It is an interesting thought - Judaism's first Jews, our patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah, were not born Jewish. They were converts, and part of their role in the great scheme of things was to tell others about Judaism.
Even though Judaism does not believe in missionary activity, sincere converts who come on their own free will are welcomed, and their first names are followed by the words of honor "son" or "daughter of Abraham."
Just from watching people on a street in Israel, we can appreciate what an international people the Jews are. We come from all parts of the world, speak different languages, have different accents and observe different cultural patterns. Mixed with the crowd are those who are Jewish now but whose mothers were not. They are converts who have not only adopted a new religion but also joined a new people. Once they have accepted the yoke of Judaism and passed the requirements for conversion established in Israel, their features, backgrounds and determination add new dimensions to the international Jewish mix.
Thousands of people from the Philippines have come to work in Israel over the past 20 years. Most of them are women who work as caregivers for the elderly and infirm, and every year a number of them make the decision to convert to Judaism.
Many begin their path by enrolling in the conversion classes taught in English at the New Synagogue in Netanya.
"These classes have between 16 to 20 couples who wish to study the material in English," says course coordinator Rabbi Benjamin Zbar. "The number of candidates from the Philippines varies each year, and the class is relatively small."
The majority of the women in the class have Jewish partners or fianc s and desire to get married according to Jewish law and raise families in Israel. The process, which takes about a year, involves many hours of study, a written thesis, an oral exam, a meeting with the religious court, a written exam, a ritual bath for the women and circumcision for the men.
"After they convert," says Zbar, "it is important to know that they and their children are 100 percent Jewish. We are forbidden to remind them of their past, and our tradition is to hold them in the highest esteem. The level of our students is high. They take their work seriously, yet with joy and good humor. Moreover, their level of continued observance is commendable. In the 15 years that I have been coordinating this course, only one person failed the oral exam. It is a source of pride to see the children of our graduates in the nursery schools, school system, yeshivot, and the IDF."
The conversion class meets in Netanya five evenings a week so that those wishing to convert have contact with the synagogue and Judaism every day of the week - five evenings of classes, followed by preparation and observance of Shabbat on Friday and Saturday. Attendance at the classes is mandatory. It is a double commitment - both the conversion candidate and their partners must come, regardless of whether they are Jewish.
"Even if the couple had been married in a civil ceremony or are living together with the intent to be married, they must come to the conversion course together," explains Zbar. "The reason is that if a woman becomes a convert who has taken on the religious yoke of Judaism and her partner is not as knowledgeable or as observant as she, they simply do not match."
Zbar points out that a person becoming a Jew begins living a new life. It is a spiritual and a physical rebirth, he says.
"It's not enough to say 'I am a Jew because I feel it.' Every Jew must physically perform the duties that Judaism entails. It is a democratic religion inasmuch as the commandments apply to all on an equal basis. The conversion candidate must be honest when he/she accepts the articles of Jewish faith. After a year of intensive study of Jewish law, beliefs and philosophy, they know what it means to be a Jew and that their actions are observed and answered by a Higher Authority," says Zbar.
"Conversion begins with a process of accepting and then doing," explains Adeena (not her real name). "First we learned from the lectures of Rabbi Zbar and his wife, Sarah, who teaches the course, about what must be done. Then we practiced doing. It is a matter of adding the mitzvot one by one. For example, on Friday before sunset, I began by putting a few coins in the charity box. Then I added lighting candles with the blessing; the next step was using the Shabbat warming tray. It's like the enormous task of getting the house ready for Pessah, which is impossible to do all at once. However, if you do the jobs one by one, in the end everything is accomplished."
Adeena came to Israel as a young single woman planning to work and send her salary back to the Philippines, where the extra money makes an enormous difference in the lives of families. However, she says it is not only the good salary that gives these people the forbearance to take on such a difficult job. In her view, people come from the Philippines with important traits that enable them to do a job that few can do, and do it well.
"In the Philippines, family, hospitality, patience and doing your work with your whole heart are the important issues in life. To come to Israel is not easy nor is the 24-hour-a-day job caring for the elderly. The people who come from the Philippines take pride in fulfilling their tasks; once they take on the responsibility, they do their work with love," she says.
Adeena describes her first days in Israel as a challenge and a period in which she shed many tears.
