CONVERSION TO JUDAISM ARTICLES
Articles about jewish conversion
These is a list of the best articles about conversion to Judaism published from major newspapers.
The First Word: Welcome, immigrants to Judaism
By Celso Cukierkorn Published: Jun. 15, 2006 in The Jerusalem Post
What do the divisive debates between Americans over immigration policy and within the Jewish world over conversion have in common? As a rabbi who recently became an American, and who is actively involved in counseling potential converts to Judaism, I have noticed that these seemingly disconnected controversies raise similar questions.
If there are jobs that go wanting, should we open the door wider to those who want to fill those jobs? If the family is already established here with children born, should the journey to citizenship involve fewer toll booths?
If intermarriage, low birthrates and secularization yield fewer Jews, should we make it easier for others to adopt our religion? If the husband is a Jew by birth should the wife's conversion to Judaism be simplified?
If America is truly the melting pot and if becoming a Jew literally means joining the wider family, then what's the fuss?
While I am a Jew by birth, I'm an American by choice, having become a citizen over a year ago. Maybe more significantly, I have worked to guide dozens of Jews by choice on their journey leading to conversion. I use the Internet as a vehicle to reach out to and attract those who might be consider joining the Jewish people.
MANY WONDER why someone not born Jewish would want to become a Jew, and whether someone who grew up in another tradition can truly embrace a new one. My own experience as an immigrant has helped me understand the possibilities for such profound transitions.
I will always be a Brazilian because I love the hot weather, the warm people, and I have wonderful memories from my childhood. But I chose to become an American for a myriad of reasons influenced by adult rationales and justifications. I encountered America's history, constitution, Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem through mature, experienced eyes and ears. I am most confident that I will be - maybe already have become - a knowledgeable and active participant in my democracy.
I made sure I knew where the polling place was a full two weeks ahead of the first opportunity I had to vote. And I was one of the first in line on that Tuesday in November. And unlike the folks on the street interviewed by Jay Leno, I know the name and recognize the face of the secretary of defense, and the senators from my state (Florida) and the mayor of my town (Miami Beach). My experience is hardly unique. I truly believe that those who make the choice and who work toward attaining the goal of citizenship often become among the most involved and informed citizens. More importantly, those who left other societies and have chosen to work for that goal in America have a more immediate appreciation of the blessings of free speech and assembly and a more personal understanding of the value of our constitutional protections from governmental intrusion.
Likewise, I know from experience that those who choose to become Jewish typically are more knowledgeable about their adopted religion, more appreciative of the similarities and differences between the various faiths, and tend to be more genuine participants in the rituals, obligations and tenets of our tradition.
Whether they were attracted by the philosophy, the history, the ritual practices, or they wanted to further express their love for a spouse, I would be more than pleased to have the pews filled with converts. For the most part, they are adults who have made adult decisions.
IMMIGRANTS TEND to make great Americans; converts tend to make great Jews - and for similar reasons.
Given this, should it be permanently disqualifying if you entered the US without benefit of a visa if you now are willing to pay some kind of sanction (fine or taxes) and go through a rigorous process to introduce the details and mandates of this democracy? Should there be such a rigid bar to being able to call yourself a Jew or to become a member of a congregation of whatever denomination you choose? In modern times, when religious affiliation is not obligatory, should it be so burdensome to join a synagogue?
I was born a Jew; I was not born Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
Should we really be using Halacha as a weapon against people who want to convert? Shouldn't we be looking for ways in which Halacha can be used as a bridge for the acceptance of converts? Furthermore, when one approaches a synagogue, why is it that the sincerity of the convert is always questioned, yet we take for granted that the motives of the born Jew are legitimate?
Don't get me wrong. I am not in favor of an open border or a free pass to citizenship. And I do not wish to see a drive-in conversion window at the neighborhood shul.
There should be realistic standards that help the convert establish the basis for a positive Jewish identity, and there should be serious probing and assessment of the correctness, fluency and sincerity of the answers. But the accident of birth does not make someone different or special and does not and should not provide the title of gatekeeper.
I recoil at the self-styled patriots - those minutemen, or is it minyanmen - who want the day laborers corralled and sent home or who want only purebreds speaking from the bima or participating on the High Holy days.
My adopted country needs and will thrive on the infusion of new immigrants as much as my birth religion needs and will thrive with the addition of those who choose to worship with me. I welcome them as should you.
Interesting Times: Judaism is not a race
By Saul Singer October 25, 2007
My last column ("A 'big idea' for Bronfman") on how anti-conversion attitudes adopted as an exilic survival tactic now threaten Jewish survival in the modern world, sparked a substantial response, most of it positive. The negative reactions, however, may represent an even larger group, so I will take a crack at responding to a sampling.
Reader 1: What's wrong with saying we have this great club, which has its problems, wants to keep its members, do good things for others... all without seeking new members? Who said, just because we have something good going that means we need converts?
Reader 2: Judaism is the only religion in the world that does not proselytize, and it should stay that way. Jews will always be a minority, it says so in the Torah. Jews have nothing to fear from being a small population.
There are many versions of this "small is beautiful" argument. The Torah indeed, says "it is not because you are numerous that God chose you, indeed you are the smallest of peoples." Ever since, we have decided that smallness is a virtue.
The questions are, however: How small do we need to be? How small can we afford to be? And when does being small conflict with accomplishing our purpose in the world?
There are now about 13 million Jews on earth. This is less than half the population of Tokyo, Japan, and about the same as that of Lagos, Nigeria.
To some, this is just more proof that size doesn't matter. Look how much we have been able to accomplish while being so small, they say.
