Dearest to God

Dearest to God is the Convert
August 17, 2007
by Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg

A midrash, or rabbinic story, by Martin Buber, comments on Abraham’s journey to becoming a Jew, when he is called to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house. Buber writes: “Dearer to God, than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai, is the convert, for had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, quaking mountain and the loud trumpet blasts, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see nor hear any of these things, came and surrendered herself to God and took the yoke of the commandments upon her. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person? (Tanchuma Buber, Lech Lecah 6:32a).”

Buber’s words illuminate for uswhat an immense and awesome decision it is for a person, not only to choose Judaism as their religion, but also to take the formal steps of becoming a Jew. First of all, Judaism respects the religious beliefs of others, as well as the convictions of those who choose no religion. Especially, here at Ohef Sholom, anyone who seeks to be a part of our temple family participates in our community to the fullest extent that he or she feels comfortable, regardless of their religious identity. We welcome and love you as you are for who you are. Even people who are essentially living full Jewish lives don’t always choose conversion for themselves for a myriad of reasons including the desire not to hurt living parents or an inability to reconcile changing the religious identity they were born and raised with or that they share with their families of origin. And that is perfectly fine.

Yet Judaism’s openness extends to those who look to it for fulfillment and guidance through the process of conversion as well. So we turn back to Buber’s question: Why would a person, not born to our people, our legacy of historic persecution and our obligation to the commandments of the Torah, choose to surrender himself to God and take upon himself the way of life Torah demands? Here are just a few answers culled by Jews who have made the leap of faith this decision requires.

A young man I worked with years ago wrote: “The rituals, symbols and beliefs of Judaism represent certain values that are a very strong affirmation of that which I believe in. Shabbat means a willingness to set aside desire for material gain and to reaffirm the importance of family. The mezuzah means a home permeated with goodness whose residents strive to uphold righteousness for all people. To keep kosher means to act humanely towards animals, to control our base instincts and to give thanks for every meal. To study Torah means to understand the moral history of a covenant people, their struggles with humanity and with God and to understand that the struggle continues for Jews and for people of other faiths as well. The synagogue means a devotion to learning, to helping others, to developing one’s spiritual needs and to sharing all of life’s occasions with a sacred community. Lastly, the emphasis on the sanctity of life above ritual means to acknowledge that the purpose of religion is to preserve and give meaning to life.”

In other words, writes another woman who chose Judaism, “To be a Jew is to see the world as being amenable to redemption all the time; to see the world at its worst and not despair; to sense constantly, with our blood and our nerve-endings, the possibility of change. To take that as a duty – to be that vulnerable all the time – what does it do to you?” I would answer that it transforms you and compels you to be the best person you might yet be. No wonder Buber wrote that no one can be dearer to God than such a person.

For most of us, regardless of the religion of our birth, the road to Judaism involves a lengthy and multi-faceted process. There is learning about our history, traditions and practices through classes, usually Introduction to Judaism, and Torah study, and through independent study which includes a great deal of reading. Once a person expresses interest in discovering more about our faith and people, they are self-motivated to learn all they can. Time is spent studying with a rabbi or cantor as well, so that we can answer questions and provide guidance, suggestions and next steps. The process includes experiential learning as well. Interested individuals are encouraged to attend services regularly, to celebrate the holidays, to participate in the life cycle and to take part in as many rituals, programs and events as they can. Only after the student and teacher determine that Judaism has been internalized, does the candidate move toward the formal conversion.

I must say that for most, arriving at this place, especially here at Ohef Sholom, is less a conversion than a homecoming. Rabbi Forman refers to it as a Teshuvah, a return, to the place one was always meant to be. For those who make the decision, becoming a Jew is more about the next phase of a personal spiritual journey that a person has been on for many years, than it is an abrupt change in a person’s being or identity.

The final steps in this part of thatjourney include immersion in a ritual bath, or mikveh, that signifies a change of status within the community and a change of spirit within the heart. It bespeaks a desire on the part of the individual to devote her life to the ideals and values she cherishes – to live as a Jew and to be a Jew.

For men, the process can include hatafat dam brit, the taking of a drop of blood from the male organ, to symbolize circumcision for the sake of the covenant. While Reform Jews do not require this, most men I have worked with in the past fifteen years have chosen to undergo this ritual. They say it does not hurt at all and is a very meaningful, physically tangible way of linking them to our people.

All students come before a Beit Din, a rabbinic court, of three educated Jews, who ask questions about the person’s Jewish journey and why they want to be a Jew.

Finally, they arrive at the day when they affirm their commitment and the covenant before you, their community in a brief ceremony that includes their sharing of their journey with their temple family.

All of this is done voluntarily, with no coercion or pressure from anyone. We do not push people to choose dates or follow up with them to schedule additional meetings. Everything is done at a person’s natural pace and according to the dictates of their hearts. While many of us have heard of people who converted in order to marry someone Jewish, that is actually not considered a kosher reason to make the decision. Becoming a Jew is an individual act, predicated by a person’s relationship with God and our community, not on a loved one, and certainly not because of a loved one exclusively.

At Ohef Sholom, we find people choosing to join us for many reasons. Sometimes it precedes the birth of a child, or a child’s Bar or Bat mitzvah. Other times, it follows the passing of a relative one did not want to disappoint while they were living. For most, it is simply the culmination of a life long pull to our people, our values and our way of life, as in the case of the three women in our congregation who have chosen to mark their conversions this week. Mazel Tov to Simona Parvelescu Codrea who celebrated her conversion last Shabbat and to Maura Meuser and Gail Heagen who will share their stories of Teshuvah, of return, during this Shabbat. We embrace you with open arms and full hearts.

I hope we can take pride and joy in the fact they are making this choice because they love our way of life, our teachings and our people. May they inspire us to take a closer look at our own Jewish identities and to hear God’s voice calling each of us back to our tradition. May they and the New Year inspire us to meaningful lives of Torah and truth. We don’t need lightning, thunder, a quaking mountain and loud trumpet blasts; we need only listen to the still small voice within us that reminds us that Teshuvah, homecoming, is always possible. Amen.