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50 Years of Remeeting Sinai Partners by Rabbi Stephen Einstein

18 Aug 2020 4:59 PM | Deborah Schmidt (Administrator)

Published in The Summer, 2020 edition of the CCAR Journal: Reform

Our Rabbis taught that ALL Jews—past, present, and future—were at Sinai.  They specified that this aggregate included  Jews by Birth and Jews by Choice (Shevuot 39a).

       For half-a-century, it has been my privilege to reconnect with hundreds of souls whom I surely first encountered on that Shavuot day now only sensed through the shroud of long history. Indeed, my rabbinate has—in large measure—centered around my work with those entering the Covenant—something I would  scarcely have imagined during my student days at HUC.

       Just as one recalls first love, so I clearly remember the very first person I accompanied on this sacred path:  The year was 1970.  I arrived at my student pulpit and was greeted at the airport by the newly-elected congregation president.  He was a young chap, who had recently completed law school and returned to town to join his father and uncle in their family’s legal firm. He also followed in their path of temple leadership.

       I was invited to the president’s home for Shabbos dinner. He and his bride proudly showed me photos from their recent wedding.  In the very first portrait of the album, they joyously stood together under a cross in the sanctuary of the Methodist church where their nuptials had been solemnized. I was rather nonplussed internally, but—somewhat uncharacteristically— managed to keep a poker-face.

       The new bride explained that since the synagogue had no rabbi, she and her beloved had chosen to be married by a dear family friend who was a Methodist minister.  However, she quickly added, she very much wanted to live a Jewish life, and asked me if—during my year in this student pulpit—I would guide her through conversion to Judaism.  I happily agreed, of course without admitting to her that I had no idea of how to do this.

       When I got back to Cincinnati, I immediately made an appointment with my faculty advisor.  Though an HUC ordainee, as a full-time academic his total congregational experience had been his own student pulpit and several years of leading High Holy Day services for an isolated synagogue.  He asked me if I would be teaching a Confirmation class at my student pulpit.  When I answered in the affirmative, he responded, “Well, whatever you cover in that class will be appropriate preparation for this conversion student.” And this constituted my complete HUC training for handling conversion in my future rabbinate!

       In a very significant way, Reform Judaism—indeed, the Jewish world as a whole—was altered immeasurably by a speech delivered by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler in 1978.  In that address, in his role as President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, he boldly proposed that we enthusiastically welcome non-Jews into our fold.  Strong reactions were felt immediately from a variety of sources.  Many envisioned—in  horror—teams of Jewish missionaries going door-to-door “hawking” our religion.  Some feared an anti-Semitic backlash. Others understood that what came to be known as Outreach had a simple, but vital message:  Synagogues should open wide our doors and let all people know that they are truly welcome in our midst. 

       In the pre-Schindler period, there was widespread skepticism regarding conversion.  In my own family, a great uncle had married a woman who had converted to Judaism, but on her death-bed, called for a priest. The attitude of numerous Jews was: “I could never conceive of converting to another religion; how can others sincerely leave their religion and become Jewish?” And..if the people wishing to enter the Jewish community were non-caucasian, “well, they just don’t look Jewish.” It was widely believed that the real reason most people wished to convert was “just to marry a Jew.”

       Over the ensuing four decades, attitudes in the Jewish community toward Jews-by-Choice have become much more positive.  Every Reform congregation can boast a significant percentage of members who have chosen Judaism.  Nearly every Jewish family has members who have joined the Covenant People.  But...honesty requires us to say that we are not totally “there” yet.  Disturbingly, one still hears untoward comments regarding converts within our walls.

       One factor leading to a greater appreciation of Jews-by-Choice is the practice that has been adopted in many congregations to have a welcoming for them during Shabbat services.  In some synagogues the actual conversion takes place within the context of the service.  In others, the conversion is formalized  in a private ceremony, followed by a joyous observance on Shabbat.  Whereas years ago most Jews had never witnessed a conversion, now it is very common to have participated in a congregational celebration of a person joining Am Yisrael.

