On Shavuot, An Exploration Of Contemporary Issues Surrounding Conversion

By Simone Ellin
Senior features reporter

Next week, Jews celebrate Shavuot. The holiday, which falls this year on May 15 and 16, commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago.

On Shavuot, it is customary to read The Book of Ruth.  Therein, Ruth the Moabite, also known as a “righteous convert,” tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, of her desire to convert.

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16).

Some say Ruth’s conversion symbolizes the conversion or spiritual transformation all Jews are said to have undergone after receiving the Torah. After her conversion, Ruth goes on to give birth to Jesse, who will grow up to be the father of David, the King of Israel.

Some of the complex issues surrounding conversion are still evolving and relevant today.

Meet Gerry Gilstrop. It’s been more than 30 years since the day that Gilstrop, now 47, approached the registrar at Baltimore Hebrew University (now Institute) seeking permission to register for a course in Biblical Hebrew, the first step in a journey that would ultimately lead him to convert to Judaism. Gilstrop’s search began as a means of understanding the questions of his own Christian faith. Since his conversion in his late teens, there have been many rewards, but it hasn’t always been easy.

Like the time in 1990 when he and his family attended a service at a local Conservative congregation and an usher tried to tear atallit off his shoulders.

“As we were walking into the sanctuary, I attempted to put on a tallit, but then I noticed this lady was pulling it off my shoulders. Finally, I realized she didn’t think I should have the tallit on. So I asked her, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said, ‘Because you don’t need it.’ ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘Because you’re not Jewish.’  ‘Actually, I am Jewish.’”

Rebecca Pepkowitz, Gilstrop’s wife, was irate. She said she was going to rebuke the congregation. But Gilstrop calmed her down.

“‘Relax,’ I said to my wife. ‘Hashem will fix this,’” Gilstrop recalled.

The following week, Gilstrop and Pepkowitz were picking up Pepkowitz’s son from Krieger Schechter Day School when they noticed a sale on tallitot in the Chizuk Amuno gift shop.

“We had been looking for a tallit for Gerry for our upcoming wedding, so we decided to go into the store,” Pepkowitz recalled. “Who was there but the same lady who tried to pull the tallit off Gerry’s shoulders? Just at that moment, one of the congregation’s rabbis ran down the hall and grabbed Gerry in a big bear hug. ‘Congratulations. I hear you’re getting married!’ He looked at me and said, ‘You are getting such a talmid chacham (Jewish scholar) for a husband!’ The lady’s eyes met Gerry’s and her face turned bright purple. Hashem fixed it,” said Pepkowitz.

While experiences such as this are painful to recollect, Gilstrop stressed he isn’t bitter. He celebrates his decision to convert to Judaism and the place he has found in Baltimore’s Jewish community. Currently, the couple prays at B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Baltimore. Gilstrop is enrolled as a rabbinical student at Metivta Le Yahadut in Teaneck, N.J.

Today, Gilstrop is focusing on what he calls one of the Jewish people’s “most serious challenges: how to positively transmit Judaism and Jewish values in a halachic manner, which is interesting and fun for Jews of all backgrounds or denominations, yet which is in sync with the demographic challenges of ethno-racial diversity. This will definitely affect the daily life of those within the American Jewish community by the year 2050.”

Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Pikesville’s Conservative Beth El Congregation said lately there has been debate within the Conservative movement regarding the question of “how hard or how easy it should be for people to convert. Some say it should be really challenging so converts feel they have gone through a strenuous process, while others believe we should make it easy. They say we should let them become Jewish and then they can run with it.”

In terms of acceptance, Rabbi Schwartz believes converts today have less difficulty becoming a part of the Jewish community than they did in past generations.

“I think it was more challenging 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Younger people by and large don’t think twice about it. In the older demographic, I think it’s harder to get their heads around [conversion] because the perception is that Judaism is ethnic. Clearly, there’s an ethnic piece to Judaism. However, it’s not just ethnic. It’s also a religion.”

Schwartz noted, for example, that a person cannot convert “to be Italian,” but can convert to Judaism.

You Don’t Look Jewish
In Victoria Abraira’s experience, converts such as herself are accepted and welcome.

Born in Argentina, Abraira, a 32-year-old scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, came to the U.S. when she was 12. Although her immediate family was secular, she grew up among Spanish and Argentinian Catholics. Yet, Abraira also has a close Jewish ancestor.

“The story goes that my grandfather, who was Jewish, paid off a priest to marry my grandmother. I think it was a well-known secret that he was Jewish, but no one ever talked about it.  My grandmother ‘officially’ found out because she realized that my grandfather was circumcised, and that was rare in Spanish countries,” said Abraira, who is married to Max Tischfield, a Jewish man.

“My mother knew because of stories she would hear about [her father] and his family, and she would tell me about them.  Nearly on her death bed, and after finding out that I was dating Max, my grandmother finally admitted that my grandfather was Jewish. At that point, I think everyone knew, but I think that she really wanted to tell me herself,” Abraira said.

Abraira said her mother had a special bond with her father, Abraira’s grandfather.

