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Jewish Journal

A Retreat to Comfort Converts

by Gaby Wenig

October 7, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Harold Schulweis tells a joke about a Jewish man who complains to his father after marrying a convert.

"What am I going to do with her? She wants to go the synagogue every week; she wants the house to be kosher. I didn't sign up for this," the man says.

His father replies, "I told you not to marry out of the faith."

The joke underscores a number of concerns that face Jews-by-choice once they take the leap into Judaism. And while Jews-by-choice can be more inspired about Judaism than Jews-by-birth, they may be stigmatized by some members of the Jewish community who look upon their decision to convert as being a less-legitimate entry into the faith.

Issues like these make up the core of the Embracing Judaism Shabbaton, a learning and fellowship retreat for Jews-by-choice that will be held later this month at the University of Judaism. The Shabbaton, the first of its kind, represents a milestone in the outreach efforts toward converts -- a way of showing that the Jewish community is both cognizant of their needs and ready to accommodate them. For Jews-by-choice, the Shabbaton is designed to help them embrace Judaism and to allow them to network with others who share the life-altering experience of choosing Judaism over another religion.

"There was a feeling that Jews do not proselytize, but that is historically false," said Schulweis, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. "In the daily Amidah prayer we praise God for gerei tzedek [righteous converts], and throughout the Bible it is repeated 36 times that 'you should love the stranger,' and the same word, ger, is used for stranger that we now use for converts."

Unlike Christianity, which has actively tried to encourage conversions, traditional Judaism has been wary of foisting its faith on others. According to halacha, or Jewish law, potential converts are meant to be discouraged three times before being accepted as worthy candidates for conversion. But once someone converts, he or she is not meant to be stigmatized by the community for not having been born Jewish.

Schulweis, who will be participating in the Shabbaton, thinks that the Jewish community needs to do more to make itself open to those who come from other religions to seek the faith, and that converts should be encouraged, not discouraged.

"I think we have not taken advantage of the unusual curiosity and interest in Judaism showed by engaged, mature people who have a theological and spiritual thirst for Judaism, but who never got the impression that they were cordially invited [into the faith]," he said. "I think that the term 'Jews-by-choice' came about as counter to the notion of 'Chosen People,' as a mark of choice over fate."

But while traditional Judaism teaches that those who convert should be accepted into the community just like any other Jew, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who runs the Introduction to Judaism course at the University of Judaism and organized the Shabbaton, thinks that integration might not be so easy for Jews-by-choice

"After people convert to Judaism we leave them dripping at the mikvah," said Weinberg, referring to the final stage of the conversion process, when the convert immerses in a ritual bath.

"We expect them now to all of a sudden become part of the Jewish community, but it is all new and people don't feel that comfortable," he said. "The purpose of the Shabbaton is that it be a next step for people to be able to network together and talk to people who have chosen Judaism. We don't want to remind them about their prior status [as non-Jews], but Jews-by-choice have needs that are not being met."

Weinberg said he decided to organize the Shabbaton because he often receives phone calls around the High Holidays from people who have been through his program, asking him to recommend synagogues they can attend.

"I say, 'What about your sponsoring synagogue?'" he said, referring to the fact that Jews-by-choice need a sponsoring synagogue when they convert. "People feel really excited when they convert, but because the Jewish partner wasn't enthusiastic enough, sometimes they fall back."

"I also just got a phone call from a guy whose wife took our program 10 years ago, and they moved out of town and got divorced," Weinberg said. "She took the kids with her and enrolled them in a Christian school, and they will be raised as Christians. Had she developed a [stronger] Jewish identity [that wouldn't have happened]. When you feel Jewish, there is nothing more that you want to be."

Weinberg structured the Shabbaton to bolster the sense of faith and community for Jews-by-choice. It includes services that are run by Jews-by-choice success stories, such as Rabbi John Crites-Borak of Temple Ner Maarav; actress Lorna Lembeck, who is now studying to be a cantor; and actress Mare Winningham.