       Upon ordination, my first position was as a solo rabbi in a small congregation.  As there was no Introduction to Judaism class within reasonable commuting distance, when a man approached me with a desire to convert, I decided to teach him on a one-on-one basis.  I gave him a short reading list—books on basic Judaism, Jewish history, and Reform Judaism—which we discussed over the course of several months.  When it came time for him to complete the process, I wrote a letter to my HUC/LA Talmud professor, asking whether I should require Hatafat Dam  B’rit  and T’vilah.  He responded that he could not see the Reform Movement making these rituals a requirement, though I was certainly free to encourage them, which I did.  I found two mikvaot in Northern New Jersey which, though under Orthodox auspices, allowed their use for my conversions.

       My second position was in Southern California.  When I arrived, there was only one Orthodox Mikveh that permitted my use.  When it closed a few years later, the nearby Pacific Ocean (actually Newport Bay) was my go-to location for T’vilah until the Rabbinical Assembly built a Mikveh at the University of Judaism (now known as the American Jewish University) which was open to the entire Jewish community. 

       In 1976, as many of us do at some point in our careers, I suffered a professional dislocation.  The rabbi who had been teaching our community-wide Introduction to Judaism course called me to commiserate and said, “Steve, I need this job...but you need it more.”  I couldn’t disagree.    So began my weekly teaching of Introduction to Judaism in Orange County, California—a role that continued for the ensuing 41 years.  Over these decades, I taught—literally—thousands of students, and personally mentored hundreds through the process of conversion.

       Before I commenced teaching Intro, I met with my mentor, Rabbi Samson H. Levey, who had—with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis— created the course in Los Angeles two decades earlier.  He impressed upon me this key notion, which I truly took to heart: He stated emphatically, “In instructing students who take this course, you must not only teach must BE Torah.”

       I will comment on a number of changes in the make-up of the classes over the decades.  In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the people who attended the class were couples.  In 90% of the couples, the male was born Jewish and the female was not.  By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the breakdown was more like 60% males born Jewish, 40% females born Jewish.  The ethnic background of our students changed, as well.  As the county became more Asian and Hispanic, so did our student body.  Similarly, as society became more accepting of LGBTQ individuals, several students who entered the Intro class now self-identified as LGBTQ.  Finally, whereas in earlier decades, almost all participants in the class were couples, increasingly we had individual spiritual seekers taking the course.   

       Our Intro class was sponsored by the Orange County Board of Rabbis and administered by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now called the Union for Reform Judaism). After teaching the Intro course for a few years, I got a call from our Union Regional Director, Rabbi Erwin L. Herman:  “I have a woman who keeps bugging me.  She says that the Intro courses we offer in Southern California give people a good knowledge base, but don’t provide them the tools to live a Jewish life.  Will you meet with her?”

       Thus began my collaboration...and dear friendship...with Lydia Kukoff.  Lydia (who had recently earned her Masters in Judaic Studies at HUC) and I put together a team of rabbis and educators.  Together, we created a new curriculum for Introduction to Judaism that gave equal emphasis to cognitive and affective learning.  The curriculum was published by the UAHC Press (Introduction to Judaism: A Course Outline, 1983) and before long was in use in Basic Judaism courses throughout North America. 

       There was a great deal of new material being produced during the 1980s and 1990s.  With the assistance of three rabbinic interns—Lisa Edwards, Marjorie Slome, and Hara Person (all of whom later became wonderful rabbis)—Lydia and I revised the curriculum, which the UAHC Press published in 1999 as Introduction to Judaism:  A Sourcebook.

       While these curricula were meant to be used in a classroom setting, the approach we had taken had wider applicability.  So, the UAHC Press invited Lydia and me to use the same formula and create a book that interested readers could use outside of a class.  This resulted in Every Person’s Guide to Judaism (1989).