But "small is fine" is not the same as "small is better." And this small is not fine.
It is hard to believe, for example, that Hitler would have even contemplated his Final Solution had there been 100 million Jews in the world in 1939 (there were less than 17 million). Jews have never constituted even 10 percent of the population of the US or any European country. What if they had? Would advocates of smallness still consider this "too big"?
IN TODAY'S terms, 100 million Jews might be considered an astronomical number. But there are over 2 billion Christians and over 1 billion Muslims. What may seem large to Jews is still tiny in the realm of world religions.
It is one thing, moreover, to be tiny; quite another to be tiny and shrinking. Even if, by statistical acrobatics, it is possible to claim that the Jewish population is stable in absolute terms, it cannot be denied that we are shrinking in proportion to the global population and to the countries where Jews live. This shrinkage is even more pronounced with respect to the developed, educated world, which is growing much faster than the total world population.
There is a limit to how much the numbers can be cooked. The combination of low birthrates, high assimilation and negligible conversion cannot add up to sustainability. We are not a species, but if we were, we would have to place ourselves on the "endangered" list.
In this context, it is mind-boggling that so many Jews seem to fear growth more than they fear becoming a historic anecdote, or worse. Even if attitudes toward conversion changed, is there really a danger of there being too many Jews? Where exactly is the flood of potential adherents that justifies barricading the floodgates? How can Jews simultaneously fear being overwhelmed with newcomers while wondering who would want to be Jewish?
More Reader 2: To be Jewish means you're a member of an exclusive club. God chose to reveal himself to the Jews. God doesn't talk to goyim. Jews don't look for converts because it is God's decision, not man's. Reader 3: I don't like the idea of seeking an expansion of the Jewish population through conversion because... I'm very skeptical of what most converts really FEEL about being Jewish... I don't believe in "Jews by Choice." I only believe in Jews that have no option but to be Jewish... developing a Jewish identity that may not even be explainable in rational terms.
I HESITATE to even reprint these reactions because I find them so offensive. Get this straight: Judaism is not a race. How can Jews so blithely spout Hitler's line? Indeed, it is the possibility of conversion (aside from opening one's eyes on any Israeli street) that proves Judaism is not a race.
This is not to say that this attitude does not have Jewish antecedents. It is true that Judaism, as opposed to Christianity or Islam, is not just a creed, but a family and a people. Jews are descendants of Abraham, as opposed to followers of Jesus or Muhammad.
The beauty of conversion, however, is that the convert becomes a descendant of Abraham. A convert's Hebrew name ends with ben Avraham avinu (son of Abraham our father) or bat Sarah imeinu daughter of Sarah our mother). If the Jewish people is a family, then conversion involves an adoption, in the fullest meaning of that word.
But what about the idea that there is something about being Jewish that can't be taught? Or that converts would, in effect, "dilute" the Jewishness of the Jewish people?
I did not convert, but I am an immigrant - to Israel. I grant that at some level I may never feel fully "Israeli." Such is life.
Converts, like immigrants, cannot undo their experience. But, like with immigrants, this experience can also make them stronger and more valuable members of their adopted community. Who appreciates most being an American, an Israeli, or a Jew - those born to these groups, or those who joined them through an act of will?
There is nothing sacred about the birth connection. Just as born Jews migrate away from their birth religion toward nothing or another religion, there is at least some small proportion of non-Jews for whom Judaism is a much better fit.
Many converts feel they have come home to something that was always inside them. Others develop this feeling of belonging over time. Just because Jewishness may not always be "explainable in rational terms" does not mean that the only people with "Jewish souls" are born Jews.
THIS BRINGS US to the fear of "dilution." Sure, converts will, like born Jews, be spread out on the spectrum of observance and Jewish identity. But why are Jews so quick to assume that the supposed non-Jewishness of converts will affect Jewish culture, rather than vice versa?
The convert desires to assimilate into Jewish culture - that's the point of conversion. Those who do not will be peripheral to Jewish life, just like born Jews who reject their heritage. The overwhelming direction of influence is from the weight of Jewish experience and society on the convert, not in the other direction. If Jewishness is not strong enough to shape converts, it is not strong enough to attract them, or to keep born Jews in the first place.
Those who focus on "quality" over "quantity" miss the point. "Quality" should be defined by the "thickness" of Jewish identity and practice, not by birth or observance. How many observant Jews have almost no appreciation of what they are doing? Converts often represent "quality" more than born Jews.
Some converts will not be observant - so what? What is lost by this? What matters is not the size of the Jewish people, but the size and strength of the core. Converts may add to the periphery, but they also add to the core, and that's what matters.
Let's welcome those who want to join our family, and let them help with the challenge of thickening Jewish life in the modern world, regardless of stream and origin.
NY TIMES - The Call to the Torah, Now Heeded Online
By CHARLES DeLaFUENTE
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 S�o 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, http://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."
Published: July 1, 2004 in the New York Times
Jewish Ledger - Ivanka Trump starts conversion process
Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 3:51 PM EST
(JTA) JERUSALEM - Ivanka Trump has begun the process to convert to Judaism. The daughter of real estate tycoon Donald Trump began the conversion process at Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan's East Side, Ynet reported Oct. 31. Trump, 27, is engaged to Jewish businessman Jared Kushner. A former model, she is the vice president of real estate development and acquisitions for her father's Trump Organization. The couple will wed next year.