“She felt she should have been Jewish too,” Abraira said, noting that her mother would always encourage her to “find a Jewish man.”

“When I met Max and told her he was Jewish, my mother said, ‘I am so happy for you. Your grandfather was a Jew and he was so good to your grandmother,’” Abraira said, noting her conversion has made her feel she is keeping her grandfather’s memory alive.

Abraira’s husband was raised in a Reform Jewish family in New Jersey. His mother was also a convert to Judaism.

“When Max and I got really serious and I was introduced at big family events, people would ask, ‘Victoria seems very smart, but is she Jewish?’ Max would say, ‘Why does it matter?’” Abraira recalled.

Despite questions about her religious background, Abraira said her husband’s family has been nothing but welcoming.

“I never felt pressured by them,” she said.

Nonetheless, Abraira decided to convert.

She attended weekly classes with assigned readings and discussions, met with Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, a Reform rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, once a month and eventually immersed in themikvah.

“The heater wasn’t working that day and it was freezing cold, and it was not the most comfortable experience. But in the end, it was the most memorable. I emerged feeling the mikvah was a great symbol of my new life as a Jew and with my husband,” she said.

Although she has often been told she doesn’t look Jewish, Abraira isn’t bothered.

“I’m used to it. People always told me I didn’t look Argentinian either,” she said. “It’s interesting that Jews judge other Jews by how they look. When I tell people I converted and they know about my grandfather being Jewish, they say, ‘Well, you were already kind of Jewish.’ The fact that I didn’t have any previous [Christian] training seems to make people more comfortable with my conversion.”

As a Reform Jew, Abraira realizes her conversion may not be accepted by Jews of other denominations, something she was told by Rabbi Sachs-Kohen
during the conversion process.

“But that didn’t matter to me,” said Abraira. “I don’t want to be Orthodox. In fact, Rabbi Sachs-Kohen wouldn’t be viewed as a rabbi by Orthodox standards. I liked the fact that she converted me because she also has to struggle with being accepted. If a female rabbi can find acceptance, I can too.”
Back to School
In Baltimore, the Board of Rabbis offers a class taught by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox rabbis for people wishing to convert to Judaism.  Reform Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom is one of the teachers.

“It’s a 16-week college-level Introduction to Judaism class. Each student also has a rabbinic mentor,” said Rabbi Fink.

Although the course is taught by rabbis from four denominations, the rabbi said that does not create conflicts.

“Jewish history is the same regardless of the denomination,” said Rabbi Fink.

Rabbi Fink said that prospective converts are encouraged to attend services at a variety of synagogues in order to decide what congregation and rabbi feels best for them.

“It is not unusual for a student to change from one synagogue and rabbi to another. There has to be chemistry,” he explained.

After completing the Introduction to Judaism course and independent study with the sponsoring rabbi, males who convert go through hatafat dam brit or a circumcision. Hatafat dam brit applies to non-Jewish males who were already circumcised. In this case, a drop of blood is drawn from the penis, a symbol of religious circumcision.

If the man is not circumcised, he undergoes that medical and religious procedure.

Although hatafat dam brit, is optional in some Reform congregations, it is required at both Baltimore Hebrew and Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

Once these requirements are met, both male and female converts must appear before the Beit Din, rabbinic court. Three members of the Beit Din are witness to the conversion and are charged with validating it. Then the person completes his conversion by going to the mikvah.

Rabbi Fink said that in most cases his conversions are accepted, but not all local Orthodox synagogues will accept a Reform conversion. This fact, said the rabbi, “makes me sad. This is the dividing line between two separate communities.”

Rabbi Schwartz also voiced concerns about this division and said he believes it has become nearly impossible for prospective converts to meet the demands of the Orthodox religious authorities.

But Rabbi Shmuel Silber of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim said he does not wish to make this a divisive issue. The standards for Orthodox conversions, he acknowledged, are different from those of the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements.

“It is challenging for Reform or Conservative Jews to become Orthodox [without another conversion]. As much as there is one Torah, each person is where they are in terms of their observance. At the end of the day, there are different expectations. It’s like when you get a driver’s license. A license in the U.S. is different from a license in another country,” he explained.

Rabbi Silber said converting is an “awesome undertaking,” noting that when people express interest in converting to Judaism, Orthodox rabbis are required to turn them away three times.

“We tell people who want to convert, ‘You can be a righteous gentile who is beloved by God. Jews have been persecuted forever. Do you really want to make this commitment?’” explained Rabbi Silber. “We don’t want buyer’s remorse. There is a lot that’s wonderful in a Jewish lifestyle, but it takes a lot of sacrifice. We want them to know what’s in the fine print. If after that, they still want to convert, we are astounded by their spiritual strength. We have a reverence and awe of the convert. God understands human nature. He realizes that people tend to associate with people like themselves. That’s why the Torah tells us to be especially sensitive — to go out of our way — to support the convert.”

Rabbi Silber said there is no uniform time frame or process for Orthodox conversion. There is rigorous study and a commitment to observance, and the person converting must become familiar with the customs, which generally requires a minimum of one year so the potential convert can go through the Jewish holiday cycle.

