Kari Field is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. Prior to her rabbinical studies, she was the senior manager of marketing communications for a national managed health care company, and graduated from Pomona College with a degree in International Relations. She currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband Brian.
"And Your People Shall Be My People": A Convert Talks about Becoming a Rabbi
First let me explain that I did not start the conversion process thinking that I would become a rabbi. In fact, I doubted that I would ever become Jewish. But there was a quiet longing, deep in my soul, for religious meaning, and this on-going process of learning is how I have attempted to answer it.
My interest in Judaism started when I was in college, when I was dating my husband. In my senior year, I met with the campus rabbi on a fact-finding mission, to find out more about Judaism and conversion. But it was many years later before I was ready to make my first move towards Judaism. In fact, it took me about five years to go from "I don't think that I could ever really convert" to "well, maybe."
I finally made the decision when my husband and I got engaged. What made me decide to convert? One reason was that I wanted us to have a Jewish home together, to celebrate the holidays together, to feel that we were one family with one religion. Another reason was that Judaism made sense to me in a way that my native religious upbringing had not. And finally, it just felt right. After many years of searching, Judaism seemed to offer me the possibility of finding a true religious home, a place and a structure in which I could find religious meaning in my life.
My first class was a year-long "Introduction to Judaism" course, which my husband and I took together in preparation for our marriage, and shortly after that I started the Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah course at my synagogue. This class was not required for conversion, but I took it in order to learn how to become fully fluent in the Jewish worship service.
The conversion ceremony took place before my Bat Mitzvah. The first step of the conversion ritual was to go to the mikvah, to be immersed in a ritual bath. The immersion was optional, but I found myself wanting to go through with the full expression of the act. I felt that this ritual would help me express a series of feelings that were beyond words, an emotion that runs deeper than any verbal language could express.
Then, after the mikvah, which is symbolic of a kind of rebirth, I was ready to appear before the Beit Din, which is actually a type of legal court. It is composed of three rabbis who make the determination as to whether your request to become Jewish will be accepted in accordance with Jewish law. Though I was nervous, it turned out to be a very friendly meeting with three local rabbis (including my own rabbi), who asked me questions about my background, my knowledge of Judaism, the seriousness of my intent.
Immediately following the Beit Din, we held the conversion ceremony. As I held the Torah in my arms, its bells were shaking with me. I chanted a prayer from the Bible and read a passage from the Book of Ruth. I was formally given my Hebrew name of Ahuvah Leah and was welcomed into the Jewish people. Though it was a relatively short service, those few moments will remain long in my memory, for that was the moment in which I became a Jew.
Looking back, those months stand out for me as a spiritual high point. I had my conversion and Bat Mitzvah right after each other, a series of deeply moving and emotionally complex events: I became Jewish; I read from the Torah; I helped lead a service. Once I had completed these ceremonies, however, I faced a new challenge: What would I make of my Jewish life? I needed to define who I would be as a practicing Jew.
On Saturday mornings, a little group had formed at my synagogue to talk about the weekly Torah portion. I started going somewhat irregularly at first (it was so early in the morning!), but I found that it filled the missing place where my conversion classes had been. I enjoyed the process of talking about the issues that transcend our workday life: about theology and God, ethics and choices, Bible and belief. I also enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the other participants. We learned a lot about each other: who had doubts and who found belief easy; who liked things mystical and who preferred the rational; who argued with conviction and who was slow to speak.
It was in that community that I discovered my love of teaching. Since the group was self-led, a different participant would volunteer to teach each week. I soon became a regular volunteer, teaching about once every five weeks; I simply loved the work. In fact, I first thought of becoming a rabbi in the course of preparing for that group. I was reading Between God and Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel and I remember thinking that this was the real stuff, the truly important concerns, on which I would want to build my life.
So I approached my rabbi and his response was very positive. I started working with him to gain the experience I needed to be considered as a candidate. In addition to learning Hebrew and reading extensively, I continued to volunteer as a teacher, participated on my temple board, and founded an outreach program. It took several years to build the background needed, but I was accepted as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, and have just finished my first year. God willing, I will be ordained as a rabbi after four more years.
Each step grew naturally out of the previous step; at no point did I make a dramatic right turn. This is not the path I would have envisioned when I started, but I am grateful to my rabbi, to my synagogue, and my community for having given me the opportunity to find this path. What started as a personal search for meaning has become my life's work.
- Conversion to Judaism requires about a year of classes, and/or individual study with a rabbi. In my case, it was an "Introduction to Judaism" class and an Adult Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah course. If you are interested in conversion, the first step is to contact a rabbi in your area.
- The traditional conversion ritual involves three steps: immersion in a mikvah, appearance before a Beit Din (a court of rabbis), and a ceremony. I found these three steps to be very meaningful events in my life.
- The conversion process brought me closer to my synagogue; after the conversion, I felt a need to continue learning, so I joined a weekly Torah Study group. I was in the course of Torah study that I discovered my love of teaching and my desire to do rabbinic work.
- It can take several years to build the necessary experience to be considered a candidate for the rabbinate; in my case, I studied Hebrew, taught Torah study classes, participated on the temple board, started an outreach program, and read a lot of Jewish books.
Rabbi: A rabbi is the spiritual leader of a Jewish congregation. However, a rabbi's role is different than that of a minister or a priest. It is not a requirement that a synagogue have a rabbi. In fact, Jewish religious services can always be lead by a knowledgeable lay person. A rabbi's role is to guide Jews in the process of learning and to offer the depth of his or her Jewish knowledge for the benefit of the community. To become a rabbi, a student must study for many years in an intensive graduate program before receiving ordination. Traditionally, rabbis were always male, but now there are many female rabbis as well. In fact, half of my rabbinical class is female.
"Introduction to Judaism": These classes, which are sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, are offered in most neighborhoods, either by the local Reform temple, or jointly by several temples in the area. They usually operate continuously (which means that it is possible to join the class at any point during the year), and they are open to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Bar Mitzvah (for boys) or Bat Mitzvah (for girls) is a Jewish ceremony in which the boy or girl leads the Saturday morning worship service. Traditionally done by boys at age 13, the practice has also been extended to girls. It is a great honor to be called up as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, since it demonstrates mastery of the fundamentals of Jewish prayer. In recent years, courses have been developed to allow adults the same opportunity if they missed it as children.
Torah: The Torah is composed of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are handwritten in Hebrew on a parchment scroll. This scroll is brought out on Saturdays, holidays, and some weekdays to be read as part of the worship service. The word "Torah" can also sometimes be used in a general sense to mean all Jewish religious literature.
Mikvah: The mikvah is a ritual bath, filled with water from a "living" source, such as the ocean, a lake, or a river. The mikvah is used for rituals of purification; for example, it is used by Jewish scribes before writing a Torah scroll.
Beit Din: The Beit Din is a council of three rabbis who rule on matters of Jewish law.
Weekly Torah Portion: The first five books of the Bible are divided into weekly portions, a traditional division of the Torah for the cycle of readings during the year.
Outreach: Outreach refers to programs designed to assist recent converts, intermarried couples, and those on the fringes of Jewish life to feel welcome in the synagogue.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.