The sins of their fathers
A relative of Hitler is now Jewish and living in Israel. So is the son of a Waffen-SS man. Tanya Gold talks to the descendants of Nazis who have embraced Judaism
Tanya Gold - The Guardian, Wednesday 6 August 2008
Rabbi Aharon Shear-Yashuv?s father was a soldier in the Waffen-SSTwo years ago I read a strange little story in an obscure American magazine for Orthodox Jews, claiming that a descendant of Adolf Hitler had converted to Judaism and was living in Israel. I had heard rumours in Jewish circles for years about "the penitents" - children of Nazis who become Jews to try to expiate the sins of their fathers. Could it be true? I dug further and discovered that a man with a family connection to Hitler does indeed live in Israel as an Orthodox Jew. Virtually unnoticed in the English-speaking world, he was exposed seven years ago in an Israeli tabloid. Then he sank from sight. I went to Israel to meet him - and on the way I was plunged into the strange subculture of the Nazi-descended Jews.
I am walking through the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, to meet Aharon Shear-Yashuv. He is the son of a Nazi. And yet he was a senior rabbi in the Israeli armed forces. He lives in an apartment in the Jewish quarter, near the Western Wall. I walk through a pale gold alley; Orthodox Jewish men in long black coats and round fur hats dart past. He opens the door and looks like every other rabbi I have ever met - a black suit, a beard, a questioning shrug. He takes me into his study, settles into a chair, and says, in a thick German accent: "My father was in the Waffen-SS."
He was, he explains, born in the Ruhr Valley in 1940. During the war, his father served on the eastern front with Hitler's elite troops. What did his father do in the Waffen-SS? "I don't know," he says calmly. "When I grew up I tried to ask, but there weren't really answers."
He was four when he first met his father. "I don't remember anything about that," he says. It seems he doesn't want to talk about his father; he doesn't describe his conversion in psychological terms but in grand theological and historical ones. "During my theological studies at university it became clear that I couldn't be a minister in the church," he says. "I concluded that Christianity was paganism. One of [its] most important dogmas is that God became man, and if God becomes man then man also can become God." He pauses. "Hitler became a kind of god."
So would he have become a Jew even if the Holocaust had never happened, even if his family had been anti-Nazi? He looks surprised. "Oh yes." I try to draw him back to his father, but he seems exasperated. "Well, you see, he is a father, of course, but ideologically, there was no connection. I was so involved in my conviction that I had found the right path, all the other items no longer had any importance."
Fragments of the story begin to emerge through the haze of theological reasoning. His father was "shocked and enraged" when he went to study Judaism in America, he concedes. "For him that was the end of the world. 'My son is leaving Germany to study in a Jewish rabbinical seminary!' He told me I was crazy and renounced me as a son." When he moved to Israel, his parents pretended that it hadn't happened; they told their neighbours he was still in America. Years later, his sister arranged a meeting with his parents at a station in D�sseldorf. Shear-Yashuv arrived with a Jewish friend. His father peered out of the train, saw the Jewish stranger, and refused to get off.
Today, he believes Germany is doomed. "People there don't get married, and if they do they have one child," he says. "But the Turks and the other foreigners have many children. So it is a question of time that Germany will no longer be German." Why does he think this has happened? "I think it is a punishment for the Holocaust," he says, matter-of-factly. "Germany will leave the stage of history, no doubt about it." But the Jews, by contrast, will never die. This is a neat irony of history that he loves. "All the great cultures have left the stage of history," he says. "The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Babylonians. But this little people, who gave so much to the world, do not." He chuckles. "That is something."
I walk through the Old City, pondering my encounter with this strange, kindly man. Something seems to be missing from his story. To stand in front of a rabbi whose father was in the SS and to hear he became a Jew because he doubted the Trinity is absurd. So I telephone Dan Bar-On, a professor of psychology at Ben Gurion University, and a world expert on the psychology of the children of perpetrators. He tells me, flatly, pitilessly: "The motive of the converts is to join the community of the victims. If you become part of the victim community, you get rid of the burden of being part of the perpetrator community." He interviewed Shear-Yashuv for his book Legacy of Silence. "For me," he says, "Shear-Yashuv represents a person who ran away from the past."
A few days later, I take a tatty bus to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, on a mountain just outside Jerusalem. There is an air of absolute, manufactured silence. In the middle is a glass-and-concrete mausoleum - the memorial. I am here to meet a woman who works in the educational department. She was born in Munich, she told me on the telephone, and she is a convert. I meet her in a cafe on the terrace; it is very chichi, but the wind is blowing in from the desert. She is in her late 30s and her head is covered. Her face is stereotypically German but the mannerisms - her emphatic movements and the soaring cadences of her voice - are all Jewish.
I cannot name her, she says. (Apart from Shear-Yashuv, every convert refuses to be named.) She tells me, briskly and crossly, that although her grandparents were not perpetrators in the Holocaust, they were bystanders, anti-semites. Her mother, she explains, still says things like, "There are a lot of rich Jews in America," and her family have what she calls "a classic German narrative" about the war. She bunches her fists. "There were no Jews in these stories and no Nazis in these stories," she says. And she imitates them, angrily. "No, no, there were no Nazis, we are not Nazis. We didn't know any Jews, we didn't know anything." How did she feel about it? She pauses, and then says, "I was annoyed."
Her favoured word for Germany is "annoyed". She was "annoyed" when a synagogue recently opened in Munich. "People said, 'Now we have closed the circle; now everything is fine,'" she says. "It was like nothing had happened. But there were 11,000 Jews in Munich before the Holocaust. Where are they now?" She is annoyed by the affluence of Germany. "Everything is so clean," she says. "Everything is so ... nice. And here," she stares out over the mountains, "the life is so difficult sometimes."
