But why would they choose Judaism?
This is a question I hear often. In my work helping to celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that is endemic to the Jewish community, I also have the privilege of connecting with many people who have chosen to become Jewish. In Jewish tradition, when someone becomes Jewish the community is meant to accept them as they are, not to dwell on their status as a convert. Yet often, converts are met with curiosity or worse, suspicion. From Jews by choice, I hear that this can often feel like personal rejection.
Whenever I am asked about why people choose Judaism, I recall late night dorm conversations I had as a college student. A good friend was studying to be a cantor. He had grown up in Europe, in a country without a strong Jewish past, in a family that had no Jewish past. A chance encounter with Jews on Purim pulled him into the Jewish orbit and eventually he made the choice to make Judaism his own. We spent many hours talking about Judaism, I did not for a minute doubt his commitment or his place in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, time and again, I repeatedly returned to ask him why he had chosen Judaism.
At the time, I was struggling. I had not chosen Judaism and it felt like a burden that I could not escape. While I went through the motions of observance and community, I was pained by so much in our tradition particularly as it related to women’s roles, hierarchy and power. Israel, which had once been the idealized center of my Jewish identity, had given way to the complex realities of adult understanding. My awareness of the legacy of anti-Semitism robbed me of the ability to imagine true security. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose the very thing that on some level I wished I could escape?
There is nothing more that I love about being a rabbi, than hearing those who choose Judaism explain their choice –which they do as part of the conversion process. Jews by choice come to Judaism without the baggage that Jews from birth carry. Time and again, I hear that the ambiguities of Judaism, the very thing that was so challenging for me as young woman, are among the things that newcomers value in Judaism. Just like Jews by birth, they struggle with difficult issues like women’s rights or the State of Israel, but they feel confident that whatever struggles they have fit into the flexible but enduring Jewish framework. Among Jews by birth, I often hear that learning Hebrew was the bane of Jewish childhood. And yet as the member of a conversion board, I’ve heard grown men wax eloquently about the power of learning an ancient language and unlocking timeless wisdom by studying it in the original. In Uganda, where Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has officiated at hundreds of conversions, it is the magic of Shabbat- which allows people to stop work, come together with other, focus on the finer things- which is the most powerful draw. Those choosing Judaism see joy and possibilities. They accept the complexities as part of the beauty of the system they are entering into. Judaism through their eyes never fails to inspire me.
I know that for some portion of the Jewish by birth population it is hard to accept that a person from Scandinavia, the mountains in Peru, or plains of Africa- who does not know about gefilte fish, did not have ancestors forced to leave a homeland, and knows not from Woody Allen- can or should be part of the Jewish people. And this is highly problematic. But often, I think that the questions to converts or to me, as a rabbi who often has the privilege of working with individual converts as well as communities of converts, speak to deep seated ambivalence and struggles, even shame about our own Jewishness. I did in the end emerge from my struggles and find my own answers, but not before I inflicted my own ambivalence and doubt on my friend. Our own challenges and doubts need to be addressed, but not at the cost of making newcomers feel unwelcome.
This summer I had a conversation with a group of sixth grade students at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires. Discussing diversity of Jews around the world, they fixed on the concept of conversion. They wanted to know what conversations rabbis have with a conversion student when they sit at the biet din, “court” for conversion.I explained that each conversation is unique but then turned the question back at them. Forced to consider what they might say, they came up with some pretty compelling answers: peoplehood, ritual, customs, Israel. But more important than the content was the realization that they had answers for themselves. Ultimately, no matter how inspiring, someone else’s answer about why they have chosen Judaism will never take the place of each Jew finding his or her own reasons to be Jewish.
What are yours?
In 1850 two men found themselves standing under a tree near the famous Recoleta Cemetery in the center of Buenos Aires. Each man was carrying a small book and reading to himself. It was Yom Kippur and each man prayed silently to himself without saying a word, even though they each knew what the other was doing. After finishing their prayers they started to talk and they agreed to meet next year and to try to find some more Jews. The year after this story the first minyan took place for Yom Kippur and they decided to found the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, the first Jewish Institution in Argentina.
When I asked Rabbi Guido Cohen about the history of Jewish life in Argentina, this was the legend he shared, truth or fiction it is hard to say, but as he pointed out the tree is still there.
The roots of Jewish life in Argentina are relatively new, prior to the late 1800s there had been a small smattering of Sephardic Jews who had come to the country but the Inquisition followed and all signs of Jewish life disappeared. The eradication of the Inquisition in 1813 paved the way for the potential of Jewish life but it was not until the very end of the 19th century that large numbers of Jews began to settle in Argentina.
Today Argentina is the home to the world’s largest Spanish speaking Jewish community. There are over 250,000 Jews in Argentina, most living in Buenos Aires. The earliest European Jewish settlers, however, initially made their homes on the Pampas, the vast Argentinean plains, where it was common to find Jewish cowboys.
In many ways Jewish life in Buenos Aires bears a strong resemblance to Jewish life in any major North American city. There are a myriad of synagogues, Jewish organizations and schools. The arts scene is vibrant and there a Conservative Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, which like it’s American counterparts, trains rabbis. On a recent Friday, I attended a Shabbat Service in the center of the city. The tunes were a recognizable mix of contemporary liturgical music used in the United States.
But even as it is familiar, there is no mistaking Buenos Aires for Boston or Los Angeles. While visiting, Rabbi Cohen offered to take me to see a local synagogue, which he promised, would be quite special. Walking into the courtyard and then the sanctuary of Amijai, it was easy to understand what he was talking about. Set amidst greenery, the building is modern and rounded, the sanctuary made of Jerusalem stone and the acoustics state of the art.
But it was Cohen’s comment as we left that reminded us of exactly where we were, “not only is this the most beautiful shul in the city, it is also the safest.”
Concern for safety is real. In 1994, the Jewish Community Center was bombed and 85 people were killed and over 200 wounded. Moving around town with the World Union of Progressive Judaism we were never without our security team. Moreover, the economic instability that plagued the country in 2001 led to significant migration to Israel, the United States, Spain and Canada. As proud as Argentineans are, they have reasons to worry too.
Still Jewish life is vibrant and uniquely Latin American. Though concerns about safety abound, there are 1,500 students at the Tarbut Jewish school where Rabbi Cohen directs Jewish life and learning, and this is only one of many openly Jewish schools. Jewish children are educated to be multi lingual. Though not particularly religious –the numbers for intermarriage that I heard while there varied but were around 50% – people are proud to be Jewish. Recently, the city elected Rabbi Sergio Bergman to an important seat on the city council. Buenos Aires boasts more than a dozen kosher eateries including the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. The popular ten member Samaj band has a really local flavor. It plays a mix of Klezmer, Israeli and Latin music, that had us dancing for hours one night at our conference.
Today the Recoleta Cemetery is in the center of one of Buenos Aires’ most posh neighborhood which buzzes with life at all hours of the day and night. It is hard to imagine that it was ever a place where two Jews might find some quiet for reflection on Yom Kippur. Yet, if those fabled men were by some extraordinary means to come looking for Jewish life in Buenos Aires today they would be far from alone as they were just over a century and a half ago, instead they would be in the midst of the worlds most vibrant Jewish communities. The biggest question they would face would be choosing which synagogue to attend!