Diana Zankowsky (nee Jacobson) was raised in New Jersey, went to college in Massachusetts and California, and now lives in the Bay Area of northern California. She is married (31 years) with two grown children, runs her own consulting business and is on the board of her synagogue.
Teaching a Conversion Class
I've been happily married for more than 31 years. We did not have a Jewish wedding (although I wanted one), because my rabbi wouldn't perform interfaith weddings. At the time, he never discussed conversion with us; we really didn't have any counseling about the religious aspects of our prospective life together. We just went ahead, somewhat blithely and blindly.
We finished our college degrees, bought a house, had one child and then a second. For the first 15 years of our marriage, we didn't do much about formal religious observance. But when my older child reached a certain age, I felt that he needed a Jewish education, which I was unprepared to provide. So we joined a synagogue, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, Calif., and gradually my life changed.
I am constitutionally unable to remain uninvolved. We made friends, I joined the synagogue board, and I took adult education classes both at the synagogue and in more intensive, multi-day sessions. Eventually, I spent several summer sessions learning to become a lay leader for my synagogue, which is especially important for us since we do not have a permanent rabbi.
The more involved I became, the more I realized that there were several families like mine, interfaith families with both partners very active in synagogue life. Most have been married for many years, with children in high school or college or out in the world, just like my husband and me. Some of the non-Jewish partners had contemplated conversion, even begun to study, but never completed the process. Others had never contemplated it.
My synagogue had not offered a way for people to convert. We had several barriers. We hire student rabbis who are only with us for nine months so there is no predictable continuity from year to year. We're also not close to any larger Jewish centers of learning like a university. Yet, the synagogue board suspected that we had several individuals who might be interested in converting if a path were made available.
I spoke with the rabbi from our neighboring congregation. He was willing to mentor me as a teacher and then meet with any of my students who wanted to convert. So, I offered to teach an Introduction to Judaism class, specifically for adults contemplating conversion.
The synagogue made a large outreach effort, contacting each individual with the potential for joining the class. From a synagogue with 55 member families, we created a class of five adults plus me as the teacher/facilitator. And then I began to feel a sense of panic. Who was I to teach this class? Born Jewish, yes, but I disregarded Judaism for so long, almost a third of my life was spent in a truly neutral place about my religion. And yet, here I was, planning to show other adults that this is a belief structure, a way of life, worth joining. In one way, I felt unworthy of this task, yet I also felt oddly like I was the right person to teach this class. Because I had returned to Jewish life in a conscious, intentional way, I could model for others why Judaism is a good choice.
We began in April 2008 as a group of six. I count myself among the students because although I guided the direction of the class and of course, prepared to lead it, I also feel like I am a student, too, learning as we study together. We are an interesting and, I believe, somewhat atypical conversion group. First of all, we are a group. Usually, conversion is a personal and somewhat private affair as each individual contemplating conversion meets and studies regularly with a rabbi. But without a rabbi, we have turned to each other to form both a study group and a support group.
Second, we are all older adults. Everyone in the initial group is a parent (one is a grandparent) and generally, the children are in high school or older. All but one of us is married and our marriages have lasted 20 years or more.
Third, we are all already members of the local Jewish community, raising Jewish children, living lives that include Shabbat and the holiday observances and Jewish lifecycle events. We already live Jewishly.
Finally, it seems to me that there is no external pressure on any of the adults to convert. No expectation of marriage or disapproving in-laws or a spouse that really wants conversion. In fact, there seems to be some resistance from one or two of the spouses; as in many established marriages, a certain level of comfort and predictability exists and conversion might change all of that.
We've met once or twice a month for the past 10 months. (Most of the students are also studying Hebrew and meet together for that class as well.) We've studied the calendar, holidays, rites and rituals of observance and lifecycle events. We've read Torah and a little bit of Talmud and we've talked. We've talked about our families and about our lives, about living in Jewish families, about what it might take to become Jewish and what would be different once we crossed that threshold.
Now, one member of the class is preparing to make that leap. She and I will meet with my mentoring rabbi. We will discuss the next steps and, perhaps, we will schedule a beit din, a Jewish court of three that rules on a candidate's sincerity, knowledge and potential for success as a Jew. I will get to be a member of this beit din, as well as accompany my student to the local mikveh, a ritual pool, immersion in which actualizes the transformation to a Jew.
I am excited. Not only because I feel that my class has been enjoyable and a great group to study with, but also because I am eager to welcome my friend officially to a group of which she has long been an unofficial part. I am also eager to mark my own growth that has come as I've taught this group. And all of that seems so right!
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. 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. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.