Why did she become Jewish? "Because I was annoyed by how the narrative was fixed," she says. She tells me a story from the Midrash, a Jewish commentary on the Bible. There are, it states, non-Jews who are born with Jewish souls. They belong to the Jewish people, and will eventually join them. "It is only a matter of time," she says, speaking very seriously, "before you learn you should convert." I remember Shear-Yashuv said this too.
I ask her if she believes that Nazi children convert to expiate the guilt of their parents - but this angers her. "There is something not right when you do it to get rid of your German burden," she says. "That is not honest in my eyes. Do you stop being the daughter of a Wehrmacht soldier if you are Jewish? No. That is no solution. You don't get rid of it." So why is she here? "To live here, to work here, to be this bridge between two worlds." She repeats the word "bridge" and she calls it "exciting". She talks of her "motivation package" and she calls the "discourse about the Holocaust" in Germany "sophisticated". There is something emotionless about it, something deeply unsaid. And precisely on the stroke of the hour, she looks at her watch and says, "I have to go now."
I call Bar-On again. I feel the converts are giving me half-answers, scraps of answers. They talk about despising the Trinity and the terrible things that the Germans did to the Jews, but it seems like they are talking a genocide that doesn't exist, even in their memories. I can't escape the feeling that it is all about something else.
I tell Bar-On they talk obsessively about the Trinity. But is incredulity really a reason for abandoning a religion with a three-in-one god for one that still believes bushes talk and that waves are parted by the will of God? "That is another way of saying what I have already told you," he says. "They want to join the community of the victim. They may have their own way of rationalising it."
Later that day, I meet a young man. He bounces into a kebab shop on West Jerusalem's main drag. He is 24, handsome and excitable. He tells me, simply, that he hated Germany. "In Germany I didn't care about anyone," he spits. "I didn't give a fuck." He describes a jumbled youth, being thrown out of school, joining the army, rejecting the army. After a while, he drags me off to the Independence Park, sipping a Coke, and telling me how wonderful it all is in Israel.
He describes growing up in a small town in industrial western Germany. A terrible anger leaks into his sentences. When I ask him why he converted, he stares at the spindly trees, bunches his arms between his knees like an adolescent boy, and says, "I hate that question. I don't know." He calms down and says that something wasn't right for him in Germany, ever: "I was always looking for my place. I hated Catholicism. I have hated it since I was 14." He educated himself and what he likes about Judaism, he says, is that "what counts is the deed. In Christianity it is enough just to believe."
"I didn't think of my family of being like 'the Germans'," he says. "I didn't say, 'Grandfather, did you kill anyone?' My grandmother said, 'As kids under the Nazis, before the war, we had a wonderful time. They sent us to Croatia, they sent us to Sweden, and we had youth camps. How could we not be thankful for what they gave us?'" The Holocaust was just a subject you learned in history, he says. "You went in the classroom twice a week, they told you, you fell asleep."
But he tells me one of his grandmother's anecdotes about Nazism. "She remembers Kristallnacht," he says. "She was 13. She says she remembered there were Jewish shops that got burned down and it was a big loss. Because, she said, you could always go to the Jews and buy something and if you didn't have the money you could bring it in next time."
And that is his family. He never asked them about the war - I have yet to meet a convert who has. According to Bar-On, converts and their parents almost never speak about the war. He calls it the "double wall": both the parent and child erect a wall of silence; even if one tries to break it, the other will keep it firmly in place.
This man told his parents he was converting one Christmas Day. He has had death threats from neo-Nazis, he says. His hometown is full of them. Why does he think they became neo-Nazis? "Ask them - don't ask me," he replies. Did he become Jewish because of the Holocaust? "People ask me that a lot," he says, "and when I say no they don't believe me." Does he really believe that? "Maybe." He sighs and looks around at the trees. "Maybe what the war made Germany into ..." He pauses and then says, "I feel myself turning into a block of ice every time when I go back. I have to force myself to melt down again."
I call Bar-On a final time. They all say they are happy now, I tell him. Is this true? The conversion "may give them an illusion of peace", he says. "But it is not the way to work through the role of the parents [in the war]. I think it is running away from it. In order to be able to really work through the past, you have to try to understand how could it be that your father was a mass murderer. You have to think of the possibilities that had you lived at this time you might also have been able to do such things."
Is he telling me that they are always wondering what they would have done in Nazi Germany to the Jews they have become? "Being in Israel is to keep away as far as possible from it," he replies. "I am not sure to what extent they have really been accepted into Israeli society. I think they are struggling. I don't envy them."
As far as I can tell, the converts may know of each other, but they do not come together. In Judaism it is a sin to point the finger at a convert. And why would they? They are not here to be German; they are here to be Jewish.
I return to the suburbs to meet an artist. This convert is also a member of an organisation that promotes human rights for Palestinians. An incredibly beautiful woman answers the door and I say hello. "Oh, no," she says. "You are not here to speak to me - you are here to speak to my girlfriend." The woman I have come to interview is small and wiry, with short hair; she says she is 42. She speaks very, very fast. The words pour out of her.
She sits me down and gives me cake and coffee. I say I have interviewed a lot of converts. "Are they all mad?" she asks me, and laughs. What does she mean? "Well," she says, "I met some who surprised me. Some of them were shockingly unintelligent. I even wondered why they would have the intellectual independence to make this choice - especially the people who chose to be ultra-Orthodox, who chose to throw away their freedom." She shrugs. "There is stigma in conversion," she says. "People end up being fanatics."
