Gatekeepers to Judaism

How do our community rabbis respond when potential converts come knocking? 

"I'm interested in converting to Judaism," the caller says. The number of times Hamilton's three congregational rabbis receive that kind of call is surprisingly high. Temple Anshe Sholom's Rabbi Jordan Cohen gets about a half dozen a month. For Beth Jacob's Rabbi Dan Selsberg, it's an average of two over the same period.  As for Adas Israel Rabbi Danny Green, calls of this kind take place on average about twice a year. While the numbers of inquiries about conversion may have been just as high, say, 30 years ago, the big change is that today, calls from people wanting to convert because they've fallen in love with a Jewish partner are the exception rather than the rule.

That's a marked change from how things were a generation ago, when intermarriage was spoken of in hushed tones and conversion was seen as a way to appease one's future in-laws. So, what is motivating today's converts to Judaism, and what, if anything, do they have in common? 

"It's hard to categorize," said  Cohen, who, said he receives inquiries from people as young as 16 and as old as 70, from a  "mostly Christian" background.

Selsberg commented on the varied levels of knowledge among those approaching him about the possibility of conversion. "Some people come here after having thought about it for 10 years and read every book they could get their hands on ...  other people had a dream last night."  What they share, he said, is a love for Judaism, "which could mean either they feel that the Jewish conceptions of God are true .... or they feel drawn to the mitzvot, a sense of community or Jewish tradition in general."

What of the commonly known custom, commonly depicted in television and movie scripts, of rabbis turning away conversion candidates three times before taking them seriously?  Does this actually happen in the real world?  Green's version of checking out people's level of commitment is to invite them to attend a service. 

After I meet someone for the first time, I tell them, "you know something, just start coming. And we'll meet after six weeks." I'm not pushing them away as such. I'm just creating another level within their process before we can actually sit down and talk about things in a more meaningful way."

While  Selsberg will arrange to meet with individuals in order to give them the opportunity to share their personal stories, he makes a point of telling them, "You're fine as you are," and that being welcomed into the Jewish community as an "ohev Yisrael" (literally, lover of the people, Israel) is something that does not require conversion.

Cohen, too, encourages people to simply learn, explore and participate in community life. "We never push people," he said, but instead offers to mentor them through a process "and then in a year's time ...  we'll talk about final steps towards conversion."

The 12-month time frame is pretty much the standard.  For those converting through Temple Anshe Sholom the process involves joining the synagogue, attending services and registering for the 10-month long Jewish Information Course, a program of study shared among the Hamilton, Oakville and Mississauga Reform congregations.  "What that means is from the time they enter into the process, they've had at least one opportunity to experience everything that goes on in a Jewish calendar year," said Rabbi Cohen, who, through monthly meetings with candidates, plays the role of personal mentor. 

Preferring to mentor people individually in one-on-one meetings rather than send them to Toronto for the Conservative movement's course of study, Selsberg requires candidates to attend services and adult education classes and work their way through an extensive reading list.  

"I tell them to keep a notebook, both in classes on what they're reading and as they go about their day to write down their questions," he said, "like (reading) a story on abortion and they want to know what Jews think about abortion," he said. 

Green also presents candidates with a reading list and an independent study paper which they have to work through. The most important criteria for him, however, is that participants fully engage in community life.  

"You can have people that are on their own personal spiritual odyssey ...  They can keep Shabbat, they can keep kosher, they can keep everything. But they don't feel that they're part of the Jewish community per se," he said. "If they can't find their place in the synagogue, then the conversion can't really take place."  

For Green, mentoring adults through conversion is much less common than his converting children born to non-Jewish mothers or in the case of adoption. "The truth is it's a different process for children," he said. "The main goal of a conversion is the accepting of the mitzvoth. The child doesn't have the mindset to accept anything ...  It's a different kind of process, which makes it somewhat easier to facilitate."

Upon completion of their course of study, candidates appear before a Beit Din, or rabbinical court, that consists of either four or five rabbis or other individuals deemed as having the required knowledge and level of observance by the sponsoring rabbi. The process of a group of learned individuals question candidates regarding their level of knowledge, personal practice of Judaism and relationship with families of origin is seen as the last opportunity to measure their commitment before welcoming them into the fold. 

After the Beit Din has accepted the candidate comes the sine-qua-non of conversion that all of Hamilton's rabbis adhere to, is mikvah and milah Ñ ritual immersion and circumcision.  Because Jewish law dictates that even men who were circumcised at birth must go through a process called "hatafat dam,"  every male candidate most undergo a ritual in which a single drop of blood is taken from the corona of skin that surrounds the head of the penis. While the procedure is often done in a physician's office in the presence of a rabbi, Selsberg most often has candidates perform the ritual in his office using the same kind of disposable devices used to check blood sugar levels. 

"It's more squeamish than painful," he said. " It's very foreign to all of polite society and at the same time ...  this isn't Seinfeld episodes and bagels and lox. Brit milah is a core value of Jewish life and it's hugely powerful." 

Cohen acknowledges that, even with mikvah and milah, those who convert to Judaism through the Reform movement are unlikely to be accepted as Jews in the Orthodox world. But in light of recent moves among certain elements of Israel's Orthodox community to nullify the conversions supervised by other Orthodox rabbis,  Cohen said there is no longer any such thing as a universally accepted conversion.

"In a way I find that very liberating ... it's really about finding the place that's right for you and going through the conversion process that's going to be acceptable by that congregation or by that rabbi." 

In the final moments of the Beit Din process, a candidate is asked to formally renounce all of his previous beliefs and practices. The drama continues to build, said  Selsberg, with a series of  yes and no questions leading to the final question:  Do you bind your own personal destiny with the destiny of the people of Israel? "They say 'yes' and it's a wonderful moment," he said, "because that's really the core of it all." 



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