Embracing Judaism As Personal Choice

His brows furrowed, Jhon Lewis listens to the teachings of Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner with an unshakable concentration. A black yarmulke covers his head and an African kente cloth is wrapped around his neck.

He nods when the rabbi says: “You know you are very special. You need to work hard and overcome.”

That is hardly news to Mr. Lewis, a black man who is converting to Judaism.

For the last six months, under the tutelage of Rabbi Lerner at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on West 86th Street, Mr. Lewis, a lanky, intense 36-year-old, has been melding Judaism and his African roots.

Mr. Lewis is among the increasing number of black, Hispanic and Asian people who have embraced Judaism on their own, not because of a Jewish spouse, but because they believe it offers a sense of community, respect, love and inner peace that they did not find in other religions. Reaching Out to Judaism

Based on a national survey taken between 1988 and 1990, Dr. Egon Mayer, senior research fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, estimates there are about 2,000 such converts. This is slightly more than 1 percent of the 185,000 people who have converted to Judaism in this country.

Rabbi Lerner and others said that most of the converts reach out to Judaism, rather than being recruited.

His students often find his organization, Jewish Conversion Center, through ads in the Yellow Pages under “synagogues” or in Jewish publications.

Minority presence is evident even among the stricter, more traditional Orthodox groups. A smattering of black, Hispanic and Asian people can be found celebrating the Sabbath at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue at 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan.

Mr. Lewis ended what he called a “disappointing” 23-year affiliation with the Pentecostal Church half a year ago. “Christianity has a history of segregation,” he said. “They didn’t treat blacks like human beings. They had segregated churches.”

He sought a religion that treats blacks as equals but said Islam, which attracted many blacks — including his father — for its racial equality, was never his choice. “Muslims were involved in slavery,” Mr. Lewis said. “They had captured blacks and sold them to the white men.” Searching for a Foundation

Theresa Ohori, 30, a fourth-generation Japanese woman born in Canada, and a student of Rabbi Lerner, was looking for a religious foundation. “I wasn’t really raised anything and I needed something to hold on to,” Ms. Ohori said. Before settling on Judaism, she considered many branches of Christianity but said she found them all too rigid.

“What I like about Judaism is that it’s progressive,” Ms. Ohori said. “It’s not a static religion. Judaism is more a way of life, of community, of love, than a religion. It’s something you can carry in your pocket.”

For minority converts, the road to Judaism is sometimes a bumpy one. Although the teachings of the Torah stipulate that a convert be treated as an equal, many find they are not as readily accepted by some members of their congregations as their white counterparts.

At first, Mr. Lewis said, congregants at Park Slope Jewish Center where he worships were cool to him though most have now warmed up. One man told him he would never find a mate among the predominantly white Jewish women. Fiance’s Mother Upset

Elizabeth Santiago, who is part black and part Puerto Rican, said the mother of her fiance was so distraught over her skin color that she was banned from his parents’ house for nearly a month.

“It made no difference that I’m a Jew and that I kept kosher,” said Ms. Santiago, 23. “It didn’t matter at all that I am more observant than she is. The only thing that mattered to her was my skin color.”

But Mr. Lewis, Ms. Santiago and others decided to convert despite the prejudice and say it does not conflict with the equality issue.

“Judaism as a religion does not discriminate,” Mr. Lewis said. “Those who do are small in number and they are not heeding God’s words.”

But for the most part, congregants, after the initial shock of seeing the different faces, say they welcome minority members. Barbara Reader, a member of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, said she was delighted by their presence in the synagogue. “Judaism is a tribal religion,” she said. “Anyone can be initiated into the tribe, as long as their intentions are to embrace Judaism wholeheartedly and not because they’re dating someone and are under pressure to convert.” Not a 30-Day Convert

Although most denominations of Judaism are open to converts, minority converts, like white converts, tend to choose to convert as Orthodox Jews or as Conservative Jews, Rabbi Lerner said. Conversions by Reformed and other more progressive denominations are not accepted by the more conservative groups and are consequently viewed as somewhat of a compromise by the would-be converts themselves.

“I don’t trust someone who says he can make me a Jew in 30 days,” Ms. Ohori said. “I want a conversion that’s recognized by most Jews.”

While many minority converts say the experience is fulfilling, Rabbi Lerner cautions that the process is not for everyone. Would-be converts must not only study the Torah, but also attend weekly sessions on Jewish customs and traditions. The lengths of these courses vary from three months for Reform conversion to more than a year for Orthodox conversion. At the recommendation of the sponsoring rabbi, a candidate appears before a court of three rabbis to demonstrate his or her knowledge of Judaism. A mikvah, a ritual bath, completes the conversion process for women.

A man must also undergo bris, circumcision, before the mikvah to signify his new beginning. If he is already circumcised, blood has to be drawn from the place of circumcision.

To prepare for his conversion, Mr. Lewis now attends shul faithfully and keeps kosher. To attend a friend’s special Torah reading at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan on a recent Saturday, Mr. Lewis, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, rented a hotel room in midtown Manhattan to avoid traveling on the subway during the Sabbath. He said he didn’t do so to be above reproach, but to be a complete Jew.

As for the bris, Mr. Lewis said he was ready for it. “The conversion is more important to me,” he said. “If that’s what it takes, I’m ready for it.”


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