Rabbi Meets a Different Kind of Need on Campus: Conversions

Spiritual leaders at Hillel are the jack of all rabbis – leading services, teaching Jewish classes and catering to the religious needs of the students. Rabbi Mychal Copeland has been doing all of that in her two years at Hillel of Stanford University, plus a bit more. So far, Copeland has overseen the conversions of four Stanford students, and she’s currently teaching her second class of potential converts. “When I came here, I started to work with a couple students who were thinking about conversion,” she said. “And then there were a couple more, and we had enough to make a class. I realized they would be better served to study the issues together, and have community and be able to talk about what’s best for them.”

Copeland said there is a general hesitation among her Hillel colleagues in talking about conversion with students because it might be seen as proselytizing, especially when it comes to undergraduates. But the women – all have been women, so far – who have converted with Copeland are graduate students. Some of them married Israelis or Jewish men. And some came to it on their own. Whatever their motivations, Copeland said the students appreciate having a conversion class right on campus, where they already feel at home, as opposed to having to journey into synagogues where they know no one, to find a rabbi they haven’t met. And probably a lot of that has to do with the welcoming attitude of the rabbi herself, who is 34 and has an infant son, Jonah, with her partner, Kirsti Copeland, a Jew-by-choice. “I’ve always been aware of the boundaries in Judaism, and conversion touches those boundaries in a lot of ways in the same way that interfaith issues do,” she said. “I’m drawn to issues of inclusion, and hoped I could be a bridge for people who perhaps have not felt welcome in the Jewish world.”

While Copeland said those issues were always important to her, certainly having a partner who is a Jew-by-choice and doesn’t “look Jewish”? has increased that awareness. “You always hear the stereotypes but now I’m hearing them in a different way because it’s family,” she said. At first, Copeland wasn’t sure whether she should covert students because of the transitory nature of the college campus. “Based on our tradition, you hope the rabbi who converts them is the one who marries them and blesses their baby. [Becoming Jewish] is a lifelong endeavor.” But it was the students who changed her mind. “They sought me out because they hoped they would find a community,” she said. “This is their community, their congregation … Hillel is a strong force in their lives. They see Hillel as their Jewish home.”

Copeland is Reconstructionist, and therefore, she talks to the potential converts about having one kind of conversion as opposed to another. The majority choose to study with her, like Dori Moss, a researcher currently in the class. Moss, 35, grew up a Methodist in Texas, but left Christianity as a teenager. As her relationship with an Israeli man got more serious, he said he wanted their children raised Jewish, but whether she chose to convert was not important to him. They got married last year. Now, Moss has decided to convert on her own. “I don’t need to do it to have the family I want,” she said. “His family completely accepts me just the way I am.” She said so far Reconstructionism seems like a good fit for her. “I’m still making up my mind about it, where I think we’ll be most at home, but I think it will probably be Reconstructionist.” Moss appreciates having a class right on campus since it’s where she works and it’s where she also learns Hebrew. “It seemed like a good way to get started on the conversion process.”

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