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The Way of the Chosen People

True Believers

© MOMENT 2001, posted with permission

Christians in the American hinterlands are converting to Judaism. And it's not because they are marrying Jews.
Sue Fishkoff

Lincoln, Nebraska, is a fine place to live. One of America's top 20, in fact, according to a recent study. With 170 churches to serve 200,000 people, Lincoln is also a very Christian city. It is a major center for Seventh-Day Adventists, has strong Mormon, Methodist, and fundamentalist churches, and a large, conservative Catholic diocese, one of only two in America that do not yet permit altar girls.

There are two synagogues in town, each with a membership of just over a hundred families, a healthy chunk of the city's total Jewish population of less than a thousand. And it's the same story across the state: Nebraska is known for its corn and its college football, not for its Jewish community.

So why would a non-Jew there want to convert? If he married one of the handful of Jewish singles, he might consider it. But something else is going on in Lincoln, something that's been happening across the country this past decade with increasing frequency, especially outside the major urban centers of the east and west coasts: Christians with no family ties to Judaism are coming forward to convert. They're converting in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, in cities and towns with few Jews, or sometimes no Jews at all; places without the expected catalysts of large Jewish communities and aggressive outreach campaigns. "Some of them have never even met a Jew before," says Rabbi Stanley Rosenbaum, spiritual leader of Lincoln's Conservative congregation.

Many come to their first Jewish adult education class with little idea of what Judaism is all about. "The main question I get, more than any other, is 'Do you still do sacrifices?'" says Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. "I don't get anything overtly anti-Semitic, just a frozen conception of Judaism, as if nothing happened after Jesus and the gospels. They expect us to be wearing Bedouin garb, functioning as their conception of Pharisees." Perhaps Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth-El (Reform) in San Antonio, Texas, put it best: "They're coming to us out of faith." Block performs 15 to 20 conversions a year. Easily half are people with no Jewish family connection. "We're seeing more of this than in major metropolitan areas," he says, "where virtually all the conversions are couples about to be married."

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, past president of the Rabbinical Assembly and chair of the Conservative movement's now-defunct Joint Commission on keruv and giyor (in-gathering and conversion), says that more often than not, when it comes to conversions, marriage is the catalyst. "I think it's very rare to find faith conversions in Jewish life," he says. "It happens occasionally, but usually people convert for the sake of marriage."

Today, however, rabbis are reporting an increasing number of faith conversions. "It's definitely something we're seeing more of," says Dru Greenwood, national outreach director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform). "We hear it from our rabbis in the field. It used to be mostly people who were marrying Jews [ who converted]." Now, she says, two groups on the rise are non-Jewish spouses of Jews deciding to convert after years of marriage, and Christians with no Jewish family ties at all. Although there are no hard statistics on conversions, rabbis and outreach professionals agree that the Reform movement is receiving the large bulk of these "new Jews." Part of that has to do with the Reform movement's more open, even aggressive, outreach campaign, which is directed at non-Jews as well as unaffiliated Jews (See "Intermarriage," October 2000); the Conservative and Orthodox movements aren't as focused on that kind of outreach. Part of it has to do with proximity: In areas of the country with low Jewish populations, Reform synagogues are often the only shuls in town. And part of it may stem from a perception that it's easier to convert with a Reform rabbi and live as a Reform Jew. "People have an easier address in Reform Judaism," says Rabbi Myron Geller, director of the Conservative movement's Gerim (or "Converts") Institute in Boston. "It appears less demanding to them ... When they come to [the Conservative movement], they know they'll have to read Hebrew, come to synagogue, and make some commitment to Jewish ritual. Some of them see that as onerous."

In fact, converts to Reform Judaism are required to make six public statements of intent, including a pledge to establish a Jewish home, raise Jewish children, and participate actively in the life of their synagogue and Jewish community. And virtually every Reform rabbi interviewed for this article says these converts of faith are among the most Jewishly committed in their congregations, pushing the rest of the community to greater ritual observance and Jewish study, and stepping forward to fill volunteer leadership roles.

Rabbi Michael Weisser has been the spiritual leader of Lincoln's Reform congregation B'nai Jeshurun, for 12 years. When he arrived at the congregation in 1988, membership had dropped from 115 to 75 families, and there was no permanent rabbi. Now membership is back up, and many of the new faces are converts. In fact, most of the core group of active members are Jews by choice who are not married to Jews, including the congregation's two-term president.

