What is your most powerful Jewish memory? Your bubbe’s creased hands as she covered her eyes before the flickering Shabbat candles? The sharp bite of maror and the sweet taste of grape juice at your parents’ seder table? Your first kiss at summer camp?
These moments form indelible memories that shape our identities in profound and lasting ways. No matter how far we drift from the synagogue or the Shabbat table, the rhythms of Jewish life continue to be familiar to us. If pressed, we can still mouth the Hebrew words we learned when we were young, or we catch ourselves humming our favorite Hebrew tunes in the shower. We look in the mirror and we see the eyes of our parents and our grandparents looking back at us.
But, for the few thousand adults who convert to Judaism each year, this foundation of memories and scaffold of associations wasn’t built in their early years. Powerful memories are not the stuff of 18-week courses or “Judaism for Dummies” books; these experiences take time, often years, to become part of a new and vital identity. Too often, our Jewish community leaves these brand-new Jews dripping at the mikveh, with little or no clue how to actually “do Jewish.”
We are great at preparing people for conversion. Los Angeles has robust community- and synagogue-based programs — including the one I lead at American Jewish University — that offer candidates months of in-depth learning and spiritual coaching, forming a deep investment in their individual growth. But we fall short in providing the ongoing support necessary to help these new members of the tribe navigate the long and sometimes arduous process of integration into the Jewish community. Instead, they are often offered little more than a handshake as they are handed their documents and given a blessing. Many of them have no clue what to do next.
It is a tragic fact that for some Jews by Choice, the most Jewishly they will ever live is in the lead-up to the mikveh, not during the balance of their lives as actual Jews. This is a particular risk for those who convert without having a Jewish partner. In other words, this most committed group — men and women who are joining the Jewish People purely out of love for Judaism — are the most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. It is not uncommon for such people to ultimately lose the spark that brought them to Judaism to begin with.
Of course, this is a vexing issue in many arenas of Jewish life. Families cry together about the value of Torah and tradition while standing on the bimah at their children’s bat and bar mitzvahs, after which they never show their faces in shul again. Teenagers pray and sing with enthusiasm that verges on ferocity at United Synagogue Youth and BBYO conventions, only to leave for college, where they will never set foot in Hillel. Alumni of Birthright Israel come home from their transformative 10-day experience, do one Google search for “how to make aliyah,” and then settle right back into their previously scheduled lives.
Our greatest challenge as a community is no longer in creating powerful, life-changing experiences for our people. We have already succeeded in creating extraordinary camps, schools, shuls, Israel programs and introduction-to-Judaism classes. Our greatest challenge is to help people carry these experiences into their daily lives, to nurture their spark even when they are not actively in the midst of an immersive, curated experience.
This is not to say that we haven’t been trying. At the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, we launched “INTRO 2.0,” a cohort of alumni that meets monthly for activities ranging from visits to Jewish museums, to holiday picnics, to interactive learning with major Jewish scholars. Other programs and synagogues offer similar experiences, including Shabbat meals or special learners’ services. However, these programs always have been somewhat on the margins rather than where they belong: at the heart of our work toward Jewish continuity.
We need a real communal investment in resources and programs to help brand-new Jews translate their passion into action. We need mentoring programs, a universal policy of complementary synagogue memberships, ongoing learning opportunities and affordable Israel experiences for those whose connection with Eretz Yisra’el is not inborn.
In the wake of last year’s Pew Research Center report and the increased panic over the Jewish future, this should be a central concern of the entire Jewish community. When we leave a new convert dripping at the mikveh, we squander one of our most precious resources, one of the keys to growing a robust Jewish population.
Chances are your Jewish identity took a lot longer than 18 weeks to form. We must come together to support our new Jews for the long haul. They have chosen to cast their lot with us. We must remember that our lot is tied up with theirs.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the director of the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest preparatory program for those considering conversion to Judaism in North America. This year, Greenwald was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Jewish Daily Forward.