The Call to the Torah, Now Heeded Online
Judaism is more than 5,000 years old. The Internet has been around for a tiny fraction of that time. But a rabbi with a specialized Web site has brought ancient tradition and modern technology together, providing conversions to Judaism in a process that is largely accomplished online.
The rabbi, Celso Cukierkorn, offers an online conversion course to anyone who wants to become Jewish. A PC and a Web connection bring the rabbi and converts from as far away as Australia and New Zealand together for online study and even the final exam. Rabbi Cukierkorn (he pronounces it COOK-your-corn) is a convert himself, of sorts, to computer technology. He grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, and recalled that students learned to use computers at his high school. But the equipment was boxy mainframe technology, probably from the 1960’s, he guessed, and he did not pursue computer training beyond high school.
“Until the mid 90’s, I wasn’t computer-literate,” said Rabbi Cukierkorn, who is 34. “But then I realized that there are different ways to touch people,” and that the computer was one of them. His ancestors, who were rabbis, “traveled from village to village to bring the message of God,” he explained. “Right now it’s the same thing, except I don’t go to a specific place. I can do that from the computer.”
Rabbi Cukierkorn also conducts in-person conversion classes at Congregation B’Nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Hattiesburg, Miss. But modern technology, he said, provides him with “a wonderful way to help people who cannot find a rabbi to convert them or who live in places where they don’t have a rabbi or their schedule will not allow them to convert” in more traditional ways. Most of his online students learn about his Web site, www.conversiontojudaism.org, from people who have taken his course or from rabbis, he said.
The online curriculum, which is divided into eight units, is a blend of books and online material, some of which Rabbi Cukierkorn wrote. It is customized for each student, depending on prior knowledge of Judaism. One of the units, for example, is what the rabbi calls “the life cycle of the Jewish year,” beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and proceeding through other holidays and festivals in chronological order.
At the end of each unit, there is a quiz. The curriculum requires about 80 to 120 hours of work, which can take from three months to more than a year to complete. In addition to the online coursework, the process requires attendance at a conversion seminar. One was held recently in Beverly Hills, Calif., and another is scheduled soon in Miami Beach. Rabbi Cukierkorn said he hoped to hold one in New York at least once a year. The course is followed by a final exam, also given online, that has 100 questions. But unlike most tests, there is no predetermined passing score. The rabbi said he looks to see “how they feel and what’s inside them.” He reads the answers “to see a bigger picture.”
“That’s what this is all about,” he said. “We’re not looking for intellectual capabilities.” The rabbi said that he generally lets the convert decide how much to pay, and that the payments have ranged from almost nothing to $2,500. Many conversions involve someone who has married or plans to marry a Jew, but some people give other reasons, the rabbi said. One of the more unusual involved people who had seen the movie “Schindler’s List” and decided individually that they wanted to become Jewish.
One of the rabbi’s online students, Melissa Davimos, 38, of Boca Raton, Fla., said she wanted to convert before her daughter, Spencer, was born. She said she was unable to find a synagogue in Boca Raton that welcomed converts, so she turned to the Internet. She said she and her husband, who is Jewish, planned to join a synagogue soon and to have a baby-naming ceremony there for Spencer, who is now three months old.
Another participant, Ana Scherer, of Florianopolis, Brazil, said by e-mail that she was born a Catholic, but that at age 12 she “came to a conclusion that Catholicism was not my true call.” Mrs. Scherer, 34, said she began studying online in Brazil and continued when she moved to Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., in 2000. Rabbi Cukierkorn, who was trained as an Orthodox rabbi and graduated from the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Monsey, N.Y., said he had not encountered criticism that people who seek conversion online are not serious enough about their desire to become Jewish.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, said that the Conservative movement requires at least a year of study by prospective converts, including learning Hebrew, and requires “a good deal of human contact,” although the process does not all have to be face-to-face.
Rabbi Schorsch said it sounded to him like the Web site program met the second test and was “on the right track” for the first. Rabbi Cukierkorn said his process for conversion online was identical to the one he uses in his synagogue. “The only difference is that I might do the conversion interview over the phone,” he said. Asked where the majority of his converts came from, the rabbi paused, then said: “I have people everywhere. They come from wherever God touches their souls.”