Conversion Speech by Rabbi Jerry Goldstein, 5/29/22
In the beginning there was silence. My deepest education into the sources of Judaism was at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. HUC, as we call it, is the oldest seminary in America for the training of rabbis. All the students in HUC are college graduates; I came from UCLA with a BA degree in philosophy and sociology. I began my studies at HUC in 1959, and in my five years at HUC I can remember no lesson ever on “Conversion to Judaism.” On that subject, there was silence.
Perhaps we never studied “conversion” because it is never mentioned in the Tanach, our Hebrew scriptures – the Bible of the Jews. Nowhere in Tanach is there any mention of a conversion ceremony. Even in the book of Ruth, a book about the most famous convert in Jewish history, there is no ceremony. Ruth is from Moab, and she is always identified as a Moabite woman. But when her Israelite husband dies, she does not go back to her own Moabite parents. She stands with her already widowed mother-in-law Naomi and swears loyalty to the older woman: “Wherever you go, I shall go. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be mine.” No ceremony. No witness. No Bet Din. No Mikveh. Poof, it’s done! The great grandmother of King David of Judea is a Jew by Choice. From her line shall come the great Messiah! And, there wasn’t even a certificate or document. Just a story in the Bible.
My HUC ordination was in 1963. I began my professional rabbinate in Minnesota at historic Mount Zion Temple as the Assistant Rabbi. About 6 months later, one of the Sunday School teachers came to talk with me about her daughter Alice, a girl who had grown up in the congregation. Alice had met a wonderful young man and they were now thinking about marriage. “There’s only one problem,” Mrs. Friedman said as she leaned forward to whisper confidentially, “he’s not Jewish. What can we do? Can he become a Jew?”
BINGO! The conversion silence was cracked open. Can Tom become a Jew? It’s a good question and in plain English. But I had no quick answer. I had to stall. “Mrs Friedman, I’d love to meet the couple in person. Please give me a couple of days to find the right answer for your question.”
Naturally I made a beeline visit to my senior rabbi’s office to discuss the situation. How can Tom become a Jew? “It’s easy,” he told me. “Schedule a couple of meetings with him where you explain Judaism to him. Then you just convert him. The main thing is, just keep it quiet. Nobody needs to know. This is something private. Don’t embarrass the Friedmans!”
OK, that’s the rules and he’s the senior rabbi in this temple. That’s what I did. And that’s when I began to really think about conversion and my rabbinic involvement. First, I met Alice and Tom in my office. They were indeed a nice young couple who were in love and wanted to marry. Tom was indeed a thoughtful young man of classic Scandinavian stock like so many people in Minnesota. Alice was a lovely young Jewish woman with normal allegiance to the faith in which she had been confirmed. They would both like me to officiate at their wedding, and it should be a Jewish ceremony like her parents had done. I was pleased.
As it happened, on the day that I was to announce Tom’s conversion to Judaism in front of the tiny daily minyan at temple, my father-in-law was visiting us from LA. Carl was a long-time member of Temple Israel and he had served on his Temple Board as chair of the Religious School Committee. Spontaneously, I invited him to watch Tom’s conversion as an outsider. He had never been in the place where that happens. Carl knew nobody in the chapel, and nobody knew who he was. But he was thrilled beyond measure by what he saw unfold: a mature gentile man stood voluntarily in front of the synagogue ark and pledged allegiance to Judaism. My father-in-law was blown away! And I learned something I never ever forgot. Conversion to Judaism is a holy moment – ineffable! Not just for the ger, but for everyone in the room where it happens. Nothing embarrassing about it. It’s inspirational for all us Jews, even Mrs Friedman.
On the subject of conversion to Judaism, here’s another famous Bible story from the book of Exodus. A bunch of so-called Hebrew people were slaves of the King Pharoah in Egypt. They were miserable in their terrible toil and yearned for freedom. As if by magic, a strong young man came into Egypt - and Moses was his name. He organized the slaves for a massive revolt against the slavery system. His famous demand to Pharoah was “Let my people go!” Unbelievably, without any precedent, Moses’ revolt succeeded. He led what the Bible calls “a mixed multitude” of former slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai Desert wilderness.
Who was in that mixed multitude marching out of Egypt 3,500 years ago? Certainly, lots of them were Hebrews – but not all. Other down-trodden slaves were in the crowd. They too marched behind Moses. He led them all to the mountain called Sinai, way out in the wilderness. That’s where the whole mob of escaping slaves took on a new shared identity as followers of Adonai.
What happened at Mount Sinai was a giant conversion ceremony. The Bible says that “all the people [at Sinai] witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20:15-16) This was one of the all-time greatest sound and light shows. The witnesses were overwhelmed by the phenomena. With one voice they turned to Moses and pledged: Na-asey ve-nishma! Tell us what to do and we will listen!
A whole lot of escaped slaves were suddenly melded into a new people called Israelites – those who struggle with God. We Jews of modern times are the heirs of those ancient Israelites. The Shavuot holiday we celebrate this week is our annual commemoration of the mass conversion at Mt Sinai when our ancestors were all welcomed into Jewish community and our communal faith – Judaism came into being. It asserts that all of us are Jews by Choice!
In the contemporary world we are no longer silent about conversions to Judaism. We are out of the closet now. We rabbis greet these seekers of Judaism. We are ready and delighted to welcome new persons into the Jewish community. They enrich and enlarge our community by their inclusion. Each of these seekers is called a ger. They come for all sorts of reasons, and I am always amazed by their journey stories when unpacked before our panel of three rabbis in a Bet Din court hearing.
Before I finish, let me tell you about the room where the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din regularly makes conversion happen. I’ve been in there dozens of times over the last 20 years, and I am always thrilled by the opportunity. Every conversion candidate is accompanied by a sponsor rabbi who has supervised the candidate and prepared them for this meeting. Even though we can’t arrange a fabulous sound and light show, the room at the American Jewish University does have a fantastic & beautiful glass mural of Mt Sinai spread across the front of the room and its two side walls. The ger is seated at a large table facing the overwhelming image of Mt Sinai with hundreds of Hebrew letters cascading down onto the mountain. We three rabbis serve as the three dayanim (judges) required for a Bet Din session. We sit at the base of the mural’s Mt Sinai, facing the candidate. Each of us is trained to listen for sincerity, integrity, and knowledge in the answers of the candidates. We ask no trick questions and no “got-tchises”; we are there to welcome the ger and not to embarrass or scare them. The scene is awesome and sacred.
For the Bet Din session’s finale, family and friends are invited into the room. We all rise for the ger to read aloud to all of us a very moving statement of Jewish commitment which he or she has studied beforehand with the sponsoring rabbi. It usually brings emotional tears to my old eyes. What a privilege it is for me to be part of such a holy journey into Judaism! Then the ger seals the conversion by going directly to the nearby mikveh for immersion into the sacred living water - Mayim Chayim. This is truly a moment to remember!