Rabbi Helen T. Cohn offers spiritual direction in Tucson, Ariz. She has worked extensively with interfaith couples and with people considering conversion to Judaism.
The Household of Israel is Built Up by Jews-by-Choice
Earlier today I spoke with a young woman who was appearing before a beit din, a group of three rabbis, as part of her conversion process. I asked her one of my favorite questions, and sure enough, her answer did not come as a surprise.
I asked her if her interest in Judaism had made a difference in her husband's relationship with Judaism. Her answer? It certainly had! Initially he was glad that she was considering conversion, but frankly, he had not wanted to participate too much in the process. Also, he was concerned that she was becoming "too Jewish," what with wanting to observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) and go to services regularly.
But slowly during the past year he had become an enthusiastic partner, and their Friday evenings together, alone or with friends, had become the high point of their week. They had joined a synagogue (the first time in his adult life), and he was considering taking a Talmud course with the rabbi.
This story is repeated time and again, as non-Jews discover Judaism with all of its beauty and meaning, and choose to become a part of the Jewish people. Their enthusiasm sometimes puzzles their born-Jewish friends, but over time many of these friends and partners come to see Judaism with fresh vision. As one recent convert said, "My interest in Judaism is reinvigorating our Jewish friends' interest."
However, the process is not always easy. Tim is married to a Russian woman who had moved to the United States as a teenager. She strongly identified as Jewish, but in a secular way that did not include home rituals or synagogue attendance. Her Jewish knowledge was also fairly minimal. Tim became deeply engrossed in Judaism. He wanted their family to celebrate Shabbat and bring their young children to our monthly Tot Shabbat service. He started talking about observing some form of kashrut--Jewish dietary laws. But his wife resisted these changes in their family life. At one point during the year, as he prepared for conversion, his wife said to him, "Don't go getting weird on me!"
For her, his desire for more ritual and observance was a threat because it challenged the family's status quo. Perhaps she was also uncomfortable because it seemed he was becoming more knowledgeable and a "better Jew" than she was.
Tim became Jewish two years ago. He and his wife joined our congregation. And last month, at the Tot Shabbat service, who should I see, but Tim, his wife and his two daughters, all with smiles on their faces!
Many who are born Jewish connect with Judaism culturally or simply through a strong sense of identity. They clearly feel Jewish, but are uncomfortable with rules, ritual or too much God-talk. Jews-by-choice, in contrast, generally do not have that cultural history or built-in connection. They also do not have old hurts, bad memories from Hebrew school, or other negative impressions I hear (much to my sorrow) all too often from Jews-by-birth.
As a consequence, many Jews-by-choice are putting Judaism more in the center of their lives than do Jews-by-birth. This is one of the reasons that I think converts to Judaism are our hope for the future. They are inspiring the rest of us to see Jewish traditions and rituals as a treasure. They recognize that Judaism is a source of comfort, connection and meaning in our highly secular and overscheduled lives.
One woman who recently chose Judaism said in a moment of frustration, "I insist the kids go to religious school, and I drive them there as well. I want to say to my husband, 'Don't make me do this all alone! Meet me half way! You are taking for granted something I am working hard to attain for myself and our family.'"
A single woman in her early 40s who became Jewish several years ago bemoans the fact that her Jewish friends show no interest in observing Shabbat with her, and have been no help in introducing her to eligible Jewish men.
Jews-by-choice are hungry to learn; they take part in adult education classes vastly out of proportion to their numbers in the congregation. They are eager to give back, and do so through volunteer and committee activities. For example, our congregation has a garden that raises vegetables for the local food bank. A third of the regular volunteers at the garden are Jews-by-choice.
Jews-by-choice appreciate many things that Jews-by-birth all too often take for granted, such as Judaism's emphasis on learning and intellectual freedom. Jews-by-choice are less hesitant than many born-Jews that I know to speak about God and the desire for a spiritual practice.
In all of these ways and more, Jew-by-choice are enriching and invigorating the Jewish community. We are indeed fortunate to count them among the Household of Israel.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.