The Shabbaton will also have a number of workshops on issues pertaining to Jews-by-choice, such as: "Developing a Jewish Identity," "Negotiating Observance With Your Jewish Partner" and "Being Single, Being Jewish -- Finding Your Way in the Jewish Community." In addition, there will be a panel discussion on diversity in the Jewish community.

All the workshops are meant to encourage integration into the Jewish community and to bridge the gap between the experience of growing up Jewish and taking it on later in life.

"One of the issues early on with me, was that I grew up thinking of myself as Italian," said Gary Gentile, a business writer who converted to Judaism six years ago. "I had a problem thinking of myself as Jewish."

"The first Yom Kippur service that I went to in New York. [My hosts] were all sitting around and talking at the meal before the fast, saying things like, 'My parents said don't eat so much salt,' or 'Drink a lot,' so you can fast easier, and I had never celebrated these things before," Gentile said. "I felt I didn't belong."

Gentile, 47, now considers himself a Jew, not a Jew-by-choice, but he still wants to attend the Shabbaton for the being single workshop and because it will be like a "high school reunion" for people who went through the Introduction to Judaism course with him.

Other converts have the challenge of getting their Jewish families as enthused as they are about their new faith. Lembeck, who converted to Judaism years after she married her Jewish husband, director Michael Lembeck, said that getting the family to start practicing Judaism is a slow, ongoing process.

"We start with lighting candles [on Friday night], then we might add the Motzi [the blessing over the bread] and then maybe Birkat ha'Mazon [grace after meals] -- but that is over a period of years," Lembeck said. "The big mistake of the convert is to come running into the house and expect everything to be changed presto."

"My husband was raised in a wonderful Jewish family, but his family was very secular," she said. "They had a strong Jewish identity, but they were not particularly religious."

Lembeck said she had been drawn to Judaism her whole life, but she only seriously considered converting after her daughter asked her, "Am I Christmas or am I Chanukah? I need to know what I am."

"That lead to a lot of conversations in our household," Lembeck said. "I was drawn to having a Jewish household, but I didn't know how to do it. When I started the [Introduction to Judaism] program, I didn't know the AlefBet or how to do a candle blessing. Now I lead services in congregations."

But some rabbis believe that a Shabbaton for converts might be interesting but redundant.

"My real feeling is if the proper job has been in the conversion process, then [Jews-by-choice] are inherently going to be the most active members of the Jewish community," said Rabbi David Rue, the head rabbi of the Bet Din of Los Angeles, an Orthodox religious court. "Most members of the Jewish community are not particularly active. But people who go through the conversion process -- the men end up going to shul every day, the women go every Shabbos, and they are more active than then vast majority of the people in their communities. If the person doesn't have a Jewish identity, then why are you converting them?"

Rue said that his court receives 1,500 conversion applications every year. Of those, he said, one-third of the applications come from Christians trying to infiltrate the Jewish community to convert other Jews, and another third come from people "that are crazy." Of the remaining third, half drop out after an initial interview, where Rue explains the kind of commitment required to lead an Orthodox life.

"That cuts it down to 200 people, and then you get all sorts of reasons why things don't work out," Rue said. "So we [ended up with] 64 conversions out of 1,500 applicants [a year]. But I can say that after five years, at least 95 percent [of the people his court converted] are still observant."

Rue also said that issues of household religious observance need to be negotiated before a couple marries.

"If you don't deal with things before people convert, it only gets worse later," he said. "When people aren't on the same page religiously, or close to it, when they get married, the chances of them staying married are very low."

However, other rabbis believe that the Shabbaton will fill a real need in the community.

"I wish that the Conservative movement would make this into a national policy and would encourage all synagogues to have a proactive, proselytizing outreach program," Schulweis said.

Embracing Judaism, the Angel and Alan Schneider Family Shabbaton for Jews-by-choice, will take place Oct. 29-30 at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-1273.

The Shabbaton is open to Jews-by-choice from all denominations.

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