       During my years as a rabbinical student on the Los Angeles campus, I used to see rabbis attending doctoral-level classes.  I promised myself that if I ever returned to Southern California, I would do the same.  I believe I may hold the longevity 1995, after 21 years of traveling the freeways for weekly classes, I earned my DHL.  While my coursework, comprising my minors, was in Rabbinic Literature and Rabbinic Theology, my major was in Contemporary Jewish Studies, as my dissertation focused on what had become a core element of my rabbinate.  The title:  “Conversion:  What Do Rabbis Want? A Study of Southern California Reform Rabbinic Attitudes and Practices that Culminate in Conversion”  One key finding I would note here:  Rabbinic practice regarding the traditional entry rituals (Milah/Hatafat Dam B’rit and T’vilah) greatly corresponded to the period of study.  Those who were ordained in the 1960s rarely encouraged these rituals while those ordained in each succeeding decade were more  inclined to push for them.

       For over 20 years, I was honored to serve as Rabbinic Co-Chair of the URJ-CCAR Commission on Outreach, Membership and Caring Community.  This ideals of this Commission were put into daily practice by an outstanding staff, headed successively by truly dedicated Directors—Lydia Kukoff, Dru Greenwood, Kathy Kahn, and Vicky Farhi.  The impact of this Commission’s work on Reform Judaism in the late twentieth/early twenty first centuries cannot be overstated. 

       Many years ago, one of my former students published an article in “Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.” This sentence stands out in my mind: “I didn’t convert to become a convert; I converted to become a Jew.”  And what a fine Jew she became!  Eventually she served as president of my congregation.  And she wasn’t the only Jew-by-Choice to do so.  It was our Minhag to give Aliyot to past presidents on Yom Kippur.  What special joy I felt as I called up, one after the other:  ... ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah!

       One of the first questions the Outreach Commission had to face was:  Should congregations sponsor programs particularly geared to recent converts?  After all, our Tradition teaches that once a person has converted, we are not to point out that s/he was ever not Jewish (Bava Metzia 4:10).  Still, those who are new to the Jewish community do, in fact, have particular needs that ought to be addressed.  Mastering the details of Jewish living takes time and guidance; it cannot be fully accomplished within the parameters of any Introduction to Judaism class.  So, Outreach developed programs to help integrate newcomers into the Jewish community. 

       One of the Commission’s goals was to have an active Outreach Committee in every Reform congregation.  To this end, we set up a training program for Outreach Fellows on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. During several summers, I was privileged to serve as part of the faculty which gave to these exceptional lay leaders tools to take back to their communities. 

       One of the concerns of virtually every person who converts to Judaism is the question of authenticity.  They often raise questions, such as: Am I REALLY Jewish? When will I feel COMPLETELY Jewish? How much do I have to DO to BE Jewish?

A long-time congregant, who had converted years before I met her,  was accustomed to saying, “I’m just a convert, but....” I finally got her to stop when I pointed out that she had been a Jewish woman for decades already.

       The tendency of many Jews-by-Choice whose spouses are Jewish is simply to follow their spouse’s pattern of observance.  In light of this,  I point out to them that while their spouse may have been Jewish longer, they now have an equal vote in the Jewish lifestyle of the family.  Furthermore, it is perfectly fine for spouses to observe their Judaism differently.  An example:  A couple may decide not to serve pork and shellfish at home, but outside the home, one spouse might  choose to eat these foods  while the other spouse  refrains from doing so.

       A very helpful way of enabling new converts to integrate into Jewish life is by assigning them a mentor.  Synagogue Outreach Committees have often paired those who are new to Judaism with congregation members who can model active Jewish living for them.  In recent years, this practice seems to have become less common.  It is often difficult to find mentors, as seemingly fewer of our members are, themselves, leading active Jewish lives.  Also, this type of program is dependent upon an involved Outreach committee or, at least, a strong Outreach chair to select and train mentors, and then follow up. 

