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Is Conversion Necessary for Acceptance? Choosing to Participate in an Interfaith Havurah

February 2001

Before Robert and I had decided to marry, we agreed that it was important for our home and our lives together to be both Christian and Jewish to reflect who we were individually and as a couple: he is Jewish and I am a Christian.

For the first two years that we were married, my Jewish education came primarily from our Jewish friends and my personal reading. But I was eager to learn more about Judaism, and finishing school and settling into a new community in Kansas City three years ago provided the perfect opportunity. I registered for an Introduction to Judaism class at a local Reform temple (I took the class alone because Robert's schedule kept him out of town during the week). While I expected to learn much about Jewish life and ritual in the class, I had no idea that four interfaith couples in that class would become our Jewish family in Kansas City when we formed our own interfaith havurah, or gathering, usually of Jews, to worship and study together.

Our havurah was born when two couples from our class invited the rest of us to begin socializing on a regular basis so that we could maintain the friendships we'd made in class. We were five non-Jewish women married or engaged to five Jewish men, all in our 20s and 30s, none with children, and several of us had no family within hundreds of miles. With much in common, and sharing a desire to bring Jewish life and practice into our homes, we quickly became close friends. Over time, we all became members of the temple and we registered our group as an "official" havurah.

Ironically (or typically!), it was the non-Jewish wives who were the motivators behind the formation of our havurah. We knew from the beginning that some of the women in our group would choose to become Jews. The two women who were engaged had taken the Intro class for the purpose of converting to Judaism before their weddings. The other two women took the class to learn more about their husband's religion but did not know where their spiritual journeys would lead. Eventually they both chose to become Jews as well.

As a committed Christian, I knew that conversion was not going to be my choice. I celebrated with my friends as they completed their conversions, and I listened carefully when they repeated their vows before the congregation. "Of my own free will, I choose to enter the eternal Covenant between God and the people of Israel and to become a Jew. I accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices. Under all circumstances I will be loyal to the Jewish people and to Judaism. I promise to establish a Jewish home and to participate actively in the life of the synagogue and of the Jewish community. I commit myself to the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge. If I should be blessed with children, I promise to raise them as Jews."

I spent a lot of time contemplating these vows when fellow havurah member Susan celebrated her conversion. Susan and I had grown particularly close after we learned that we had grown up in rural Southern Illinois towns less than twenty miles from each other. We talked often about our families, our similar upbringings, and the progress of her journey toward conversion. Susan was the last woman in our group to convert, and it was disappointing to both of us that because I wasn't Jewish I couldn't participate in her conversion by joining her at the mikvah. But I knew that my journey could not be the same as hers as I thought about the conversion vows--I could willingly make many of the promises, but I could not promise to accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices. Although I could not be there physically, Susan knew when she went to the mikvah that I joined her in spirit.

In some ways, the conversions of my friends and others in the congregation made me feel alone as a non-Jew among Jews. And, although I understood on an intellectual level why all of the promises in the conversion vows were necessary, I still felt a small degree of sadness that there was no formal way for me to express my own commitment to the Jewish people and the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge. But I never felt alone in our havurah. In fact, when we gathered for an oneg (reception) after Susan's conversion Shabbat, one of the other women from our havurah gave me a small gift and said, "I wanted you to know that you don't have to convert to get a present." Even as a Christian, my spiritual connection with these women who have chosen Judaism is incredibly strong. I know that my faith has been strengthened by the opportunity to share in these friends' journeys.

Robert and I are the only couple in our group who practice two faiths in our home, but our havurah continues to identify itself as interfaith. Whether the issue is dealing with parents who are displeased with a decision to convert, or how to include non-Jewish grandparents in a brit milah, or trying to schedule a havurah Hanukkah party around everyone's plans to visit out-of-town relatives during the Christmas holidays, interfaith issues will always be a part of each of our lives. While our havurah helps connect us to the temple and Jewish life, it also enables us to support each other when our Jewish and non-Jewish lives collide.

 

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Andrea Baran

Andrea Baran lives with her husband in Kansas City, Missouri, where they are active members of Temple B'nai Jehudah and Second Presbyterian Church. Andrea works as a Senior Trial Attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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