Tag Archives: conversion

Losing (and Finding) My Religion

by Maddie Ulanow

It’s always interesting when, on a particular Friday night, we get a new high turnout of students for the weekly Shabbat services – and only about half of them are Jewish.

It would be higher, but some of the regular Jewish attendees are skipping out for the Buddhist meditation.

A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that 44 percent of American adults no longer identify with their childhood religion; of those who still do, nine percent changed or questioned their faith at some point. Fifteen percent of the Protestants surveyed now identify with a different Protestant faith, and nine percent of the Catholics surveyed are either unaffiliated or Protestant. Nine percent of the Christians surveyed converted to a different religion altogether, one of the options of which includes Judaism.

What is it that makes a change in religion so attractive? And what is it that brings people to, and conversely turns them away, from Judaism? What is it that lures a curious outsider to simply observe a Friday night service, and what is it that leads to a more in-depth inner exploration on the subject?

People pull away from the religions of their birth for a variety of personal reasons, whether it be disagreement with the doctrine, difficulty in observing customs, perceiving ridicule because of it, or simple lack of identification. How, then, do they find a new religion, should they find one at all?

The Buddhist meditation, at least on college campuses full of religion majors, curious freshmen and a diverse student body is often extremely popular among those not originally of Buddhist faith. It offers something new and exotic, and has a reputation for bringing about a peace of mind. Similarly, the Hindu holy book readings may draw a number of interested students. Catholics attend Jewish services and tap into something of their own religion’s past; Jews attend Muslim services and delight in drawing parallels; students, and to a larger extent all of us of all faiths, can explore all religions and find it enriches our own. In relation to Judaism–a  religion once exiled and ostracized–our services and rituals are now a subject of curiosity to the interested outsider, and the number of non-Jews attending Jewish services are increasing.

Why, you might ask, would anyone give up a Friday night or Saturday morning if they didn’t have to, and if they had no clue what was going on? I know I wouldn’t. One factor might be the increasing rate of intermarriage; 54 percent of American Jews today marry non-Jews, and 33 percent of currently wed couples are intermarried.  With these kinds of numbers, congregations, not just on diverse college campuses but across America, must make shifts to accommodate unfamiliar but eager new participants.

Some use prayer books with both English translations and transliterations, so those with a good ear for tune but no knowledge of Hebrew can still sing along, and understand what they’re praying for. Rabbis might stop between prayers for explanations which benefit not just non-Jews, but the Jews in attendance as well. An interesting tidbit from a recent service I attended was that the “lai-la-lai” and “bum-ba-dum” verses of multiple prayers and songs emerged from the peasants of Eastern Europe, Jews who didn’t necessarily know all the words or meanings but wanted to raise their voices in prayer nonetheless. It opens up a path to spirituality and participation to those the eager people who seek it, even curious outsiders exploring the religion for the first time.

We would hope that other religions offer these subtle, welcoming opportunities to Jews as well – and they do. In a diverse society such as ours where more people than ever are questioning and exploring, especially in the area of new faiths and ideas, pursuit of different religions is a natural outcome. Learning about another religion can help enrich our own, and in turn, teaching someone about Judaism is mutually beneficial. This holiday season, perhaps an attempt to learn something new, and also teach something new, would grant an important new insight for an exciting new year.

All Converts Go To Heaven: The Case of Elizabeth Taylor

By Steven Philp

On April 6, 1959 Time Magazine reported the birth “of the most famous and perhaps most beautiful baby,” a Jewish girl named Elishaba Rachel Taylor. The prior week marked the conversion—or “birth”—of the 27-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to the Jewish faith, following six months of study under the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA. Over fifty years later, we mourn the passing of a screen legend, AIDS activist, and proud member of our faith community. Or do we? In an article posted on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, Taylor’s commitment to her faith is skimmed over in favor of details about her multiple marriages and celebrity rabbi. The article ends, “Rest in peace Liz, and when you get to Kaballah [sic] Center heaven, say hi to Marilyn and Sammy.”

The reference to the center is a jab at Taylor’s faith.  The Kabbalah Centre—located near the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles, CA—has been embroiled in controversy since its genesis in 1965. Attracting A-list celebrities like Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, the center is at best tolerated as an idiosyncratic take on Jewish mysticism and at worst—as detailed in a BBC article from 2005—“an opportunist offshoot of the faith with charismatic leaders who try to attract the rich and the vulnerable with the promise of health, wealth and happiness.” To be associated with the Centre is to have the authenticity of your Jewish faith questioned, if not dismissed entirely.

The irony of the Jewlicious article is that Taylor’s association with the Kabbalah Centre is not well-documented. In a survey of Taylor’s commitment to the Jewish faith, an article posted to CNN claims that “Taylor had been a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.” Yet the Jewish Journal obituary it cites as the source for this information contains no mention of her involvement, or Jewish mysticism. What it does detail is a lifetime of service to the Jewish community—through her support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, her participation in the 1981 documentary “Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust,” and her Israel activism—that shows a deep commitment to her adopted faith.

The Jewlicious article reveals a common bias against the Jewish convert, pegging them as somehow less authentic than those born in to our community. The idea of a “Kaballah Center heaven”—home to those A-list celebrities who pandered with Judaism—may have been intended as a light-hearted joke, and perhaps struck some readers as humorous, but it reinforces the stereotype that the Jew-by-Choice can never truly be genuine to the faith. Yet Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor—each having converted before the foundation of the Kabbalah Centre—all demonstrated indisputable chutzpah in their faith commitment. In an article written by Time shortly after Davis’ conversion, he is quoted as saying:

I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history and hold onto something not just material, which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek. Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength. As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism. Certainly the background of my people and their history cannot be compared to that of Judaism, but the same oppression and obstacles thrown in our way were overcome by a greater force than mere tenacity…I wanted to become a Jew because Judaism held an honesty and spiritual peace that was lacking in my personal makeup.

