June 5, 1997
Finding Their Way
Jews by Choice
"Sometimes, when I play at Jewish weddings, I have to explain to them that the kiddush should come before the motzi, the blessing of the bread."
Like most converts, the Hardins take the precepts of their adopted faith more seriously than many born to it, and they display an intense hunger for knowledge, as if to make up for what they missed during their childhoods.
The Hardins were among eight Jews-by-choice who spoke at recent services at Valley Beth Shalom; they brought along their infant son, Benjamin, to receive his Hebrew name.
Jennifer, a professional singer and actress, was raised in a largely secular home in Bakersfield but was baptized as a Lutheran at age 12. By her late teens, she started to question various dogmas of Christianity and defined herself as an agnostic.
In her mid-20s, she moved to Los Angeles and befriended a Jewish family, who invited her to a seder.
"I had never experienced a holiday so deeply, with such profound symbolism and emotions," she says. Turned on, Jennifer started visiting different synagogues, enrolled in University of Judaism classes and read books on Judaism.
She hadn't known one Jew in Bakersfield, but, in Los Angeles, "I started hanging around Jewish people, though I felt somewhat self-conscious about it," Jennifer says.
She met Christopher on a "Love Boat" cruise to Alaska, where she was performing as a singer and he as a member of the band. When their relationship became serious, Jennifer told her husband-to-be that she was considering becoming a Jew.
Christopher, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, told her, "I would be supportive, but I had no wish to convert."
His attitude changed when their daughter, Calah (Hebrew for bride), was born. "I felt that she would need some spiritual guidance and that I wouldn't be able to give it to her," he says.
Christopher attended his first Rosh Hashanah service, conducted by Temple Judea, and, while listening, experienced an "eerie feeling of connection," he says.
Encouraged by Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea, the couple enrolled in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism. The six-month course, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, has served as a beginning to advanced training program for thousands of born and aspiring Jews for more than 30 years.
"The course was very intense," says Jennifer. "In six months, we had to absorb 4,000 years of history, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Hebrew prayers."
Classes ended with an extensive examination, which students had to repeat until they got all the answers right.
(Sample question: List in order, starting from the fall, the Jewish holidays on the Jewish calendar. Explain the meaning of each holiday. List some of the symbols or objects associated with the holiday.)
Jennifer passed the test on her second go. Christopher says proudly, "I nailed it on the first try."
Next came the hearing before the beit din, a three-person rabbinical court; immersion in a mikvah; and, for Christopher, a symbolic bris (he had already been circumcised).
After some shul searching, the Hardins settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Jennifer sings in the temple choir, and Christopher serves on the Jewish Music Commission.
"We feel very comfortable and have encountered some of the kindest people we've ever met and who share our values," Christopher says.
They fondly remember their initial contact. "When we first came in, we asked Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the executive director, if there were any programs for converts," Christopher said. "He said there weren't any, adding, 'You're as much Jews as I am.'"
There are some collective sorrows, such as personal ties to Holocaust victims or the sting of anti-Semitism, that lie outside the Hardins' own experience, Jennifer acknowledges.
"We just feel an incredible sadness," says Jennifer, who adds, "We would rather be with the persecuted than the persecutors." -- Tom Tugend