Three years ago, Weisser offered the UAHC's Introduction to Judaism class for the first time, truncating the usual 16-week course to 8 weeks and advertising it in the local non-Jewish press. Fifty people enrolled; about 40 were not Jewish. Some, he says, were "members of right-wing fundamentalist churches who just wanted to learn about Judaism. They turned out to be great students, and it was a pleasure to have them." Others were "curious Christians, people looking for religious options." So many in the class asked when Part II would start that Weisser decided to organize a follow-up discussion group for people interested in conversion. "I expected one or two, and seventeen enrolled." That was the start of New Beginnings, an ongoing group of recent andHpotential converts that meets regularly with Weisser at the synagogue.

One recent Sunday, the group came together to talk about why they've chosen Judaism. Most had already converted; a few were still in the process. They seemed a fairly normal bunch—no wild-eyed religious fanatics, just a group of well-dressed, moderate-income, highly articulate men and women, mostly in their 40s and 50s. Most grew up in Nebraska, in devoutly Christian families. Just one was married to a Jewish man; none had any other family connection to Judaism. Janelle Jaskolka was raised Methodist; she lost her faith when her minister's son was killed by a drunk driver. Lon Hollibaugh grew up in a strict fundamentalist church; he remembers being told, "Don't ask any questions, because you won't get any answers." Lori Arthur, a Presbyterian who "dropped out of religion" in college, lived as a Jew for years before stepping foot in a synagogue, lighting Shabbat candles in her window on her own every Friday until the neighbors asked her to close her curtains. "They thought I was a witch," she explains. Bonnie Callahan comes from a strong Irish Catholic family; she was expelled from parochial school after sitting for three years under a picture of St. Anne ("The one who has her eyeballs on the plate," she says. "It was so graphic!").

There were ex-Lutherans, Christian Scientists, more Methodists and Presbyterians, and another Catholic in the room, as well as a couple of spiritual seekers who tried out Buddhism, Native American traditions, Wicca, and the Unitarian Church before turnisg to Judaism. They stumbled over Hebrew pronunciations, joked about "kibbitzing," and invited each other over for seder. They all came to Judaism for different reasons; and now they all said they felt Jewish. It "feels right" to them. It was what they "always believed and didn't know it." Many spoke about disillusionment with the religions in which they were raised. "Why did God have to kill his son?" asks Kim Hollibaugh, Lon's wife, who grew up in a devout Methodist home in Lincoln. "I never got it."

Lori Arthur says she used to "get in trouble" in her Presbyterian Sunday school for questioning the Apostles' creed they repeated every week, which espouses faith in a holy church she didn't believe in. After college, she went to a fundamentalist service one Sunday with a friend and was dismayed by the sermon. "The man up there said he was going to heaven and we were all going to hell," she says. "He said AIDS was God's punishment on gays. He was really destructive."

Callahan says she couldn't accept what she calls the Christian conception of Satan. "There's always someone else responsible for your behavior," she complains. "It wasn't me, it was the Devil. I couldn't accept that. If I did something, I did it." These people, raised with a Christianity they eventually discarded, came to Judaism after an active search for another faith, a search motivated by a deep internal need. Others in the group found Judaism almost by accident. Jeff Kirkland was teaching a confirmation class at his Methodist church a few years ago. The syllabus required the class to visit other religious institutions, including a synagogue. When he brought the kids to B'nai Jesuhurn and heard Weisser speak from the pulpit, he says, "I was hooked."

David Williss was creating software for a map-making company that was on the verge of a big sale to a company in Israel, so he decided to learn some Hebrew as a goodwill gesture. He taught himself, using a college textbook, and then moved on to Plaut's Hebrew-English Bible. "At that point, I wasn't even considering becoming Jewish, I just wanted to learn Hebrew," he says. "We ended up not making the sale in Israel. And I ended up ..." He pauses and looks around the room dramatically, to great laughter. He doesn't have to finish his sentence, because everyone in the room can read the irony: He ended up here, in a conversion course.

Whatever their prior experience, everyone in the group spoke of their conversion as a kind of coming home rather than a radical shift in their beliefs or personality. The move toward Judaism was motivated by a spiritual search, a careful intellectual process rather than a sudden leap of faith. Although their first experience in a synagogue might have hit them like a burst of lightning, as one woman put it, it took years of reading, going to services, and talking to their rabbi before they decided to formalize the initial attraction.

After Kirkland became sober 20 years ago, he picked up the Bible he'd discarded as a rebellious teen. This time, he concentrated on the Old Testament, the portion of the Bible taken from the five books of Moses. "I was reading, and I just felt, 'This makes sense.'" Referring to details such as the prohibition on eating pork and the exhortation to obey the Ten Commandments, he says, "I thought, 'This is the way I should be living.'"

