“The picture of what a Jew looks like has changed tremendously,” said Rabbi Stephen Einstein, longtime spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tzedek who serves as a coach on the commission of outreach, membership and caring community of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “We take people to a mirror with a Star of David on it and say ‘this is what a Jew looks like today.’”
Rabbi Einstein, who has taught the Introduction to Judaism class in Orange County for 35 years, since 1976, said his typical student used to be a blue-eyed blonde 29-year-old woman. Now there is an equal split between men and women. There are many Hispanic and Asian people and a few African Americans.
“For some people there are Jews in their background, and they’ve been exposed to Jewish practices,” Rabbi Einstein added. “For many entering the class, it is a coming home.”
The demographics have changed over the years, according to Rabbi Einstein, and he no longer assumes that his students are in their 20s or 30s, engaged, with one Jewish partner and one non-Jewish partner. People are getting married older. Some people have been part of the Jewish community and are now ready to convert. There are spiritual seekers who are not in a relationship but want to delve into Judaism. Other people are in their 50s through 80s and getting into second marriages. Finally, some of Rabbi Einstein’s students take his class, because they are not getting enough Jewish knowledge from their Jewish partner.
“The class itself is ‘Introduction to Judaism,’ not conversion class,” Rabbi Einstein said. “People learn about Judaism, get excited and get involved. Some class members want to convert, some to support their partners, some just to learn and some because they are ‘spiritual seekers.’ Those who convert to Judaism work with a sponsoring rabbi.”
During the class, students need to attend at least three Shabbat services, at which time they can “audition” a rabbi, according to Rabbi Einstein. “The sponsoring rabbi guides the rest of the process and meets periodically with the prospective convert on a one-on-one basis for about a year,” he added. “The final steps of making it official are the mikvah or circumcision – the entry rites into the covenant — and the approval by the beit din.”
One person who recently made it official, April Booker, said she knew she wanted to be Jewish as a child. “I grew up in a religious home where my family belonged to a non-denominational church,” she said. “I never got my questions answered satisfactorily. I was just expected to believe.”
In high school Booker babysat for an interfaith couple who belonged to Congregation B’ani Israel. She was fascinated by the Jewish customs and looked forward to being at the home. “I tried to be a good Christian, but my heart wasn’t in it,” she said. “Eventually, I stopped going to church.”
Booker, a teacher, met her boy friend through his mother, a fellow teacher at her school. They spent their first date chaperoning students on grad night at Disneyland, “mostly talking while waiting in line,” she said. For their third date they went to Shabbat services at Temple Beth Sholom – at Booker’s request.
“I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t even know how to open the prayerbook the right way,” she said. “But I decided I wanted to be a Jew. It was as if I had been walking with a pebble in my shoe for a long time and finally decided to take the shoe off and move it.”
Booker said it was hard for her family to accept her decision, “but they still love me for me.” She added, “The spiritual connection is very important to me, not just once a year, but to really connect with God and the community.” She began to take the Introduction to Judaism class. She wanted to live the life cycle, “but felt that I was Jewish from the time of the first service.” While it took almost two years to undergo the full process, she went to the first service in July 2009 and was singing in the choir at the temple in September.
Meanwhile, Booker’s boy friend was neutral and did not want to pressure her about converting. He opened the door to the possibility and made her feel safe, “but I probably would have found my way there on my own,” she said.
Booker is amazed at how much there is to learn, and she is happy that it is “OK to question, debate and wrestle with ideas. There are guidelines and parameters, but there’s no debating that there’s one God.”
Booker’s Hebrew naming ceremony “was the pinnacle of my life,” she said. “I was beaming from the inside out. I felt so welcomed, happy, fulfilled and complete, on a pathway of learning.”
She concluded, “Every Friday I get a happy anticipatory feeling, because I really love Shabbat.”
While many conversions in Orange County involve liberal branches of Judaism, there are many Orthodox conversions as well. They often occur when someone’s father was Jewish and the mother was not, according to Rabbi Yisroel Ciner, the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Jacob of Irvine. “These people always felt Jewish and were brought up with many aspects of Judaism, but they’re not considered Halachically Jewish,” he explained.
Rabbi Ciner added, “A second group of people who undergo Orthodox conversions are those who began their quest of Judaism and underwent a non-Orthodox conversion and seek to undergo a conversion that is more universally accepted. A spiritual quest brings the person to Orthodoxy, not necessarily because of a partner. An Orthodox conversion will require that the partner join fully in the process.”
That process takes 1 to 2 years with a set curriculum of study, according to Rabbi Ciner. The person needs to be living in an Orthodox neighborhood and living an Orthodox lifestyle. He or she engages in the study of the laws and lifestyle of an Orthodox Jew – blessings, prayer, Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, life cycles, Hebrew and family purity.