She sips her coffee and says that she believes there is a parallel between the way that some Jews respond to the Palestinians and the way some Germans responded to the Nazis. She never asked her grandmother about the war, she says, because she loved her too much. "I was worried I would get hurt by information I didn't want to know," she says. "Sometimes I feel that a lot of Israelis live that way. It is better not to ask questions, and not be hurt, and so you don't have to look at yourself or your family or your nation. And you can live with the illusion of who is good and who is bad."
She says she was eight years old when she first heard of a Jew. "I heard a boy next door call another boy a 'stupid Jew'," she says. "I asked my mother, 'What is a Jew, and is it something bad?'"
When she learned about the Holocaust, it literally made her retch. "I was horrified by what Germans did to Jews," she says. "I was physically disgusted. And I was totally disgusted by even my own Germanness." It is strange to hear things like this over coffee in a clean apartment in the Middle East. "I didn't want to be German," she says. "And because this entered my mind so early, it became as natural as brushing my teeth."
So why did she convert? She grimaces. "It isn't rational. We are talking about religion here." But she says she ran away to Israel to convert when she was 25. And today, she berates herself for her immaturity in doing it. She was shocked by the racism in Israel. Towards her? "Towards the Arabs," she replies. "I felt that I was being told that to be a good Jew, you had to hate Arabs." So she stands at West Bank checkpoints to observe the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians.
"It causes a lot of tension to come here and say the things that I say," she says. So why does she say them? "Because it would be very inconsistent to have had so much criticism of Germans who were terrible cowards when it was still possible to say something, and then to come here and not speak up for justice."
She is through with Israel. She says it is because of the triple whammy of otherness - German, leftwing, gay. A shrink would say that she came here to be wrong, I tell her. "Don't think I haven't thought about it in those terms myself," she replies. "I had wanted to connect myself to a history I did not perceive as shameful. Now I am wondering if I will stay. I am more or less sure that I won't. Sometimes I feel I am not built for it, that I am not strong enough for this country." She runs her hands through her hair briskly, and shakes her head. "Sometimes I feel that just by existing I am always wrong here. But I cannot live with personal attacks now. I cannot bear it."
Later that day, I meet the man who brought me here to Israel, the man who started all this - the so-called Jewish Hitler. He is a professor at the Jewish studies faculty at one of the universities. I telephoned him, and to my surprise he answered. How could I ask: "Are you a Hitler?" I told him I was writing a story about German converts to Judaism, and he said I could come over immediately. So I go to an apartment just around the corner from where the artist lives. It is a grimy white block, with a few scrubby bushes outside.
I walk upstairs and a woman with the headscarf of all married orthodox Jewish women answers the door. She doesn't say anything, simply gestures for me to sit at a table in a room heaving with books. And then he comes in. Is this my Jewish Hitler? He is incredibly tall and slim, in a blinding yellow shirt, very animated, and his accent - an odd pulp of German, English and Hebrew - seems to zoom out of him. He is holding two pieces of paper. One is a family tree; the other is a printout of an account of the life of Alois Hitler Junior - Adolf Hitler's half-brother.
"I will tell you the whole story," he says, "on the condition that you do not print my name". He places the first piece of paper in front of me, points at names, and begins a strange, almost incomprehensible account of the lives of Germans who died more than a century ago. At the end of each summary of a long finished life, he jabs his finger on the table and says, "OK?" It only becomes clear what he is doing when I follow the tree down to a name I know - Alois Hitler.
Alois Hitler had two sons who lived to maturity - Adolf (that Adolf) and Alois Junior. This half-brother of the F�hrer then produced an illegitimate son called Hans. "OK?" he says. "Hans married my grandmother Erna after she divorced my grandfather."
He immediately states that he hates the Hitler branch of his family. He becomes agitated. "I have neither any blood nor DNA from Adolf and his family," he insists. "I was not socialised by that family." He met Hans only once. The Hitlers came for tea when he was 12 years old. "Hans was a very nice man," he says. "No passions, no brutality." But Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler clan, and remained a Nazi until she died. "I didn't know her," he says of his grandmother. "She wasn't part of my family."
The professor explains that his mother severed all connections with the Hitlers. As a teenager she was beaten for refusing to go to Hitler Youth dances, and when she gave birth to the professor - an illegitimate child she conceived during an affair with a married man - her mother and stepfather disowned her. He was raised in a series of rented rooms, while the Hitlers lived well. After the war, his grandmother changed her name, but her beliefs remained.
He begins to tell me what happened to his mother during the war. She worked as a typist for the Wehrmacht in Poland and she saw dead Jews hanging in the town squares. "She was a girl in the war," he says, "but I always appreciated that she told me the truth about it. We spoke frankly. I never heard that normal German lie you hear so often from that generation." His voice rises and he impersonates them with a fierce whine: "'We didn't know, we just did our duty.'" And he thumps the table. "My grandparents never understood what they had done," he says. "My mother understood." When she came home after the Allied victory, she was denounced as a Nazi, and the Communists seized her flat. "She became one of those German ladies who cleared up after all the bombing." He stomps to the kitchen and comes back, thrusting two silver spoons at me. "That is all that my mother brought home from the war. I keep them to honour her."
It was a brutal childhood: he barely saw his father, and his mother beat him - one time so severely that she couldn't go to work for three days because her fingers were too swollen to type. "She was a fighter," he says. "It is not the nicest thing you can be." Was she religious? He gives a deranged giggle. "She had the religion of herself," he says.
