Taking the First Step: Conversion Is Not the Goal

By Julie Slotnik Sturm



In her monthly column, “Taking the First Step,” Julie Slotnik, a Jewish woman, writes about her experiences in the Introduction to Judaism class she is taking with her Lutheran boyfriend.

April 5, 2000

Our teacher for the Introduction to Judaism classes is Robert Nosanchuk, a fifth year rabbinical student. He mentions, actually he emphasizes, that this is not a conversion class. “And while many of you may be taking this course as you work towards conversion, it is not the goal of the class.”

Good, because Marc doesn’t want to convert, and I don’t want him to. After brief introductions, I take a quick tally. Most couples are engaged or already married. Very few are just dating or living together, as we are. Another tally: a lot of the non-Jewish partners plan to convert. I hope this is the right place for us.

As part of our introductions, the teacher asks us to name the country our grandparents were born in, and he lists them on the board. I like this exercise; it shows the diversity in our cultural backgrounds, something that plays a large role in our relationship. I am an American Jew; Marc is French Lutheran and has been living in the United States only two years.

Robert then asks for volunteers to speak about why they are taking the Introduction to Judaism class. A woman who is attending the class alone, not part of an interfaith couple, begins. She describes herself as a “pizza-bagel.” Something about this expression doesn’t sit well with me. With an Italian mother and Jewish father, she never really learned about being Jewish growing up, and now as an adult she is taking the opportunity to learn more about Judaism. Seems reasonable enough. She adds that she doesn’t feel any ties to Catholicism. Another woman, also alone at the class, had a strict Christian upbringing and plans to convert to Judaism. She has a very negative relationship with her own religion and doesn’t feel any connection to Christianity or Jesus.

They are going on and on. I realize how essential our meeting was six months ago with Rabbi Friedman, my hometown rabbi. It was our opportunity to unload our baggage, history, worries and some tears. One man who is part of a couple says he’d like to hear why some of us who are Jewish are here. Thus far, only non-Jews have spoken. I begin, “Marc and I live together and are planning for our future. He is interested in learning about my religion, and it is a good opportunity for me to re-educate myself. While I feel very Jewish, and consider it part of my identity, I would definitely flunk an 8th grade Sunday school test.”

One of the first topics we will study is Shabbat, the weekly observance of the Sabbath. The teacher says that Judaism is about making time sacred. I like that idea and feel comfortable with it. He reviews the other topics we will cover: holidays, life cycle events, text study, and some Hebrew. I remember really enjoying Hebrew as a kid. Reading and writing it was like a puzzle and I was good at it. I also remember not being so keen on text study.

After class, Marc and I go to dinner to celebrate taking another step toward our future. Tonight, I feel like a real team. Like Rabbi Friedman said, we are taking a pro-active and mature approach to the interfaith issue. He has seen couples with a wedding date three months away who haven’t discussed their religious differences. He commended us on taking the initiative to deal with the issue head-on and was the one who recommended this class, sponsored by the UAHC. I’m energized and excited, I like the teacher and am looking forward to the course.

Unfortunately Marc feels turned off and defensive. Not a good start. He feels like everyone was “Jesus-bashing,” like he had to defend Christianity and Jesus because these people had a bad experience growing up. I was surprised. I felt very distant and separate from other people’s situations. I note that we are doing this for ourselves and that we shouldn’t let other people’s issues affect us. “So what if they hate the church and their parents and are looking for something else in Judaism. That is their reason for coming to class, not yours.” He agrees, but says it’s hard when you hear people criticizing something you feel good about.

Marc wasn’t prepared to feel complicated emotions as a result of this class. He thought it would be purely an intellectual experience. This is not the case – for either one of us.


About Julie Slotnik Sturm

Julie Slotnik Sturm is a freelance writer and producer in New York. She has been part of an interfaith relationship for over four years.