June 1, 2006
‘Because Judaism Feels Right’
A sense of connection, belonging, and a return to roots draws converts.
Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.
-- The Book of Ruth
When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic -- not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.
It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: "Why do you always talk about Jews?"
"Your father's grandfather came from Spain," his mother replied.
Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was "Ben Torah." (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)
Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura's spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 -- a minyan of sorts -- mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles' pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.
With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.
Muroff's group represents a new breed of converts.
"There's usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting," Muroff said.
By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.
They are not unlike Judaism's most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.
"Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul," Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.
Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls "seekers."
"These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah," he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. "You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically," he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.
No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.
"What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives," Muroff said. "They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways," he said.
He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.
Of course, people who convert "for marriage" can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.
"These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that's not the only reason," he said. "There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism."
No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are "blessings" to the community, Schulweis said.
"They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment," he said. "They elevate the congregation."
Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: "I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions," he said.
His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso -- Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home -- in Leon, Mexico.
"I wanted to find out more about my faith and background," said Perez, now 22, "and my father said, 'Well, if you're not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'"
Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. "I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family," he said. "After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link."
Many spiritual converts talk about a "special feeling" for Judaism.
Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name "Shmaryahu" -- meaning God watched over him -- said it ultimately wasn't just his lineage that prompted him to convert.
"When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God," he said.
He told his wife, Rosie -- renamed Esther at her conversion -- and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.
His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, "If you go, we'll go" -- echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.
Susanne Shier, another of Muroff's group, didn't know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang "Hatikvah" -- Israel's national anthem.
"I started crying, and then I said to myself, 'Now wait a minute -- I'm not Jewish. Why am I crying?' And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don't know it."
She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff's class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.
"I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai," she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other "Jewish souls" -- and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.
"I've been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me," Shier said. "But some things don't make sense to my rational mind. There's something in my heart that tells me something different."
She and her son decided to convert. "It wasn't really a difficult decision for us," she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they'd immersed the week before.)
Shier's son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.
"When you need that surgery, that's when you decide if you really want to convert," said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.
"I never liked church," he said. "I didn't feel like I belonged there," he said. When he went to synagogue, "I really liked it. It was a new experience,"
Sometimes it's a double whammy -- being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.
"People already look down on you," he said. But for the most part -- except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from -- he has enjoyed being Jewish: "I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community."