Two weeks after returning from Uganda, where he oversaw the conversion of about 300 members of the Abayudaya community to Judaism, Rabbi Howard Gorin of Rockville, Md., is already planning a trip back.
“This is not dunk ‘em and leave ‘em,” he said, referring to the mikveh, the ritual immersion conducted as part of the conversion process.
It is believed that there are as many as 600 Abayudaya Jews in Uganda and Rabbi Gorin said he agreed to convert them in accordance with Jewish law after meeting two of the community’s leaders, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki, in the United States last summer.
“When I spoke with them and saw their level of commitment, I knew I was talking to people who are deeply imbued with Judaism,” he said. “They want to be recognized by world Jewry as part of the children of the covenant. They want this for spiritual reasons. J.J. said God gave the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people, that he wants to be a part of it and that he realizes that just practicing Judaism is not enough in the eyes of world Jewry.”
But Rabbi Gorin said that not everyone was happy to undergo the ritual conversion process. “A lot of people were resistant and made it clear when they went to the bet din that their father circumcised them when they were 8 days old and that they have been living as Jews all their lives,” he said.
The bet din is the three-member court of knowledgeable Jews that approved the conversions.
Moshe Cotel, a rabbinical student and board member of Kulanu, which assists lost and dispersed Jewish communities, said there were so many people seeking conversion that he was enlisted by Rabbi Gorin to become part of a second bet din. Also joining the 14-member delegation formed by Kulanu was Rabbi Joseph Prouser of the Little Neck Jewish Center in Queens.
Cotel pointed out that this was the first time Kulanu had called upon Conservative rabbis to handle conversions. It previously enlisted Orthodox rabbis for the conversion of Inca Indian Jews in Peru and for a group known as B’nai Menashe in India who consider themselves descendents of the lost tribe of Israel.
“Judaism is emerging as an appealing choice to countless men and women all over the world,” said Cotel. “What we have to do is to open the gates to them.