There aren't many Jews in Nebraska—about 3,000 in the entire state—but some of the folks in the New Beginnings group talk about how they admire Jews they've met. Lou Kirk speaks glowingly of the Jewish radicals and civil-rights workers he encountered in the 1960s, including his first wife. "I really respected them," he says. Lon Hollibaugh, who says that the fundamentalist church he used to attend discouraged questioning, says he was also hooked the first time he heard Weisser deliver a sermon. "Judaism likes people to ask questions," he said.

Given Judaism's emphasis on study, it's not surprising that many converts of faith—that is, converts with no marriage or family ties to Judaism—discover Judaism by reading Jewish books. Titles mentioned often include Max Dimont's Jews, God and History (Dutton Signet, 1976), Chaim Potok's The Chosen (Fawcett Book Group, 1976), Leon Uris's Exodus (Doubleday & Co., 1971), and Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, 1959) as well as, naturally, the Bible.

That was true for at least two people in Weisser's group. Linda Emery was in ninth grade when she first picked up Exodus. She faked illness so she could stay home from school and read it. "I was really impressed with these people, the Jewish people, their faith and what they went through," she says. "Then I read This Is My God by Herman Wouk, and it clicked for me. I just knew I was Jewish." For Alicia Chapple, the seminal text was a Lubavitch publication, The Modern Jewish Woman. After reading it as a teenager, she says, "I wanted so bad to be Jewish, but I knew I couldn't be because I didn't have any Jewish blood."

Deb Ward, the mother of two grown children in Lincoln, was a devout Catholic when she set off for a primitive area of Brazil in 1968 as a volunteer nurse for her diocese in Connecticut. While she was there, she came upon a copy of Jews, God, and History. "I read it and said, 'Wow,'" she says. "I was at the most Catholic part of my life, but I was already moving away from it." Five years ago, after attending a Shabbat service in Lincoln and liking what she heard, she went to the library and took out Rafael Patai's The Jewish Mind and Leo Baeck's Essence of Judaism. Forty pages into The Jewish Mind, she says, "I realized I was a Jew; I was all these things he was talking about." Her conversion three years ago was little more than the icing on the cake. "I don't feel I've changed," she says. "Being Jewish has just allowed me to be myself more fully." Today Ward maintains a kosher home, walks to shul on Shabbat, and observes as many mitzvot as she can. She still fries up a cheeseburger for her college-age son when he wants one, although she keeps that frying pan separate from her kosher kitchenware. "My first duty is to my children," she says.

Sometimes, especially for people unaffiliated with any religion, Judaism appears like a bright light. DeWitt Clinton teaches college in Madison, Wisconsin. The son of a Methodist preacher in Kansas, he was headed for the ministry 35 years ago when a stint in Vietnam shut the door on his religious beliefs. Twenty years later, his wife, Jacque, asked him to go to Shabbat services with her. A convert herself, she'd become interested in Judaism "through a combination of curiosity, intellectualism, and emotional appeal," she says. "I was very engaged with the rituals, especially Shabbat." That first service was all DeWitt needed. "The rabbi seemed like an Old Testament prophet. He gave a riveting talk about local housing needs, punctuated by poetry and social consciousness. The cantor's music was beautiful. The Ark was opened, and the light off the silver was blinding. The Torah was brought into the sanctuary, and people reached out to touch it—I was deeply moved. Then the reading in Hebrew, the ancient text. I was overwhelmed. When they read the yahrtzeit and said 'in the name of the six million,' I just lost it. I've been going ever since." Dewitt Clinton and his wife converted ten years ago. They keep Shabbat faithfully, and DeWitt is now the director of his congregation's conversion program.

For some converts, becoming Jewish means finding a family they never had. Annie Fantasia was raised Catholic in Boston. One of seven children, she remembers sitting at her mother's funeral when she was 12, listening to the priest say that her mother was happier now that she was with God. "He told us we were selfish for crying," she says. "He didn't even know her." Fantasia left the church, but felt a void in her life. "I'm naturally drawn to ritual," she notes. Nine years ago, after she went through a crisis, a friend introduced her to the local rabbi, who has since become, she says, "my mentor, my friend, the closest thing to a father I ever had." Feeling awkward at her first service ("I was looking around for the holy water"), Fantasia says she was thrilled when an elderly couple sitting behind her wished her "Shabbat shalom," and when they found out she was a non-Jew, took her arm and escorted her to the oneg. When Fantasia celebrated her conversion three years ago, 150 people from her congregation showed up. At 40, she's just starting her first year of rabbinical school at HUC in Jerusalem, and she can't wait to finish and get back to her congregational family. "They gave me the nurturing childhood I never had," she says.