“The idea is to live it, be it and then make a decision that that’s what you want to become,” Rabbi Ciner explained. “People who go through the process only take on the obligations if they really want to fulfill them, and we only ‘graduate’ those who are going to stick to it.”
Required reading for an Orthodox conversion is Rabbi Mordechai Becher’s Gateway to Judaism. There are meetings with the beit din throughout the process, and Rabbi Ciner serves as an advocate, sponsor and overseer.
Desiree Probolsky took a circuitous route to an Orthodox conversion. Her father is an Iranian Jew, and her mother is a Mexican Catholic. Her paternal grandmother is religious, but her grandfather is not Jewish. Probolsky herself was confirmed as a Catholic and went to church as an adult. She began to feel that Catholicism never let people rise to the occasion because of the concept of original sin. She questioned the idea of the trinity and the idea of going to hell.
By her mid-20s Probolsky was questioning her religion a lot more. She had met Adam Probolsky, a Jewish man who would eventually become her husband. They broke up and got back together. Meanwhile, she had started Introduction to Judaism classes. Her conversion, through a Conservative beit din but with a Reform rabbi as her sponsor, was official by the time they married. Her family, which she describes as multicultural, was supportive.
“My original decision to convert wasn’t related to Adam, but we made the decision together to become observant,” she said. “We went to Israel last summer, and I decided to do an Orthodox conversion.”
Probolsky, currently working as a marketing consultant, added, “Assimilating to this culture doesn’t happen overnight. You have to feel it, like building a relationship with anything else. Walking and fasting for Yom Kippur was exhausting, an eye opener that this was going to be a journey. The way I feel, it’s really meaningful.”
Probolsky said she was attracted to Judaism, because it is “in line with how I perceived God and because Jews are optimistic about everything. They wake up every morning, celebrate life and are thankful for it. They’re a resilient people who always have hope.”
She added, “There’s an immediate bond, a real connection, between Jews. They take you in as family.”
Probolsky believes the overall experience has been a bonding process for her and Adam, who grew up with a deep connection to observant Judaism and who joins her in weekly study sessions with Rabbi Ciner. From the beginning of their marriage last year, they have made celebrating Shabbat central to their lives. Probolsky admits that she did little cooking before her marriage but now enjoys preparing feasts for 20 people on Friday night. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I look forward to it every week.”
Chaim and Yvonne Gao have taken a really unusual journey toward Judaism. After growing up under Communism in China, with no religion at all, and then becoming Christians, they made a Jewish connection because of their children.
By chance, they were looking for a residential camp for their two older sons and ended up choosing a Jewish one. Then they were looking for a preschool for their youngest son and sent him to the one at University Synagogue. Pleased with these experiences, they investigated Tarbut V’Torah and learned that at least one parent has to be Jewish or in the process of conversion.
They looked into Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism before discovering Rabbi Ciner’s crash course. People treated them nicely, the rabbi was welcoming and they came back for more. Chaim’s parents, who live with the family, were supportive.
“The Jewish belief in free will makes sense,” Chaim said. “Jews appreciate Hashem’s creation and take responsibility for their actions. People have to have laws to control themselves.”
Yvonne added, “Judaism is the forefather of all religions. Unlike Christianity, which believes you can’t be perfect, so you can’t be saved, Jewish laws regulate actions, and what you do is important.”
The Gaos, who are radiologists in a hospital in vitro fertilization laboratory, wanted to convert “not so much for ourselves, but for our children, so they feel the connection.” Yvonne said. “The children are very happy, and they’re learning Hebrew very fast.”
Shabbas is central to the Gaos’ life, and they even bought a smaller house in order to be within walking distance of Beth Jacob to attend as many classes and services as possible. “Shabbas is a blessing for family and life, and it changed the philosophy of our lives,” Chaim said. “It’s a gift Hashem gave to the Jewish people.”
Yvonne believes that Judaism was “meant to be our life.” As she explained, “Gao is one of the seven Chinese last names given to Jewish descendants. Rabbi Ciner told us that it’s a personification for ‘Kohen.’ On Wikipedia there’s a picture of a Kaifeng Jew, and he looks like Chaim’s father. We feel like Hashem is talking to us. We could be connected to Jewish people in China.”
How do the rabbis feel about people who convert under their tutelage or because of their teachings? Rabbi Einstein said he feels great that he is often involved in the actual conversion process as one of the three rabbis in the beit din. “Rarely does one of these occasions pass when there aren’t tears,” he said. “Someone wants to learn, takes it seriously and becomes part of the Jewish people. The sense of connectedness is like standing at Sinai again. It’s so central to my rabbinate to do this.”
Rabbi Ciner said, “I kvell, but I kvell even more when Jews who have been lethargic and somewhat disinterested discover and rediscover the treasure that they have.”