His mother was entirely alone. "Nobody helped anybody at that time," he says. His father had another family - a real family: "I saw my father very seldom and the times I saw him I was so proud to have a father that it was not the time to ask what he did in the war. He died when I was 19. So I never asked him what he did." But he does know his father was a major in the Wehrmacht. So, barring a miracle, he killed people for Hitler.
His journey towards Judaism was long. "It was not a sudden light from heaven that came down." When he was a teenager he met a girl who was interested in Judaism, and he read Mein Kampf. "I was embarrassed when I read it," he says. "How could people be so stupid as to elect a person who was writing things like this? It's awful." He blinks at me. "I don't think you can really understand how awful it is if you don't read it in German. I put it away. But I keep it here." Did he ever finish it? He scowls at me for the first and only time. "No."
When the time came for him to be conscripted into the German army, he decided to take a theology degree, because he wanted to benefit from an ironic leftover from Nazism: Hitler promised the Pope in 1933 that he wouldn't conscript priests, and the law has never been repealed. "I am a pacifist," he says. "You raise up an army if you think you have to use it." As part of the degree, he was due to spend six weeks in Israel in the early 1970s. "I felt at home. I was no longer living in a conflict. I didn't have to reject the older generation. And I thought I had met for the first time a nationality that at that point in history - today it is more problematic - still had good reasons to be proud of itself." So he stayed.
We go out on to the balcony to smoke. He really enjoys his cigarette; I can see he is a pleasure-savouring man. He does not have the heaviness of the other converts, who all seemed crushed by an invisible burden. Is it because he spoke to his mother about it all? I steel myself and ask: would he have become Jewish without the Holocaust? "I think not," he says. "The sharp distinction between the generations that committed the crimes and the generation born after wouldn't exist. Non-Germans hardly understand that a whole generation checked out our teachers and asked, 'Where were you 20 years ago?'"
And then, to my surprise, he calls his son - his Israeli son - a fascist. "When I hear my own son speak - as I did last weekend - I sat like this," and he does the Hitler salute. "Two of my sons are chauvinists and one of them is even partially racist. I can't listen to fascistic discourse. I don't suffer that." They talk about the Palestinians with contempt. "Each time I hear it is another time too much. If the Holocaust and the Third Reich have really somehow shaped me, I am a sworn democrat. I believe that democracy has to prove itself by keeping the rights of its minorities."
I have been with this man for three hours, insistently asking why - why did you convert? Why? This stray branch of the Hitler family tree stares out at his dull suburban street at the heart of the Jewish state, puffs on his cigarette, and begins to talk about the images of the Holocaust that linger in his mind. "I see that soldier trampling that child and in the end killing it, and I remember that kind of aggression. I remember the feeling of the child, too. I remember both. I could see my father or my grandfather really standing there."
And as he says this, his shoulders seem to relax. He is giving me my answer. "And all I can say, Tanya," he says from inside his little cloud of smoke, "is that since I came to Israel, that feeling isn't there any more."
For Love Of Judaism
Families share their unique stories about conversion.
Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Staff Writer, The Detroit Jewish News
Five years ago, Pam and Ray Herdman were devout Christians, living in the state of Wyoming, ready to start a family. Today, using their newly chosen Hebrew names of Batya and Netanel, the couple and their children - Calev, 4, and Chana, 2 - are Orthodox Jews, making a home in Southfield where she works at Yeshivat Akiva and they are members of the nearby Young Israel. The Herdmans are among the 10,000 individuals who, according to Aish.com, convert to Judaism worldwide each year. But unlike the many who become Jewish for the love of a spouse, their reason for conversion was based on a love of religion. While there is no question a conversion spurred by an impending marriage can bring about the same love and connection to Judaism, those whose choice comes from within follow a bit of a different path.
Of the 7-10 possible conversion candidates he sees each year, "most are not doing it for marriage," said Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. "More than any other ritual in the Jewish community, conversion is driven by an introspective journey." Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn has converted hundreds of people. In addition to those he meets within his Miami Beach, FL, synagogue, he oversees the same study process for those who complete his online course at http://www.convertingtojudaism.com. "The majority of those who contact me are not converting because they are getting married," he said. They are people who have a true love of Judaism or have fallen in love with the culture.
"In Tennessee, I converted a whole congregation in a traditional synagogue. I tell people that this is a very individual choice and that this may not be for them. My job is to help guide them to know if they are good for Judaism and if Judaism is good for them."
The road to conversion is similar among the denominations of Judaism, with each tailoring the process to its own stream. Basically, all include a variation of steps, including meetings with rabbis, studying Jewish history and the beliefs, laws, customs, rituals and prayer related to the stream's philosophy.
The process also includes participation in Jewish communal and home life, immersion in the mikvah, male circumcision (actual or symbolic), choosing a Hebrew name, appearing before a beit din, making a commitment to being a member of the Jewish people and participating in a welcoming ceremony. Here, several people share how and why they converted to Judaism. From the December 21-27, 2006 issue of the The Detroit Jewish News.
For the rest of the Article go to http://www.convertingtojudaism.com/conversiontojudaism.htm
From the September 23, 2003 issue of the The Clarion-Ledger.
A Leap of Faith
If HBO is in any way a measure of societal trends, religious conversion remains strong.
This season, Sex and the City's Charlotte York abandoned her Christian roots to convert to Judaism so she could marry Harry Goldblatt.
Statistics on how many people convert for love are scarce, but it's not just fodder for television story lines.
"I haven't seen any recent studies on that topic," says Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University. "But it certainly is happening. The whole thing about how you have to marry within your faith is a very old tradition in many ways, and in some cases goes back to the Bible and when it makes references to the fact you should not be married to unbelieving people."
Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn of Temple B'nai Israel in Hattiesburg said in all actuality people marry because they find some common interests. A Sex and the City fan, he said York began to explore Judaism because of her love interest, but she converted because she found herself connected to Judaism. "She converted because of herself, not for him.
"I don't think people usually convert because they want to make their mother-in-law happy," he added. "They convert because they feel a calling, they feel a spiritual connection.
"When you find the right faith, it's like the right shoe - it fits."
The reasons for converting vary.
Some switch faiths for the love of a man or woman and because of children. Some say it's a bond that makes a marriage stronger as couples can share the same values, religious beliefs and morals. Others say they've done a lot of soul searching and found their "new religion" satisfying, because it was something they've studied and were exposed to through spouses or partners.
"I see a lot of this in my practice," said Dr. Sharon Jones, a mental health counselor for an Episcopal counseling center. "I do believe that questions of faith need to be seriously considered before a marriage."
Monsignor Michael Flannery, vicar general of the Roman Catholic diocese of Jackson, doesn't advise converting just for the sake of having somebody to go to church with. Just because you attend the same church or share the same faith doesn't guarantee a perfect marriage, he said.
"Here in Mississippi, the majority of the marriages in the Catholic Church are interfaith marriages because Catholics are in the minority here," he said. "Personally, I don't think marrying someone of a different faith is a bad thing."
Jones recommends that people think about why they want to make the switch and make sure they are educated about the particular religion.
"True conversion comes from inside and not as a result of wanting to marry someone to please them, family, church elders or for the sake of unborn children," Jones says. "If one converts on the outside, as they grow, they could find that it is not a decision that was good for them."
While sharing the same faith can bring families together, it also should not be the cause for marital problems, says the Rev. Douglas Bailey, campus minister at Florida Tech and an instructor of world religions and ethics.
"It's certainly a peg of compatibility if couples have the same religion, but it shouldn't be a divisive factor between couples, either," Bailey says, adding that students and Florida Tech alumni have asked for advice on the issue of conversion.
"I do think a reason why people consider conversion is because they are in love and they want to have a common bond," Bailey says. "But in the Catholic Church, we are very careful to inform people that they should be converting for one reason, and that's an inner conversion."
Sister Coleen Klinger, an office assistant at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Jackson mission, says individuals are advised to convert to their faith only if they believe the teachings in the Book of Mormon are true.
"We have missionaries that go out two-by-two to teach them and we also have six discussions with them," she says. "Conversion is a serious matter and we believe people can decide for themselves whether the teachings are true or not."
Nov 19, 2008 15:46 | Updated Nov 19, 2008 15:51
Uncomfortably Jewish in the Deep South
By TALIA RAPHAEL
Recently a non-Jewish friend of mine, who is married to an Israeli, told me about her plans to convert. Over dinner that night, I passed the big news along to my boyfriend, also Israeli and typically secular in what he refers to as an "Ashkenazi" way.
I asked my mom, 'Am I a cracker?' 'No honey. Crackers are white people.'
"Oh, guess what? 'Kate' is converting," I said.
"Really? And then she'll be a Jew? Just like that?" he snapped his fingers.
I thought about it - is there a moment that one suddenly becomes a Jew... a second that one is infused with some essential Jewishness?
I started to tell Boaz, "I guess so. I mean, according to rabbinic law... "
He shook his head. "I don't know. It seems weird to me. You can't just become Jewish."
"Well, technically, you can. We do accept converts, you know."
"Yeah, but what? Poof, just like that, and she's Jewish?"
The conversation was going nowhere - he obviously sits on the "Judaism as an ethnic group" side and me... I'm not sure where I sit on that one. But I know where I used to sit - uncomfortably Jewish in the Deep South. I remember feeling a heat spread across my face in elementary school when my classmates would question me about my hai pendant - small and delicate, dangling from an equally thin and fragile gold necklace.
"It looks sort of like a dog," someone told me in fourth grade.
"It's a hai," I said, giving my best cccchet.
"It's a Jewish thing..." I didn't know exactly how to explain, because I didn't know exactly what the necklace meant. It was something that my grandmother, a first-generation American who was born and raised in New York, made me wear.
Though I was too young to realize it at the time, I look back now and I realize that I spent much of my childhood looking for a way to slip my "Jewishness" off. Like Kate, I was moving toward a moment of change.
In fourth grade, I did my best every day, tucking my hai necklace under the collar of my shirt when I arrived at school. When I got older, I took it off altogether, tucking it into a corner of my jewelry box. The corner of my closet was also full, as I piled the books about Judaism that my aunts sent to me. They'd somehow taken responsibility for my Jewish life and from afar the best they could do was send me books. Every Jewish holiday, every one of my birthdays, another book arrived and dutifully I tucked it into the closet so that my friends - non-Jewish, every single one - wouldn't ask me questions.
What about my parents? My mom practiced her own peculiar brand of New York Judaism, which consisted of pointing out all the churches whenever we were driving. "Look at this place," she remarked in her New York accent, "there's a church on every corner." My mom's brand of Judaism also had something to do with bagels - I never figured out exactly what.
My mom was what is sometimes referred to as a "Jew-Bu," short for Jewish Buddhist. Far before Israeli kids fresh from the army were descending upon India and the Far East in droves, my mom burned incense, decorated our house with Buddhas, Hindu deities, and practiced vegetarianism, all in addition to "observing" the Jewish holidays.
