Testimonies

We’ve gotten hundreds of letters from people who have converted to Judaism, and they are now,  very  happy people. I am posting a few and I will update this section from time to time.

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By R., a male Reform convert:

First, I want to say thank you to my teachers: Rabbi Angel, Rabbi Joel Jacobs & Paul Cohen (my mentor), to my birth family, to my Sha’ar Zahav family, and to all my friends.   Thanks for your support all along this journey because as you know, it’s just the beginning.

As we approach the Jewish Festival of Purim, our very own Mardi Gras where Jews are actually commanded to eat, drink, and be merry (and then drink some more!), we are also reminded that this is the festival of “fate.”   It is a holiday of contradictions, of revelry and reflection.

During this festival, we read from the Book of Esther (and no, I don’t mean Madonna).   Interestingly, G-d never appears in the book, as if G-d was hiding.   Purim teaches us this concept of “hester panim,” which means hidden face of G-d.   It is the idea that, although we may think we control our own lives, G-d is actually the architect of our fate—controlling events that are not always apparent.   Purim is the holiday that reminds me of “that moment,” and at some point in our lives, we all experience “that moment.”

My moment arrived on a cold and late December night in 1990, as I was driving past Sacramento during finals week at UC Davis.   An animal suddenly raced across the road and today, I don’t even remember what kind of animal, but being the anti-war, pro-choice, tree-hugging, whale-loving, animal rights activist that I was (and still am)—I swerved to avoid hitting it.

I lost control of my car, as it spun around twice before flipping over several times down an embankment where I landed upside-down, strapped to my seatbelt, unconscious…

All I remember was how the police told me that if my car had landed just two feet to the left, I would have slammed into an electrical column.   That’s when I had my moment.

That night, I was reminded of my own mortality and how lucky I was. That was the moment when I realized, for whatever reason, that I was meant to live—or perhaps more importantly, my life was meant to be lived fully.

Since then, I have always tried to make each experience, each friendship, each day, and each moment count.   Maybe that’s why I am a wild-and-crazy kind of guy.

I also believe that I was meant to live so that I could give back.

I have always been dedicated to “tikkum olam,” or repairing the world long, before I learned there was a word for it.   Tikkun Olam usually comes in the form of social activism—in order to make our world a better place.   Activism is in my blood.   So, it’s not surprising that the two Jewish names I have chosen are “Ravid” and “Netzach.”

When I first thought about choosing a name, I wanted a unique, Hebrew name to fit my unusual personality.   Ravid is Hebrew for wanderer, and I chose it because I’m the type of person who just can’t sit still.   As a child, I was hyper.   I had a short attention span and I always had to be doing something.   Well, that’s still the case.

“Netzach” means “victory,” and my grandfather’s name was Vicente, which means victory.   I chose his name to honor his memory and to honor a life filled with tikkun olam.   So now, I carry both of his names because my official middle name is Tolentino, which was his last name.

During the past year-and-a-half, I chose Judaism, and in a way, Judaism chose me—as my life’s purpose continues to unfold.   So, as we approach Purim with our masks, graggers (noisemakers), and alcohol in hand, I know that I will be reminded of that cold night, and that “moment” which changed everything.

I will also ponder about what brought me to the Jewish people.   I will continue to reflect upon why I am here, and I will think about all the work that lies ahead in making this world better place for gays, Asians, Jews, and everyone in between…

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By M., a male Conservative convert:

I didn’t want to be a Jew.  This whole thing started out real simple.  My wife and I started talking about raising a family.  We talked about sending them to public or private school, would someone stay home or would we do the day care thing, and would we raise them with a religion.  She was born Jewish.  I was a very happy atheist.  My belief then (and now) is that children should be raised in a faith.  Something to help them with the big questions in life.  Something to rebel against when they’re teenagers.

I figured that if we were going to raise the kids Jewish, I should know a little bit about it.  After a quick Google search, we came across the organization Building Jewish Bridges, headed by Dawn Kepler.  We found a workshop that was hosted by Netivot Shalom.  The lecture focused on inter-faith families, specifically introducing the non-Jew part of the family to Judaism.    It was there I met Menachem.

I know I’m not the first person to be floored by Menachem Creditor.  I know I won’t be the last.  That night changed my life.  For the first time in my short 29 years of existence, I was introduced to a concept of God and religion that I had never known.  It all felt right.  Everything Menachem was saying felt like home.  I wasn’t the only one who was touched- my wife had tears streaming down her face.  That’s Menachem’s talent.

I didn’t sleep for three days.  No, that’s not right- I couldn’t sleep for three days.  I couldn’t stop mulling over what Menachem addressed that night.  Concepts about a God who needs people, concepts like a God who wants to be a part of my life.  No guilt.  No shame.  Responsibility, yes.  A lifetime of learning, and more importantly, doing, yes.  But no more shame.

I contacted Dawn Kepler shortly after the lecture.  I told her I wanted more information about Judaism.  I asked her to recommend a book.  She recommended “Basic Judaism”, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg.  I didn’t read the text so much as I devoured it.  I took notes and made comments in the margins.  I wrote down questions.  I wanted more.