While most converts of faith talk about feeling at home in Judaism and the emotional connection they develop to Jewish history and the Jewish community, some are primarily attracted intellectually. Rabbi Weisser describes the educational level of his New Beginnings group as "very high." "People are attracted to the idea of study as a form of worship, to not taking anything as ironclad until you look into it," he says. Linda Emery says she was most attracted to Judaism's concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and "deed before creed," the traditional exhortation to perform mitzvot even if you're not sure why, on the grounds that faith, even understanding, may follow. "I've always been a social and political activist," she says. "It's important to me that we are partners with God and the earth." Kim Hollibaugh says the Jewish notion of taking responsibility for one's actions rang true with her: "To me, that's the Jewish faith." Joan Wachstein, who teaches a joint Reform-Conservative-Reconstructionist Introduction to Judaism course in Wilmington, Delaware, also finds that many are attracted to the intellectual side of the religion. In her last class, which had 14 or 15 students, there were two couples who had come to Judaism because of Jewish studies classes they'd taken years earlier in college. "They found out about Judaism intellectually before they experienced it," she says. "They'd read about it on the Internet and in books." Walter and Karin Lattner, who converted with a Conservative rabbi in Tyler, Texas, chose Judaism after years of careful study of Jewish and Christian texts. "We did historical research, and we realized the New Testament was Christology," Walter says. If you take the Torah seriously, he asks, how can you accept Jesus as the Messiah when that goes against so much of what is written there? "It doesn't match up with Scripture," he states. "I tell my Christian friends, 'Jesus may have walked on water, but Moses parted them!'"

No one knows exactly how many Americans have converted to Judaism. The Jewish streams themselves don't keep records. Jewish tradition prohibits referring to a convert as such, on the grounds that after conversion one is a full member of the Jewish people. It's estimated, however, that one out of every thirty-five Jews in the country converted to Judaism.

Rabbis and other outreach professionals say there is no typical faith convert. Most talk about some kind of theological attraction: Maybe converts were turned off by something in their birth religion. Former Catholics, in particular, mention the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus as central tenets they can no longer accept. Many former Protestants, especially those schooled in fundamentalist churches, find themselves more drawn to the Old Testament than the New, eventually leading them to embrace the religion that "sticks to the original." Many speak favorably of the Jewish concept of God as monotheistic and all powerful, a partner with the Jewish people in ongoing creation. Many converts are drawn to the Jewish community, others to Jewish history, others still to the Jewish values of family and education and the Jewish emphasis on social action. Some, particularly those who grew up with little or no religion, are attracted to Jewish ritual, to the holidays and Shabbat services. Some like the exotic sound of the Hebrew prayers. A small number, according to outreach professionals, turn to Judaism out of anger, as a way of getting back at their non-Jewish parents. Those are the ordinary motivations. Then, says San Francisco Bay area outreach professional Patti Moskovitz, who has worked with hundreds of converts over the past two decades, "there are the cosmic forces at work."

Moskovitz is talking about the Jewish mystical notion of the gilgul, the reincarnated soul of a Jew who has come back to earth in a non-Jewish body to complete something left undone in a former life. Sound crazy? Moskovitz thought so too, the first time a Christian motioned her aside more than 20 years ago and whispered, "I was Jewish in another life." Then Moskovitz heard it again and again, "And not just from flakes. From very intelligent, educated people," people she met through the conversion classes she's taught since the early '80s. One middle-aged Christian woman with a Ph.D. told Moskovitz about constant flashbacks she was having to a previous life, in which she was a Jewish woman raped and murdered on a Vienna street during World War II. "Now I'm here, and I have to convert," she told the stunned Moskovitz.

Few mainstream Jewish leaders view the gilgul as anything more than a metaphorical construct or a folk tale. But the concept of reincarnation is central to Jewish medieval mysticism and is openly discussed both in Hasidism and on the far-left fringes of liberal Judaism.

Rabbi Allen Maller has been the spiritual leader of Temple Akiba in Orange County, California for 33 years. He devotes an entire chapter in his book God, Sex and Kabbalah to this notion of Jewish souls who have been reincarnated into non-Jewish bodies. "It comes from Sefer Ha-Pliyah," he says, referring to a midrash. "The souls of [many] converts are gilguls, Jews who were cut off by assimilation or apostasy and now want to return." They usually return as one of their descendants, Maller says, although the descendant may be unaware of his or her Jewish ancestry. Maller says he's tested this theory with many of his own converts, and they invariably discover some unknown Jewish connection in their family. "When you scratch the surface of this, it gives you the willies," Moskovitz admits.