“Some people may have been studying for years before their conversions, others may have no Jewish experience, so it will take longer for them. Conversion is really a custom-made process,” he said.

Belonging, Behaving, Believing
The Reconstructionist movement views conversion through a different lens. Based on the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan, the process starts with an emphasis on making the prospective convert feel welcome as a member of the Jewish people.

“Kaplan was first to articulate the process of moving from belonging to behaving to believing,” said Rabbi Geoff Basik, spiritual leader of Reconstructionist Congregation Kol HaLev.

“The conversion process is not “one size fits all” or “cookie-cutter,” he said. “To some extent it is self-directed, in accordance with the needs and interests of the individual.  But it always includes the components of study, exploration of spirituality and preparation for Jewish life in the Jewish community.  There is not a litmus test of behaviors or beliefs. … Ultimately, people may arrive at a level of commitment to principles and practices,” said Rabbi Basik.

Like Reform congregations, Reconstructionist communities encourage participation by those who are not Jewish and accept patrilineal descent.

“Every community deals with the role of the non-Jew. For instance, does a non-Jew hold the Torah or be called for an aliyah? Each community has to decide how flexible they will be,” he said.

Kol HaLev, explained Rabbi Basik, seeks to create opportunities for participation and inclusion and holds that Judaism has something from which everybody can benefit.

Rabbi Basik believes Reconstructionist converts are warmly welcomed.

“It’s a shanda (shame) when Jews … are treated like ‘second-class citizens.’ … I really don’t stand for it,” he said.

Challenging, Yet Fulfilling
But sometimes it happens.

Take Mrs. M. Although she couldn’t be happier with her decision to convert to Judaism, Mrs. M., who is Orthodox and asked that her full name not be used for apprehension that her children would be looked down upon for having a convert for a mother, admits she has sometimes felt like a “second-class citizen.”

Born to Hispanic Catholic parents and raised in California in a heavily Jewish but non-observant neighborhood, Mrs. M. said she has always felt most comfortable among Jews. Still, Mrs. M’s Jewish journey spanned many years and a great deal of exploration.

“After I graduated from Stanford, there was a feeling of dissatisfaction with non-Jewish culture. It just felt empty. So I started my spiritual search,” she said.

Mrs. M. eventually found her way to the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

“It didn’t even take one class for me to decide I would convert. It just felt so natural,” she said.

But it took three years before she converted through the Conservative movement. The Conservative beit din, she recalled, told her that since she was not converting to be married, she might want to consider an Orthodox conversion.

“You’ll have a better chance of getting married,” they told her. “You’ll meet more young people and have a fuller Jewish life.”

So Mrs. M. moved to New York City’s Upper West Side, where she studied Torah and lived with Orthodox roommates who taught her more about traditional Judaism. Ultimately, she converted and then met her husband, a ba’al teshuva, newly observant Jew.

“It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of prejudice because I didn’t look like everyone else,” she said. “‘You don’t seem Jewish,’ people would say. Maybe it made sense then, because I wasn’t so experienced in my practice. But it was hurtful.”

She said she was taken aback by the fact that some Orthodox Jews would call themselves holy people but then use racist or other hurtful remarks.

“The shell someone is born in shouldn’t matter,” she said. “I chose it [Judaism]. I love it. I follow the laws. … Sometimes women see me at a Kiddush and they’ll just turn and walk away. That stings after all these years,” she said.

Despite the frustration, Mrs. M. wouldn’t trade her Judaism for the world.

“Every year around Shavuot, I analyze my conversion. I’m really glad I did it, even with its difficulties. I couldn’t imagine my life otherwise. It would be this tremendous abyss. I had a full other life, but it doesn’t come close to the fulfillment I have in my Jewish life,” she said.

Leah Miner, 59, has nothing but positive things to say about her entry into the Jewish community. Miner, who was born Methodist and grew up in Minnesota, said she always wanted to be religious.

In 2004, Miner began studying Judaism on her own, eventually completing a Conservative conversion in 2007.

“I felt very accepted at Beth El,” she said, “but I wanted to befrum. In the fall of 2010, I called out to Hashem to help me to become frum. I wanted his help to [keep] kosher and be shomer Shabbos.”

Miner started learning with Rabbi Shlomo Porter at Etz Chaim, and her first assignment was “to immerse myself in the frum community.”

“I met two families right away, and I was at their homes for Shabbos every week. Then I met more and more friends. Everyone has taken me in with warmth and kindness,” she said.

Miner finished her conversion 13 months ago and belongs to Congregation Tiferes Yisroel.

Miner said she is in close touch with her family members, all who are still Methodist, and they are very happy for her. Miner is hoping to find a shidduch (marriage partner) and said that friends in the Orthodox community are helping with the process.

“One man I met on a Jewish dating site said to me, ‘I don’t consider you a convert, since you were born on the day you converted.’ It was a nice thought to have that night when I was falling asleep,” said Miner. “There is no stigma about being a convert.”