Similarly, the decision to convert for Taylor—according to Time—was “no sudden shift.” Nor did she abandon her faith commitments after conversion, devoting her time and money to supporting Israel, fighting against AIDS, and advocating for equal rights for the LGBT community. Elizabeth Taylor is not destined for “Kaballah Center heaven.” She has a spot reserved next to all other great Jews, born or by choice.

My First Christmas, Again

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday my family sat around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents. We have a particular system when it comes to opening gifts; it takes careful timing and distribution to make sure that each person has something to open, that no one runs out of presents before anyone else. However, this year my pile was conspicuously small. The thing is, I had already opened most of my gifts earlier that month when my mother sent me a few things for Hanukkah. We had saved a few so that I wouldn’t be left out of the festivities. Yet, this was my first Christmas as a rabbi-certified Jew-by-choice; I was bound to be a little out of place.

While most Jews spend December 25th eating Chinese food with their friends and families, there are a handful of us who schlep across the country to visit relatives who observe the Christmas holiday with religious fervor. And unlike other converts who have started their own Jewish families, we make these trips alone: the only Jew among a crowd of Christians. This trip can be daunting; my own family was not excited about the prospect of my conversion. In fact, my mother had let the cat out of the bag the year before, during our traditional Christmas brunch. After arguing for a couple of hours, we agreed to disagree; the conversation was tabled for a later date, and I was sent home with a pile of books arguing for the saving power of Jesus.

That this particular Christmas coincided with Shabbat made it particularly appropriate for the negotiation between my new identity as a Jew and my desire to spend time with my family. If I went to services on Friday night, I was going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner. And if I wanted to daven the next morning, I was going to miss opening presents. My mom and I developed a compromise: I would attend ma’ariv but not shacharit.  Even then, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives why I was showing up late for dinner.

I’m always a little nervous going to a new synagogue alone; nobody likes to be the stranger in a strange congregation.  Thankfully, Temple B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA welcomed me with warm curiosity. I fended the usual questions: where I was from, what I do to keep myself busy, who I was visiting in the area. And then: why wasn’t my family here with me? Well, I explained, they are back home celebrating Christmas. I was met by blank stares, so I continued, because my family is Christian. A few of the older congregants looked confused, if not a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to come clean: I’m a Jew-by-choice. The confusion gave way to a bevy of comments, good-natured and congratulatory, which had to be interrupted by the cantor because we were already ten minutes behind schedule.

The next morning my mom, stepfather and I arrived at my uncle’s house for Christmas brunch. Looking at their front yard, you would think that they had taken it upon themselves to unilaterally keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”: between the lights and the plastic reindeers were reminders of the holiday’s spiritual significance, captured best by a large sign staked in their front yard reading: “Happy Birthday Jesus.” In fact, this particular message was echoed throughout their house, even framed in the guest bathroom next to the red-and-green hand towels. I made myself useful by helping my aunt in the kitchen. The year prior, she had been particularly resistant to the idea of my conversion. So you can imagine my surprise when she asked if I was keeping kosher, in addition to being a vegetarian. I explained that I was the former insofar as I was the latter.

After clearing piles of wrapping paper and ribbons from the living room floor, we sat around the table to enjoy another December tradition: my great-grandmother’s chipped beef. That is, all of my relatives ate it; you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that chipped beef – a viscous puddle of aged beef, cream and butter – is not kosher.  Couple that with the fact that I haven’t eaten meat in five years, and I was relegated to eating the side dishes. But then, from the kitchen, my aunt emerged with a bowl of fruit and yogurt. She apologized for not having something better for me to eat. But the food mattered less than her effort to accommodate my needs. I realized that this experience – my first Christmas as a Jew – was not only my own, but shared among my family. As I was negotiating the space between my faith community of choice and that of my birth, so too were my relatives. And just as I was nervous about coming to the table that year, I suspect that each of them felt a bit of trepidation as well. Yet this is what Christmas is all about: to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Jew – divine or human – who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves, even when that stranger is in your own family.

To Proselytize, or Not To Proselytize

By Michelle Albert

The CCAR, a group that represents over 2000 Reform rabbis, decided to turn the trend of interfaith marriage to their advantage by promoting conversion of non-Jewish spouses, reports the Washington Post. Though this seems a step in a favorable direction for intermarried couples, other rabbis and Jews are questioning whether they have the have the right to call people into the tribe, so to speak. Continue reading

Weekend roundup

By Sarah Breger

What you missed this weekend while playing in the snow:

Chelsea Clinton agreed to wed a Jew. We rejoiced. We investigated the mishpacha. We asked the all-important conversion question. Berated ourselves for doing so. And then analyzed our emotions. [Daily Beast, NYMag, Forward, 16thStreetJ, Jewish Journal]

An alcohol company in Israel is creating a vodka-infused sufganiya for Hanukkah, which has the equivalent alcohol content of a bottle of beer. Still waiting for the Vodka Latke. [Ynet]

There are still Jews in Montana? Apparently so, and with a growing Israeli canine population. [NYTimes]

The Secret Muslim Plot Against Charlie Brown [Jeffrey Goldberg]


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