       Congregational Outreach programs seem to wax and wane.  They need to be regularly reinforced and reinvigorated.  For many years, this was done by the Outreach Commission developing  new programs and Regional Outreach Directors promoting them, as well as recruiting and training congregational Outreach chairs.  With the demise of Regional Outreach Directors and the Outreach Commission, there seems to be much less emphasis on Outreach at the local level.  I, for one, am greatly saddened to witness the diminution of what was for decades the jewel of our Movement.

       Over the past number of years, as a rabbinic mentor to HUC students  I have witnessed first-hand how the training in Practical Rabbinics has strengthened since my student days.  With the support of a major grant, HUC-JIR has established the Gerecht Institute to provide rabbinical students with intensive training in effective modalities for preparing candidates for conversion.  It has been a delight for me to serve as an instructor in these workshops.

       During two periods, I was a member of the CCAR Ethics Committee—a total of twelve years, six of them as Chair.  One of the areas of rabbinic service that provides rabbis great satisfaction is also one that can, sadly, lead to rabbinic misconduct.  In working with people preparing for conversion, rabbis engage in deep conversations.  The relationship that often develops is one that might well be described as soul-to-soul. As I reflect on a number of conversion-related instances in which I was called upon to intervene as Ethics Chair, I am moved to state the great importance of rabbis maintaining appropriate emotional boundaries in all areas of our work, and especially in this realm. 

       My sense is that while an increasing number of people are interested in learning about Judaism and participating in Jewish life, fewer individuals are formally converting to Judaism compared to a decade or two ago.  I suspect that one reason for this is the greater number of rabbis who will now officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies.  While securing a rabbi to officiate at  a wedding ceremony was never a sufficient reason to convert, if an individual was desirous of living a Jewish life, it made sense to complete a conversion prior to marriage and have the rabbi with whom the person had established a relationship during study now officiate at the wedding.  As more and more rabbis became available to officiate at a wedding where one party was not Jewish, many individuals have come to feel that a formal conversion could occur sometime in the future rather than in the midst of planning a wedding.

       Another factor that may well contribute to the lower incidence of conversion is the wide acceptance of non-Jews in Reform congregations.  Many people feel that they can live fully as Jews without needing to convert.  Some years ago, Reform Judaism magazine invited two members of the Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Caring Community to write a brief article on the topic:  Should Reform Rabbis Encourage Conversion? My essay was an emphatic YES!  My colleague responded with the opposite view, contending that conversion is not really necessary.  In her congregation, no distinction is made between people who are Jewish and those who are not.  All have completely equal roles.  Of course, the rules regarding both governance as well as ritual honors vary from synagogue to synagogue.  However, the overall ethos in Reform congregations is that ALL are completely welcome.  Hence, many do not feel any urgency to make their Jewish status “official.”

       When people convert to Judaism, they may choose to affiliate with a Reform congregation, but they are becoming part of K’lal Yisrael.  In order to emphasize this reality in a palpable manner, some years ago Rabbi Richard N. Levy (past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis) and Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff (past chair of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) developed a plan for a joint Bet Din for conversion.  This plan grew into the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic mode of entry into the Jewish community.  This Bet Din is endorsed by the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly Western Region, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Musmachim of the Academy for Jewish Religion/California.  I have been a Governing Board Member of Sandra Caplan since its inception and was recently elected Co-Chair.

       So, I am grateful to God that my 50 years of remeeting Sinai partners goes on....

Stephen J. Einstein (Cincinnati 1971, DHL Los Angeles 1995) is Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, California. Co-editor of Introduction to Judaism: A Course Outline and Introduction to Judaism: A Sourcebook and co-author of Every Person’s Guide to Judaism, he served as rabbinic co-chair of the URJ-CCAR Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Caring Community for two decades.




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