Converting, on Their Own Terms

After dating a Jewish man for nine years, Linette Padron decided it was time to make a change. Born Catholic and raised in a strong Dominican and Italian family, Padron had learned a lot about Judaism from her partner, but it was only after they stopped dating that she thought seriously about converting to the religion.

Converting for marriage felt wrong, she says, but Judaism had seeped into her consciousness, and she decided to continue her explorations on her own. “I started to question my history and beliefs, started looking around for the right answers,” says Padron, 29, of her process. “When I reached the beliefs and traditions I had grown to know for the past nine years, it began to seem like the place for me to be.”

With increasing rates of intermarriage, it has become more common for people to convert to Judaism to marry a Jewish spouse or raise Jewish children. But Padron is one of a growing number of people studying Judaism formally, experiencing different services and rabbis and planning to convert not out of marriage plans but simply because a personal journey has brought them to embrace Jewish faith and practice.

Although exact numbers are hard to come by, area rabbis confirm the trend, which comes at a time when both the Reform and Conservative movements are more actively reaching out to interfaith families in the hope that the non-Jewish spouse will eventually convert.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald works with Jews by choice through the National Jewish Outreach Project, and says in addition to those people converting and marrying Jews, he sees many turning to Judaism for the sake of Judaism. “I think there’s a trend of very spiritual and intelligent non-Jews who for one reason or another have explored other faiths and decided to come to Judaism,” he says.

Tara Fersko, another Jew by choice, says she never experienced the right religious fit until she found Judaism. Raised by a Catholic father and Congregationalist Protestant mother, she found herself disagreeing with the Catholic Church’s teachings, and in college explored Unitarianism, a faith she says encourages people to experience and celebrate everything. In that process she learned more about Judaism, and realized, “Judaism most closely matched what I believed internally.”

Fersko was 24 and single when she began a Derekh Torah class at the 92nd Street Y, a program that covers the basics of Judaism in 30 weeks, including Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, Torah, the Holocaust, Shabbat, kosher laws, ethics and Zionism. The class is primarily attended by couples with one Jewish and one non-Jewish partner who is thinking about conversion, but Leana Morrit, director of Jewish outreach at the Y, who oversees the classes, says there are almost always single people looking to convert on their own.

“It’s not just a neck-up experience,” says Moritt, “people are actively questioning the why and how, where they fit in [Judaism] and where it fits in them.”

For Fersko, the class and the mentoring she found at area synagogues helped cement her Jewish commitment, and she says she began to understand more of the reasons behind Jewish practice, like why to stand or bow during a service, than friends who had been Jewish all their lives. She started keeping kosher, flirted with keeping Shabbat and slowly built herself a Conservative Jewish life, converting within the traditional rituals of mikveh and bet din.

Today, at 34, Fersko has a Jewish husband (who she says has become more observant under her influence), a son and a daughter who attends kindergarten at a Conservative day school. The family lives in Washington Heights. “I don’t like being called a convert,” she says, “because I converted and conversion was my process. But I think of myself as a Jew.”

For people newer to the process, the logistics of conversion can be daunting. Amanda Melpolder is currently in a Derekh Torah class and says that, despite “shul-shopping” at various minyans throughout New York, she hasn’t yet found the right person or place to cement her decision to convert.

Melpolder, 28, was raised in a strict Christian home; two sisters are missionaries and her mother is studying to be a Lutheran pastor. Religion was important in her family but she found she didn’t believe as her family did. Working in politics, she was inspired by the lifestyle and attitudes of her Jewish colleagues and bosses and is now certain Judaism is her path.

“I think converting within a relationship is a very valid way to do it,” says Melpolder, who ended a relationship with an Orthodox Jew in part because his parents did not support her Jewish journey. “It’s the shorter answer to a lot of people,” but not, she acknowledges, an option for everyone.

For many who come from other faiths one of the more challenging pieces of embracing Judaism has been their family’s understanding and acceptance. Melpolder says her Christian mother had trouble understanding that Judaism was more than just the Old Testament, but that now they have good conversations about what each is learning in her religious pursuits. Fersko said her parents have been extremely supportive of her decision, preparing kosher food when she visits and wrapping her children’s presents in neutral, rather than Christmas, paper.

Moritt says many non-Jews who are exploring Judaism do so because of a Jewish person, like Melpolder’s coworkers, who influenced them in their religious or cultural upbringing, someone who planted a seed that they want to grow.

“People are drawn to the openness to questioning that makes sense in a way that perhaps their faith traditions of origin never did to them,” says Moritt of the people who take the Derekh Torah class and ultimately seek to convert to Judaism. “There’s this thread that’s intangible and their heart calls them.”

Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek, an Orthodox rabbi, actively helps people convert to Judaism, providing them with an intensive course of study. He says most people who come to him have already explored the less rigorous options of Reform or Conservative conversions, but want a halachic conversion recognized by all Jewish bodies. “Conversion isn’t just an election,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “You become part of a family.” He says that follow-up is one of the greatest challenges with people who have converted outside a couple, making sure the person has a place to have Shabbat and holiday meals, and a comfortable community in which to pray. “I don’t go out proselytizing but once they express such a desire to get here, it’s a mitzvah to work with them,” says Rabbi Schwartz.

Kathryn Kahn, director of outreach and membership for the Union of Reform Judaism, agrees. “Very often the person who comes on their own, unless they have a Jewish support system, we need to make sure our congregational communities are the support system for these people, that they find mentors and teachers who will walk with them on their journey as they make Jewish choices.”

For other people, converting to Judaism simply formalizes a process they have been engaged with for life. Sarah Zarrow, 24, was raised Jewishly by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, attending Hebrew school classes until 12th grade and becoming a bat mitzvah. She says she was always involved and interested in Jewish life, finding herself drawn to Orthodoxy for years before realizing that by those standards she was not, in fact, Jewish.

After exploring her options she began to study Maimonides with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky at Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side, as well as engaging in tzedakah projects, until she felt ready to formally convert.

“I thought the day would come, I’d dunk, and I wouldn’t feel anything,” says Zarrow of her anticipation of the mikveh ritual that she undertook last month. “But I also knew somewhere that it wasn’t like an exam, that it was more of a beginning than an ending.”

“But the mikveh was really cool. I was terrified that I’d do something wrong and that I’d nullify things, even if no one knew I did something wrong. It felt really good and when I came out and said the Shema, I started to cry.”

Zarrow doesn’t feel her life will change drastically, as she has long been Sabbath-observant and involved in the Jewish community, but she feels her conversion is a gift to her future Jewish self, giving her options and a solid connection to her long-held faith. “Our Jewish history is replete with those who have joined us through conversion,” says Kahn of the Union of Reform Judaism, citing Ruth, as many others do, as a prime example of a positive Jewish convert role model. “By following the mitzvah, we’ve reaped blessing.”

Once her conversion is complete, Linette Padron, who is currently in the Y’s Derekh class, says she would “love to meet someone, get married, have a family, everything a nice Jewish girl wants.” But for now, she is happy to have found a place in her chosen religion, and to have the freedom to keep exploring. “Once you’ve made the decision you belong,” she says, “everything else falls into place.”

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