For Pessah, she added matza to our leavened-bread-heavy diet. If we had a Seder, there was no mention of the holiday, it was just a big meal. During Hanukka, she would light the candles for the first few nights, and then forget about it for the remainder of the holiday - wandering off to leave our abandoned hanukkia to sit on the kitchen counter, bereft of candles, for weeks on end.
But despite my mom's inconsistent observance of Judaism as a religion, she always reminded me we were different from those around me. We were Jewish.
In fourth grade, a black girl cut ahead of my best friend while we were standing in line for the swing at recess. Already a believer in social justice, I'd said, "Hey! It's Christy's turn!" and the girl punched me in the stomach, called me a cracker, and ran off to the swing. I didn't know what the term "cracker" meant, but her tone of voice told me it wasn't something you ate with cheese.
At dinner that night, I asked my mom, "Am I a cracker?"
"No, honey. Crackers are white people. Where did you hear that word anyways?" she asked.
"A black girl at school called me that," I said.
"You're not a cracker. We're Jewish," she said, almost indignantly, with a haughty flip of her black hair.
There was no one moment that I underwent a conversion from who I was to the ola hadasha I am today. Rather it was a piling on of moments... a process. I suspect Kate's conversion will be the same - it won't be a magical moment where she suddenly becomes a Jew. It will happen over time, through understanding the world around her and where she fits in to it, both with her Judaism and without. That's how it happened to me.
Rabbi at new synagogue speaks of converts to Judaism
BY SERGIO CARMONA, JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
There's a new rabbi in town.
Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn, who moved to Miami-Dade County in May and has started Adat Achim Synagogue in Sunny Isles, knows a great deal about those who convert to Judaism. Since his rabbinic career started more than a decade ago, Cukierkorn, 37, has converted many of those people himself - in Europe, South America and China. Welcoming new people as Jews is important to him.
"Today, we have as many Jews in the world as there were the day the Americans liberated the concentration camps," he said. "Next generation, we will have negative growth, and we're going to have less Jews in the world. Somebody has got to do something about it. I believe that as a leader of Jewish people, we should put them on the red carpet; we should welcome those people who are legitimately interested in becoming Jewish. It must be offered to them."
Cukierkorn was born in Brazil and comes from a rabbinical family that goes back 700 years. He is a member of the rabbinical cabinet of United Jewish Appeal. His conversion process involves an online course for people who are willing to be Jewish and can convert anyone from any part of the world through online study and a final exam.
"This course gives people the tools to empower themselves to establish Jewish identity in a way that they can work on their own time, because today's environment and situation regarding our : mobility, regarding our schedule and other priorities we have in our lives, sometimes would not allow many people to be in a regular conversion to Judaism course," he said.
Cukierkorn. currently has 30-40 students from South Florida. One of those students, Tatiana Suarez, who resides in Miami-Dade County, is. grateful for the course's flexibility and the learning opportunity provided.
"Rabbi Cukierkorn has a very nice method about learning Judaism;" said Suarez. "He's critical. He can get deeper. If you don't have time, he gives flexibility to his students. The" rabbi gives you everything you need to know and he guides you very well through the course."
Cukierkorn enjoys working with students who posses the maturity to learn to become a Jew.
"I think that the very beauty of people coming into Judaism is they have an adult mind and that they're going to 'experience things for the first time already with a mature mind," he, said. Cukierkorn is not only impressed with his students' maturity, but impressed with their dedication, as well.
"Most of the people I work with, they could choose any religion, and for them becoming Jewish and joining the greater Jewish family is the most important thing in their life," he said. 'as a congregational rabbi, I have never seen another group 'that opens so much enthusiasm in Judaism than people converting; and usually they make wonderful Jews."
Cukierkorn has also provided close guidance to his students. One is Larry Hudson, a former student who became a Jew in 2002.
"He's provided close guidance to our family here in Florida," Hudson said. "He is very astute in the field of Judaism, and he's provided guidance to individuals like ourselves in converting to Judaism." Cukierkorn is proud to have an impact on his students' lives.
"From all of my rabbinic duties, converting people gives me the greatest pleasure," he said. "I have converted people from New Zealand to Argentina, and having a small part in their lives is the greatest reward I have in myrabbinic duties."
Cukierkorn's guidelines, expectations and requirements. for his course are available at http://www.convertingtojudaism.com. He can be reached at 305-510-8111. Origininally featured in the L'Chaim section of The Jewish Journal July 10, 2007
Inmate wins kosher ruling
December 11, 2008
NEW YORK (JTA) --
A federal appeals court handed a victory to a Jewish convert fighting for kosher food in a Nevada prison.
In its Dec. 2 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court must determine the sincerity of Lawrence Seville Parks' religious beliefs if the trial is to move forward, The Associated Press reported.
Parks has claimed that his constitutional rights were violated because he was initially refused kosher food on the grounds that he couldn't show a "hereditary connection" to Judaism or deep understanding of the religion. Parks is a black convert. In September, officials at Ely State Prison in Nevada began providing Parks with kosher food after he reportedly lost about 45 pounds. The appeals court ruling determined that his claim for damages isn't erased because he is now receiving the food.
Germany's largest newspaper reports on Rabbi Cukierkorn's Historic mission where he performed Jewish Conversions. Accompanied by members of Adat Achim Synagogue, Rabbi Cukierkorn traveled to Obersalzberg in August of 2007 where several of his students convened in the educational center of the infamous "Eagle's Nest", the place where Hitler lived and planned the destruction of the World's jewry. In this beautiful area of Germany, now the site of a luxury hotel, new Jewish souls were born.
Jewish Journal: Shalom Amigo Radio Program discusses Conversion to Judaism
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