I emailed Menachem and asked if he would meet me for a coffee sometime, anytime.  No response.  I emailed him again.  No response.  Wow, this guy is playing hardball, I thought.  My third email got a response.  We were to meet at the Tully’s on Shattuck at 11:30 am.  We met and it was there that I declared my desire to convert.  I wanted to study under him.

For the next five months I read.  I read books like “Jewish Literacy” and “Biblical Literacy” by Rabbi Joseph Telushin.  I read Abraham Heschel’s “The Prophets” because Menachem suggested it during a lecture after a Sunday morning minyan.  I attended Shabbat services almost every Saturday morning.  None of that prepared me for what happened at my first Rosh Hashanah.

It was during the third blast of the shofar, the teruah, that I felt the presence of the Divine.  I apologize for what follows: I have yet to do an adequate job of describing that moment.  Time stopped.  Life stopped.  All I heard was the sound of the shofar and the feeling of my soul being grabbed by God.  It was as if God grabbed me by my head, looked me in the eye, and made Its presence very known.  I about collapsed.  I was left muttering oh my god this is real oh my god this is real, oh my f***ing god this is so real.

I read more books, attended more Shabbat services.  I helped build a sukkah.  The more I do, the more I want to know.  Once Purim arrives, I will have celebrated every Jewish holiday, even the minor ones like Tu B’shvat.  My wife and I keep the Sabbath and welcome It into our lives on Friday evenings.

I have so much more to learn.  I’m embarrassed by the amount of ignorance I possess. But I can say without a doubt that nothing will stop me from being the best Jew I can be.  I didn’t want this when I started last March.  All I wanted was a Cliff Notes understanding of Judaism, just something to get me by until the kids went to college and I could reveal myself as an atheist.  Everything has changed.  The future is open to more discovery.  Thank God.

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By M., a female Reform convert:
First I have to thank Rabbi Deborah Jacobs for being  there for me. You’ve been wonderful. My  conversion to Judaism story. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home—and it never resonated with me.  Hearing members of my family and church talk about how people (Jews, Buddhists, atheists…) would spend eternity burning in hell if I/we/Christians in general didn’t convince them to “give their lives to Jesus,” terrified me.  That seemed a pretty big load to hand to a 5 year old girl who really only went to church without a fuss because she liked singing hymns and listening to the felt board stories.

I spent most of my adult years disconnected from religion.  Without a family of my own, it seemed like a non-issue.  As an elementary school teacher, I was aware that the most cohesive families and compassionate, self-assured children that came through my classroom were those that came from families that regularly attended some kind of house of worship.  However, I wasn’t at that place in my life, so I just sort of filed it away that when that time came for me, I’d figure it out.

I knew, however, that I would NEVER tell my child that he/she was responsible for saving the souls of other people from an eternity in hell.  NEVER.

When I met my (now) husband (thank you, eHarmony!) and discovered that he was Jewish, I was curious about it.  Maybe it was just what I was looking for.  The two main things that I couldn’t wrap my head around in Christianity (hell and Jesus) were not a part of this religion.  We wanted to have children together, but then there were all those traditions that I knew so well…  How would it feel to give those up?

I went to an interfaith discussion group that I learned about through Dawn Kepler’s regular email updates.  Actually, I went to a few of them.  And as I listened to the stories women (and men) were telling about trying to balance two faiths and sets of traditions into one home, I thought it sounded… complicated.

Especially given that I really didn’t believe the basic tenets of Christianity, it seemed crazy for me to put that much effort into maintaining an interfaith home.

By this time I had taken a number of classes all over the Bay Area.  I wanted to learn about Judaism, and I seized on multiple opportunities at all kinds of synagogues—Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist—and at each place I found something to learn and appreciate.  I was welcomed whole-heartedly at every synagogue (and on occasion had to laugh when conversations would result in someone looking to me and asking, “What do Christians think about…?” as if I were qualified to speak for all Christians.)

I also attended a group called “Jewish Journeys” led by Rabbi Bridget at Jewish Gateways.  It was a wonderful group that met regularly to bounce ideas off of each other and to get us self-motivated to discover for ourselves what we wanted to experience in Judaism.

Finding B’Nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek was like finding my home.  When I met Rabbi Asher, I told him I was interested in converting to Judaism, and we began to meet regularly to discuss the classes I had taken, the classes I continued to take, as well as other, more general questions I had about Judaism.   Converting has just felt like the most natural thing in the world for me.  I can see now how my whole life was leading up to it, and I’m thrilled that we are raising our daughter (who we adopted from Vietnam) in the Jewish faith as well.

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By L., a female Reform convert:

I was raised in a Protestant religious tradition, but had “bonded” with Judaism when I was in college through my friendships with many Jewish students.

