To be Jewish or not to be Jewish. That is the question for many people who come to live in Israel, who have citizenship, who often already have very deep Jewish identities but who nevertheless desire to go the final step to be universally recognized as Jewish by the State of Israel.
And a new English-language conversion program in the heart of Tel Aviv is proving to be something of a Godsend for such people. The first graduates of this innovative course were fully accepted into the Jewish fold several months ago, and its popularity is such that a second class has now opened with a third due to get underway after the holiday season.
The process of converting can be extremely daunting, especially doing so in a foreign tongue.
So Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, himself originally from the US and founder of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, has created a unique English-language conversion course in the heart of Tel Aviv to help conversion candidates overcome what can be a frightening and overwhelming challenge.
Rabbi Konstantyn’s Tel Aviv synagogue is itself something of a novelty. Upon making aliyah six and a half years ago, and having been a communal rabbi back in the US, Konstantyn decided to set up a synagogue modelled on Jewish communities in the Diaspora, emphasizing a sense of community and belonging with a rabbi very much at the centre of that system.
And part of a communal rabbi’s life, he says, is dealing with people who approach him seeking to convert. After establishing the International Synagogue two and a half years ago, Konstantyn relates, he began receiving numerous phone calls from people seeking to convert.
This he says was a resultant from the tone he set for his community and his approach towards communal life, which has drawn many young immigrants to the synagogue. For some of them, their arrival in Israel has either raised or revived a need or desire to convert.
“For me as a communal rabbi, it’s important to address the needs of a congregation and all the congregants, says Rabbi Konstantyn. “At the ulpan-giur we want to help converts through their process by giving them the compassion, support and knowledge to help them achieve their dream of becoming an observant Jew.”
One such person is Natalie Merringer, a 28-year old living in Tel Aviv.
Originally from the US, Natalie moved to Holland with her family aged nine, and grew up with a strong Jewish identity, nurtured particularly by her father. Since her mother was not Jewish however, she was refused entry to a Jewish day school, something which caused her much anguish.
Nevertheless, she became active in the Habonim Zionist youth movement and participated as a both a member and a leader in Holland as well as going on trips with the movement to Israel, and eventually moving to here several years ago, and formally becoming a citizen a year afterwards.
Asked why she decided to convert formally, Natalie recalled her experience in Holland
“My experience growing up and not being accepted in Holland really affected me, I felt like an outsider,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
“I felt Jewish but I wanted to be accepted by all communities as such and I wanted to be close that circle. People would tell me I don’t look Jewish and ask me if my mother was Jewish, and I didn’t want that when I have children they should go through a similar experience to me, feeling Jewish in their heart but not being Jewish according to the letter of the law.”
Judaism, she says, is part of her identity and who she is. This identity is strengthened she says by her family background. Her father was born in 1942 in a Jewish Ghetto in a Polish town close to the city of Katowice, and was hidden with a family of non-Jewish farmers by his parents for the remainder of the Second World War until they were able to find him once again when the conflict ended.
Having heard about Rabbi Konstantyn’s course through a friend, Natalie embarked upon the nine-month conversion program along with another 20 students.
Known as an ulpan-giur, the bi-weekly three-hour conversion classes on the premises of the International Synagogue cover the gamut of Jewish knowledge and practice, from how to keep a kosher kitchen to Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith.
The course, Natalie says, was not easy for her personally and to a certain extent clashed with her ideas of what being a Jew is.
“I believed you can be Jewish, and feel Jewish, and not keep kosher for instance, just like many Israelis,” she says. “You can have a strong Jewish identity and not keep all the laws.”
She voiced these opinions to Rabbi Konstantyn challenging him, for example, to explain to her why she should keep kosher, one of the harder Jewish observances to understand, as it happens.
“I felt as if I could be totally honest and open about where I was in my life, I really felt comfortable,” she says, crediting Konstantyn and the other ulpan-giur teachers with a warm, open and friendly approach that made the conversion process easier.
The English-language conversion program, one of the only such courses in the country, was originally initiated and facilitated ITIM, an organization dedicated to providing assistance with Jewish life-cycle events and observances.
According to ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber, his centre receives hundreds of calls from people looking for help with the conversion process.
The center noticed a significant trend of English-speakers from the Tel Aviv area looking for an English language conversion program, and so approached Rabbi Konstantyn, as well as three other Tel Aviv synagogues, and conducted a recruitment campaign to attract people seeking such a course.
ITIM then connected Rabbi Konstantyn with the Institute for Jewish Studies, one of the official state bodies that oversee conversion courses, and once the course had 20 students, a prerequisite for state recognition and funding, the ulpan-giur got underway in June 2011.
Shmuel Jeselsohn, director of the State Conversion Directorate that oversees the Institute for Jewish Studies, says that his office was extremely happy to facilitate an English-language conversion program, especially one connected to a synagogue and a community.
The directorate has been working for two years on what it calls community accompanied conversion classes, through which the State Conversion Authority encourages communities which express an interest in assisting converts to provide communal support for a class of convert candidates.
Interest in the program has grown says Rabbi Konstantyn, with a second class already up and running with 29 students, and a third class set to start next month with another 20 candidates.
Although all the students are seeking an English-language conversion course, they come from extremely varied backgrounds. Many of them, like Natalie have deep Jewish roots, while others have been drawn to Israel and Judaism from afar.
Students have come from all the English-speaking countries of the world, as far away as South Korea and Chile, Sweden, the Phillipines Peru and beyond.
The success of the Tel Aviv program has led ITIM to begin looking into facilitating the establishment of a similar program in Jerusalem.
“Helping converts is an important mitzvah,” says Konstantyn. “They shouldn’t be pushed away, it should be our job to open the door and help them through the process.”
“The commitment, dedication and motivation of our students has been incredible and helping them through the conversion process has given everyone involved a tremendous amount of satisfaction and fulfillment.”