Immigrating To Judaism

By the time she married 25 years ago, Beth had long since drifted from the Catholicism of her upbringing. So when her secular Jewish husband said he wanted to raise their children as Jews, she was perfectly agreeable – as long as she didn’t have to become Jewish herself.

“I was as negative about converting as you could be,” she recalls. “It was an insult to me that people assumed I?’ convert because I’d married a Jew.”

The couple joined a Reform temple, celebrated Jewish holidays and began giving their oldest son a Jewish education. But when a long-anticipated overseas adoption of a daughter fell through at the last minute, Beth realized that it was in the Jewish community where she found spiritual comfort.

Whereas Catholics told Beth that her loss occurred “because it wasn’t God’s plan” or that she “hadn’t been praying for the things I should’ve been praying for” – words she didn’t find helpful – the response from Jews was “to have empathy and help us through it.”
Now 51, Beth, who lives in a suburb of Washington D.C., converted 12 years ago (she did not want her real name used because her two younger children do not know about the failed adoption). It wasn’t nudging or pressure that pushed her to become Jewish; rather, it was her gradual recognition that “my whole focus had become much more Jewish, and it wasn’t just for my kids anymore. It was for me.”

The holiday of Shavuot earlier this month is traditionally observed by reading about Ruth, long heralded as the first Jew by choice. Significantly, the biblical heroine, like Beth, did not convert until many years after marrying a Jewish man. (In fact, only after she’d been widowed.)

A generation ago, Ruth’s experience would have been considered exceptional; even in the Reform movement, which has long been the most tolerant of intermarriage, most conversions of gentile partners used to happen, often under pressure, before the convert-to-be married a Jew.

“Today we’re seeing a flip, and more and more – I would say the majority of people who go through the process of converting – make that decision after they’re married,” says Kathy Kahn, director of outreach and membership at the Union for Reform Judaism.
While being careful not to criticize those who convert before the wedding, Kahn observes that “often these later conversions are particularly deep and rich.”

These modern-day Ruths serve as a reminder that interfaith relationships do not always follow the doomsday (Assimilation! Jewish discontinuity! More intermarriage!) trajectory many Jewish leaders would have you believe.

Traditionalists often argue that if gentiles married to Jews are accepted, not pressured to convert and allowed to participate fully in Jewish life, there will be no incentive left for anyone to convert. However, the stories of Beth and other late-marriage converts indicate that for many people, the acceptance and lack of pressure – in short, having a positive, not coercive, experience in the Jewish community – allows them to feel comfortable enough to explore Judaism on their own terms.

Indeed, several women I interviewed for this column made a point of noting (approvingly) that their husbands never asked them to convert.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, whose congregation Sukkat Shalom in suburban Chicago was founded more than 10 years ago by a group of interfaith families, compares gentiles in Jewish households to immigrants who have not yet decided whether to become naturalized.

“You don’t become an American citizen sitting on the shores of France or on the boat over here,” he explains. “You live here for a while and then it becomes yours.”
Rabbi Gordon, who has guided more than 20 people through mid-marriage conversions, notes that there are advantages to waiting awhile before converting.
“At the time of a wedding, among all the other things going on in their mind, I don’t think that’s the best time to get an in-depth understanding of what being Jewish is,” he explains.

For folks who convert later on, after years of living in a Jewish family and at least occasionally attending synagogue, there is often a realization that “this is really my identity, this is the clergy person I relate to, this is my spiritual home, this is the person I want to officiate at my funeral,” Rabbi Gordon says. “It’s a natural process and, I think, a very authentic one.”

Often a life-cycle event – such as the death of a parent or the bar mitzvah of a child -serves as a catalyst.

That’s the case for Lisa Stein, one of Rabbi Gordon’s current conversion students and a longtime member of his congregation. Stein, nee Kelley, had a “very, very strict Irish Catholic upbringing,” but grew disenchanted with the Church as a teen, in part because of its lack of women in leadership roles. While she was curious about Judaism – enrolling in a Jewish studies course as an undergraduate – she did not seriously consider becoming Jewish herself until about nine years ago, after she and her husband had joined Sukkat Shalom.

She bought the books for her conversion class, but “all of a sudden, I felt like I wasn’t ready. It felt scary to me, so I kind of stopped, but I continued participating in the synagogue and continued raising our children Jewish.”

As she helped her oldest daughter prepare for her bat mitzvah this past year, Stein, 41, finally felt “like the time was right.”

Sitting in on her daughter’s sessions with a “wonderful” Hebrew tutor and reflecting on her family’s positive relationship with Rabbi Gordon and others at the temple, Stein began to feel “like we had this personal connection that had always been missing throughout my Catholic upbringing.”
“People I really admired, cared for and wanted to be like were Jewish,” she explains.

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