I had considered conversion for many years after college, but the thought stayed dormant until after September 11, 2001. On that fateful day, a Jewish friend of mine who had worked in the World Trade Center had gotten out of the city safely, and to honor her, I wanted to give my thanks to God in a synagogue. A co-worker recommended Beth Am. I attended a service, and several services after that, but was still afraid to take the first real step toward conversion. I finally emailed Rabbi Janet Marder, Beth Am’s senior rabbi, and she warmly invited me to meet with her to discuss the conversion process at Beth Am.

From that first meeting, I knew I had found the right place to begin my Jewish journey. Rabbi Marder explained the conversion process at Beth Am, and cleared up many misconceptions I had about conversion. She helped me understand that conversion was not intended to be a grueling process to “qualify” me to be a Jew, but a deliberate and focused journey of the soul, as well as an opportunity to join, and be embraced by, a sacred covenant that would not require me to abandon my family, friends, or values.

I signed up for a class called Building Blocks of Judaism (taught by a wonderful lay teacher) while meeting with Rabbi Marder about every 6 weeks. The Building Blocks class was a helpful introduction to Jewish history, theology, and practice. My sessions with Rabbi Marder were a safe and uplifting environment in which to explore my questions and fears. She suggested books to read and activities at the synagogue where I could get to know people and learn more. She was sensitive to how frightening this big change was for me, and did not rush me as far as the timing of my conversion. She was a patient and inspiring guide and teacher every step of the way.Rabbi Marder has all of her conversion students write an essay about their Jewish journey, and has us go to the mikvah before our conversion ceremony. She also discusses the conversion ceremony with us beforehand, and provides opportunities for each student to select some of the prayers for their ceremony.

I am grateful to have gone through my conversion at a community that truly welcomes those who want to join the Covenant of Israel, and that shows genuine sensitivity to the needs of each person during their journey. I have been encouraged by the many Jews by Choice at Beth Am who have been so involved in congregational life and who have been inspiring teachers and leaders. Most of all, I am grateful that Rabbi Marder welcomed a stranger one day 7 years ago, and guided her with love and inspiration on that deliberate and focused journey of the soul.

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By Christopher Orev, a male Conservative convert:

I gave serious consideration to becoming Jewish on the very day that I learned such a personal, psychological passage was possible. At the time, I attributed my desire to be Jewish to three factors: a terrific, loving relationship with a Jewish woman; a philosemitism that developed in childhood; and, more mystically, a Jewish neshamah, inherited from my Jewish great-grandfather (via the gilgul neshamot). But do 1/8 Jewish genetic makeup (whatever that really means!), a general affection for Jewry, and a profound love for a wonderful Jewish woman warrant conversion? As I see it, neither the genetic factor nor my philosemitism warrant such a profound identity transformation and I generally take issue with pro forma conversions motivated only by the desire to elude the intermarriage boogeyman. In combination, however, the three motivations may be deemed legitimate impetus, but my decision to convert was above all impelled by the sense that I was already Jewish, that giyur would be a homecoming. Nonetheless, even after I made up my mind to convert in late 2008, it wasn’t until I began to adopt Jewish practices that I realized how very “right” the identity felt. Intellectually and emotionally, Jewish thought and life strengthen and sustained me, both before and after my official conversion, in 2011. This sense of identity, irrational though it may be, is shaped by forces outside of my purview. The mystic in me is perfectly content to call that G-d’s will even as the rationalist winks away the metaphor.

I am an artist and a writer, but I also work in the sciences; on the whole, neither the arts nor the sciences are particularly accommodating of faith practice, and many of my Jewish friends are deeply skeptical of anything “spiritual” and especially anything “religious.” Typically, these friends find my more practical or ‘rational’ reason for converting (i.e., marrying a Jewish woman) to be the more acceptable. By contrast, Jewish professionals and many of the older Jews I know, through shul, family, and other connections, are more inspired by my ‘irrational’ reasons; me, too.

Over time, my enthusiasm for Judaism and Jewish practice has rubbed off on some of those close to me. My wife, for example, has remarked that my Jewish identity and knowledge base has allowed her to reconnect with Judaism and to reexamine her Jewish identity; she now feels more Jewishly connected, she says, than she did when we met. Likewise, some of my Jewish friends who were initially skeptical or disinterested in Judaism (and who found my conversion bemusing) are now more open to participating in Shabbat dinners or even joining me at shul. As you observed, too many Jewish kids cross the bar or bat mitzvah finish line and flee the field/tribe. Sometimes, a sincere and dedicated ger can introduce them to an adult engagement with Judaism, one they might even be attracted to.

I do see converts who have a lackadaisical approach to their Jewish identity; typically, these converts converted for marriage. I used to resent them, feeling that their sense of Jewish identity was literally nominal, a piece of paper they stored in a fireproof safe and nothing more. In a time when being an interfaith couple is quite possible in the Jewish community, it doesn’t make sense to me to convert solely as the result of familial pressure. I feel strongly that one should convert because they are compelled to through and through. Yet I no longer resent the lackadaisical gerim. Sure, they frustrate me at times, but rather than criticize them, I see them as just another disconnected Jew; that is, a Jew who might one day find value in wrestling with the complexities of Jewish identity.

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