Found: Jewish Soul
Journey to Judaism through Conversion
By C.J. Trent
Growing up without faith feels like an integral part of life is missing. For some, discovering that Judaism is a reflection of their own personal beliefs confirms that the synagogue is home. The subsequent decision to convert is a heavy one marked with personal and spiritual development.
Rabbi Joseph Benson of Temple Beth El in Jefferson City, Mo., believes that converting depends on the person; it is a very personal act. Because each person is unique, the specific reasons for converting may vary. As he explains, one person may grow up in a religious home while another may grow up without any faith, but both will decide to convert. No two experiences or reasons for converting will be the same.
For Lynda Renham Presky, a healthcare worker in Oxford, England, converting to Judaism was an intensely personal experience, one which led her to develop close relationships with her Jewish friends and become a teacher at a Hebrew school. Though she was raised without a particular religion, Presky says her family suspected that her great-grandmother was Jewish. Years later, Presky met her first husband, who was Jewish, and decided to convert. Although the marriage didn’t last and she is now engaged to an Atheist, Presky has remained devoted to her faith. She worked for the Centre for Jewish Education, and has led workshops on Judaism in secular schools.
Although the decision to convert is personal, many find a renewed sense of faith in Judaism, one that was lacking in a Christian-based childhood.
Rabbi Joe Blair, leader of Beth El Congregation and Temple House of Israel in Staunton, Va., moderates a conversion forum on Jewish.com. Although some who decide to convert to Judaism may not grow up with a specific religion, Rabbi “Joe” believes that exposure to Christianity is inevitable.
“There are very few who convert who have no formal ties to church or a particular religion,” he said.
Klarissa Glavan Spang, 23, a barista and life coach living in Pittsburgh, saw Judaism as a fresh approach to life, one she didn’t experience growing up in the Assembly of God church. The daughter of a pastor, Spang was very active in her church: she helped with Sunday school, participated in the church choir, and helped build the sanctuary for her family’s church. With a mother involved with Women’s Ministries, a sister who attends an Assembly of God University in California, and a brother who intended to become a Youth Pastor, Spang grew up as part of a very Christian family.
Troubled by the thought that belief in Jesus and his forgiveness would allow violent acts to be committed without remorse, Spang turned to Judaism. “Judaism is more than just speaking the words,” she said. “The point is to live it in the everyday.”
Karen McCready, 27, a New York-based research assistant on HIV and international health issues, grew up Protestant, but unlike Spang, she never felt a strong tie to Christianity. After exploring a variety of religions in college, she found that her personal beliefs were in tune with Jewish beliefs.
“After college and several years of not practicing any religion at all, I began reading about several religions – Judaism, Buddhism, and Baha'i – out of curiosity, but also out of a desire to find something that would fit my worldview,” she said. “Eventually, I found I just couldn't put the books on Judaism down, and everything I read just seemed to sync with what I'd believed my whole life but couldn't find a way to fully express through Christianity.”
Rabbis Joe and Benson believe that many who decide to convert may also be searching for a religious home.
“Judaism speaks to them and makes them feel they’ve come home,” Rabbi Joe said.
For McCready, an emotional tie to Israel and discovering her Jewish soul led her to convert. After attending her first Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform temple, McCready felt as though she had come home.
“I'd always been Jewish; it just took 24 years to figure it out. There is a belief in Kabbalistic tradition that those who convert to Judaism in fact have a Jewish soul and were present at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah,” McCready said. “I believe this and I feel this ancient connection to the Jewish people that I can't find another non-mystical way to explain.”
Both Spang and Presky credit the feeling of belonging to a strong Jewish community among their reasons for converting. For these two women, their faith is also a way of life, a daily reminder of their commitment to a religion that speaks to them. As Spang puts it, “Judaism has put beauty back into the world for me.”
Today, there are a number of resources for those drawn to Judaism. The Internet in particular has become a forum for discussion, a meeting place for those searching for answers and those who can readily give them. McCready, for example, created the Conversion to Judaism Resource Group on Facebook, the popular social networking website.
Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of Adat Achim Synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla. and creator of convertingtojudaism.com, thinks the Internet provides an equal window to the world for anything people want to express. Although there is the risk of misinformation on the Internet, Cukierkorn believes it is an important resource for those exploring their faith.
In what he calls “passing the torch,” Cukierkorn has traveled to China, Vietnam, Europe and South America to conduct conversions. He has found that Americans are unlike other cultures in their approach to conversion: Americans shop for the best religion. With easy access to information on the Internet, Americans are able to discuss their beliefs, explore others, and perhaps eventually decide to convert.
As Cukierkorn explains, “Conversion is like a shoe: if it fits you, it fits you, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
“Shopping” for Judaism and self-exploration are needed to confirm that the decision to convert is the right one. After confirming one’s choice to convert, it is necessary to prove to others that such a decision is serious. Converting to Judaism is no easy task, and religion is a commitment.
Traditionally, a person seeking to convert must approach a rabbi three times to prove his or her commitment to the religion. Once the potential convert has assured the rabbi of his or her dedication, a period of studying overseen by the rabbi occurs. Some will take “Introduction to Judaism” classes; others will study individually with a rabbi; all will study Jewish law, beliefs, religious practices, and history, in addition to the Holocaust, Israel, Hebrew and holidays.
Once the period of study – which may last from six months to two years – is complete, the potential convert will appear before a Bet Din, or religious court. Comprised of three rabbis, the Bet Din will quiz the potential convert to ensure his or her sincerity in converting and to assess their knowledge of the Jewish faith. Once the potential convert has passed this test, he or she typically makes a pledge to the Jewish people.
To complete the conversion process, male converts will undergo circumcision, or “Brit Milah.” Females, and males converting to Orthodox Judaism, will participate in an immersion ceremony, or “Tevillah.” Traditionally, the convert showers as a way to clean the body, is covered with a robe, then enters into the four-foot deep mikveh while shedding the robe. After reciting a blessing, the convert is immersed in the water. In accordance with Jewish law, the immersion must be witnessed by three attendants. Emerging from the mikveh, a convert is now Jewish.
The process may also involve choosing a Hebrew name and participating in a public ceremony that introduces the convert to the community as being newly Jewish.
Converting to Judaism is undoubtedly a personal journey, one that requires much thought and self-analysis. Growing up without ties to a specific religion makes the movements toward Judaism more meaningful: it is admitting that religion plays a central role in self-identification.
I know firsthand how personal the decision to convert to Judaism is. After finding a sense of community in Judaism that was lacking in my Christian-based childhood, I decided to convert a couple of years ago. Though the decision was difficult and required several months of self-exploration, it is one with which I am very happy.
Resources for conversion to Judaism: The Conversion to Judaism Resource Center (convert.org), Conversion to Judaism online (convertingtojudaism.com) and websites jewish.com and beliefnet.com provide information on conversion and host forums for those converting or interested in converting. Facebook.com is also the home of resource groups, like “Conversion to Judaism Resource Group,” “Converts to Judaism” and “Yad L’Gerim: Helping Converts to Judaism.”