Some professionals in the field suspect that millennial fever may have inspired a sudden rush of interest in Judaism last year, as fundamentalist churches began emphasizing the Old Testament in preparation for Jesus' return to Earth. But no one has more than anecdotal evidence to support this theory.

Rabbi Andrew Straus at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona says the number of calls he got from people interested in converting went "way up" in the months just before and after January 1, 2000. "I think it had to do with the millennium," he says. Rabbi Steven Einstein, rabbinic co-chair of the Reform movement's national outreach commission, believes the increase in faith conversions to Judaism parallels a growth in religious affiliation in general. "We're living in a more religious era. These are people who are alienated from Christianity and from the hypocrisy they saw, but not from God or religion." Far more influential than the millennium, experts agree, is increased infrastructure support for potential converts, particularly a new adult-ed course offered by the Reform movement, A Taste of Judaism.

Launched in 1996 in four pilot cities in the northeast, "Taste" has expanded to more than 470 synagogues, including some rural areas in the South and the Midwest. More than 22,000 people have taken the course. In contrast to the Reform movement's Introduction to Judaism course, which involves a 12- to 16-week commitment and typically costs $250, Taste covers the basics in three two-hour sessions, with no Hebrew or homework.

The course is always advertised in the local secular press rather than the Jewish media to attract people with no connection to the Jewish community. At least half of the converts interviewed for this article say that they had been thinking about Judaism for a long time but that it was the ad for Taste in their local newspaper that gave them the push to set foot in a synagogue. Although Taste was designed to bring in unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews also enroll. In fact, half of all the students nationwide are non-Jews. In areas of the country with smaller Jewish populations, that figure rises to 80, even 90 percent. And according to Reform movement records, 13 percent of those non-Jews convert. So many, in fact, that the Reform movement had to create its Outreach Fellows Program three years ago to train lay leaders specifically to work with the enormous influx of potential converts swamping Reform rabbis. "Taste throws a wider net," says Paula Brody, outreach coordinator for the UAHC's northeastern region. About 350 people enroll annually in Taste in the greater Boston area, she says. Each year more than 20 non-Jewish "graduates" convert.

Kathryn Kahn, associate director of the Reform movement's outreach commission, helped develop the Taste curriculum. She says classes are held in a synagogue to show students—Jewish and not—that it is not a frightening place. "In Taste we take out our best linen and china, and that's Torah," she says. In one session, the rabbi takes the class up on the bimah and opens the Torah scroll in front of them. "We hear from Jews that they are puffed up with pride to hear Judaism explained to Christians like that," she says. Taste was first offered in cities with large Jewish populations, but by 1997 it had spread to the rural south and the Midwest. "When we got into the Bible Belt, we were afraid we'd have hundreds coming in thumping their Scriptures," Kahn says. "But that only happened twice. We make it clear this is not a disputation class." Jewish outreach professionals agree that this country is witnessing a return to religion on many levels, Judaism included. And with more infrastructure support and a more welcoming attitude towards converts in general, the liberal Jewish movements will continue to see an increase in the numbers of non-Jews with no prior affiliation seeking to join the Jewish family. "The vast number of people I see are longing for something, some spiritual meaning," says Moskovitz, the San Francisco outreach professional, who has recorded many of her students' personal tales in Embracing the Covenant—Converts to Judaism Talk About Why and How. "And Judaism offers something wonderful in a confusing world," she says. For Nanci Hamicksburg, who converted three years ago in Lincoln, Judaism fills a spiritual void. "I did Christianity, and there was something missing," she says. "I did Neo-Paganism, and it was better, but there was still something missing."

Judaism, on the other hand, has become her anchor in a shifting world. From the moment she converted, she's felt useful. "I got to make the tenth in a mourner's minyan even before my ponytail was dry from the mikvah," she says. Now Hamicksburg keeps a kosher home and travels to Omaha whenever she can to take advantage of Nebraska's lone mikvah. Deb Ward, the Lincoln mother who drifted from Catholicism, says that since coming to Judaism, she feels more completely herself: a Jewish woman. "I don't make an issue of my being Jewish," she says. "To me, religion is very private. If someone says, 'You don't look Jewish,' I tell them, 'This is what Jewish looks like.'"

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