quite naturally.  Fitting in as members of the Jewish people is no small feat for converts, but they do right well.

While converts have added a needed stress on the importance of simple faith in God, they have also assimilated into Jewish society, in ways both salutary and less than ideal. Like their partners, they have learned to come late to services, to feel no guilt in talking as we daven and in selecting the classic Jewish goo as their wine of choice for Kiddush!

More important, their commitment to Judaism is frequently inspiring.  When I was too eloquent about the expression of piety demonstrated by my more-than-two-mile walk to and from synagogue on Shabbat, I think of my religious vice-president, someone I converted six years before, who, without fanfare, boast or protest, walks more than four miles each way, and I am humbled.

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