A Tougher Reform Road To Conversion
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A Tougher Reform Road To Conversion

Stephen Wise’s revamped program signals new rigor for ‘transformative’ step.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

When Johanna Rauth began looking for a synagogue where she could go through the process of converting to Judaism, one program stood out. Instead of taking about 12 months to complete, the program took 18. Instead of requiring an average of 16 weeks of classes, the program required 30. She signed up.

“I liked the way that they took it seriously. I felt that I would really learn there as much as I can learn,” said Rauth, a 31-year-old internist who is currently earning a master’s in public health.

The program is at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, an 800-family Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side. When its leaders decided to increase the requirements of its program a year and a half ago — a move that puts it at odds with much of the rest of the liberal movement — they weren’t sure how potential students would react.

“We assumed that most people would want to go to other programs in the city that expected less of them,” said the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch.

They were pleasantly surprised. Fourteen students are currently in the program, and two, including Rauth, have completed it. Another five are in conversation with the synagogue about joining the program.

“I think there is a group of people who are exploring Judaism who really take it very, very seriously and they don’t want it to be less than an optimally fulfilling experience,” said Rabbi Hirsch. “They want it to be challenging. … They realize they’re undergoing a really transformative transition and they’re honored that people want to give them so much attention.”

Melissa Hume, 27, who teaches preschool at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and is in the process of converting, was attracted to the substantive nature of Stephen Wise’s program.

“It really resonated with my personal experience and my interest in learning,” she said. “I just felt like there was so much history and tradition that I didn’t know about, so I knew going in that this was what was going to get me to a place of understanding.”

Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s decision to revamp its conversion program comes at a time when religious identity has become increasingly fluid.

A study by the Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” released last week, reported that 34 percent of Americans have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised, up from 28 percent in 2007. If people switching from one Protestant denomination to another are included, the percentage rises to 42. The study also found that 17 percent of Jews were raised in a different religion.

While some Reform congregations have increased the requirements of their conversion programs, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s program has “unusually substantial requirements,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe, who co-chairs the Reform movement’s Joint Commission on Outreach.

“This is more stringent and a more significant commitment than we’ve seen in almost any community … not only in the Reform movement but outside of the Reform movement,” he said.

“It’s very easy for rabbis to feel pressured into making this happen more quickly then is appropriate … especially when someone comes forward because they are getting married,” he added. “I am pleased to see an expectation of an 18-month process with such significant requirements because we want to be certain that everyone is as sincere as possible and as committed as possible about becoming Jewish.”

In most Reform congregations, students are first sent off to take an introduction to Judaism class of between 12 and 20 weeks with students from other synagogues. Then they work with a rabbi at their own synagogue for several months, said Jaffe.

Some programs are even shorter. At Judaism by Choice in Los Angeles, students have the option of taking the classes, which run three hours and 15 minutes, twice a week, allowing students to complete the program’s 58.5 hours of conversion coursework in as little as three months.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the program’s rabbinic director, said the appropriate length of time for conversion entirely depends on the student’s background. Eighteen months, he said, “could be good for some people who come in not knowing anything.” But, he said, “A lot of people, when they make the decision to convert to Judaism, it’s something they’ve been thinking about for a long time. … If they know Hebrew already, if they’ve lived in Israel,” a shorter length of study makes sense, he said.

In Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s revamped program, students attend a weekly two-hour class for 30 weeks taught by Stephen Wise clergy, then spend the summer doing an independent project. They finish the program with a course of individual study with a member of the synagogue’s clergy.

“We wanted to be able to ensure the very high standards that we wanted,” Rabbi Hirsch said. The goal, he said, is to make each student “into a terrific, knowledgeable and articulate Jew. Somebody who would be able to, on their own, live a full Jewish life.”

He added that with the American Jewish community shrinking, “it is very important for all of the congregations to put a lot of attention on embracing people who want to explore becoming a Jew.”

Stephen Wise’s program strongly encourages students’ Jewish partners to participate in the class, to strengthen Judaism for the entire family.

Rauth said her participation in the program got her husband, a secular Israeli, more interested in Judaism. The couple even began watching videos on Jewish topics together in the evening. “It connected my husband again to his Jewish roots,” she said.

In addition to the academic portion of Stephen Wise’s program, students are also required to begin practicing Judaism. “Right from day one … irrespective of what they feel, they get into the habit of observing Shabbat, of lighting candles, saying blessings over the wine and challah and having people over for Shabbat dinner,” Rabbi Hirsch said.

They are also encouraged to take part in services and other synagogue programs such as Torah study and volunteer work.

“Something that’s very important to us is that our students are fully immersed into the culture of the synagogue right away,” said Associate Rabbi Diana Fersko. “We’ve seen engagement really flourish.”

Rabbi Hirsch agreed. “From the moment they start studying, they come to services on a regular basis, they interact with our clergy on a regular basis, they observe on a weekly basis and they support each other academically as well as emotionally.”

The emotional support is a key aspect of the program. Because the students not only see each other in class but also at services and other synagogue events, they quickly form a cohesive community.

“Because we were all in a similar situation, they [the other students] could really relate to the thoughts I had and the process I went though. We could help each other and encourage each other. It was very, very helpful,” said Rauth, who grew up in Germany and moved to New York with her Israeli husband 18 months ago.

“Judaism is all about community, and being in a class with a lot of people and to go through the process with them is a very good step towards this community feeling,” she added.

Hume, who, in addition to teaching preschool is earning a master’s degree in psychology at Hunter College, also finds the support of the other students helpful.

“It’s nice to have that feeling of not doing it by yourself,” she said. “Everyone who is part of the group is coming to Judaism through totally different paths, but we’re all sharing that transitional moment of really this identity shift, of becoming part of this community that none of us were a part of before.”

Asked if holding a full-time job while attending grad school ever makes her wish the program were less demanding, Hume said that sometimes it does.

“Every once in awhile I think, I wish I could get to the mikvah, I wish we could formalize this, that I could just be Jewish already,” she said. “But I’m always reminded that it’s not just about you becoming Jewish. It’s about you becoming part of the Jewish community and that just takes time and it takes effort. And I have to say I really appreciate that approach.”

amyclark@jewishweek.org

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