"I came to Israel after completing university in the Philippines. Caring for an elderly woman here was my first job, and a very hard one. Nevertheless, my mother advised me to be strong and fulfill my responsibility. Today I see these first days as a gift because it gave me not only an initial, positive experience with Judaism but also the opportunity to appreciate the Jewish family. The old woman and I were alone much of the week, even though her family was in contact by telephone. On Shabbat and holidays her children took turns coming to her. It was then that I felt the atmosphere of love and happiness and how sanctity and song filled the house."
After Adeena met her future husband, who is Jewish, she decided to convert. They made the decision to attend the conversion course together. Adeena remembers how interested her husband was in the material. After finishing the course, her husband began laying phylacteries each morning. He told her that he now goes to work with a feeling of being closer to God.
After her conversion, the rhythm of the days of the week changed for Adeena and her husband. Before marriage, Shabbat was a regular day. Now Adeena cooks on Thursday evening, and together they are ready to observe the sanctity of Shabbat. Adeena's husband says that because of his wife, his life has changed for the better. Adeena admits that in the beginning, the first steps leading a Jewish life felt strange but now it is very good.
Batya met and married her husband, who is Jewish, in the Philippines. Although neither had a strong religious orientation beforehand, she was brought up as a Catholic and remembers with a smile that her family warned her not to date a foreigner.
In the late 1990s, her husband's work brought them from the Philippines to Israel. They stayed for a few months as tourists and were impressed with the country. After they returned to the Philippines, her husband asked if she was possibly interested in making aliya. She said yes.
Her answer did not come out of a vacuum; rather, it was another step in the direction she had long been contemplating. It started when her husband had begun attending services at the synagogue in Makate, a suburb of Manila. The congregation consisted of a small group of people, and the rabbi was accepting. He made his library available to them and lent them books on Judaism - but not on conversion. Nevertheless, this material gave Batya and her husband - both avid readers - food for conversation.
The couple already had children, and Batya recalls the day that was a turning point in her life. "My son asked me, 'Why are we not going to Church? I realized that I had to make a decision. I wanted to establish one faith in the family and knew that it would be Judaism - but I needed more information. So I began going to synagogue and attending lectures. What began as an intellectual experience also became a spiritual experience. The first time I saw the Holy Ark being opened was special - and it still is," she says.
"Most importantly, I wanted to transmit this Judaism to my children. When they started studying the Hebrew alphabet in the synagogue's school in the Philippines, I decided to start learning as well and volunteered to help in the classes."
Then she decided to take a hands-on approach by baking challot and preparing for the Shabbat. This was followed by her family's observing a rest from TV and radio on Shabbat. Finally came the desire to be in a Jewish environment. Making aliya was a natural next step.
However, when they turned to the Israeli emissary in the Philippines to talk about emigration, he discouraged them at first. "He said that it is hard and dangerous, and asked if we were crazy. Nevertheless, we persisted and came to Israel. We went from an absorption center to a Hebrew ulpan, and then enrolled in the conversion course which we attended as a family. In the meantime, we settled in a community that is supportive and accepting, and we continue to lead an observant life."
Acceptance by the community was Batya's greatest worry when she came to Israel. Their two children would be entering real life in the Israeli education system, and no one could give them any guarantees about how they would fit in.
Batya and her husband are pleased that their children blended in with the mix of native-born Israelis and new immigrants in their classes.
"From the beginning, we enrolled our children in religious schools and find it hard to believe that they are getting ready for the army and national service. Children grow up and are out of the house faster here than in the Philippines. We're proud that they feel comfortable in their lives and in the community. Now we are working on overcoming the empty nest syndrome," she says.
Batya, not one to sit idly, is a licensed social worker in Israel and enrolls in community classes, where she studies such works as the Prophets and Pirkei Avot. She is certain that increasing her knowledge will support her in her path of sincerely accepting the yoke of Judaism and unraveling the intricacies of daily life.
Life in Israel is different from that in the Philippines. The women interviewed by Metro say that Israel has a much more open society than in the Philippines. In the Philippines, it is acceptable and preferable for children to live with their parents for a longer time. It is a culture that promotes shy and modest behavior in the streets and in the home. Family ties are very important. Israel is more open in behavior, action and dress.
A woman from the Philippines who has converted is usually far away from her birth family. Although the convert is taught that she must respect her birth family, when the families do meet it is often a challenging situation.
"My family took it hard at first," says Adeena. "I had to explain that there are stories and myths Christians learned about Judaism that are simply not true. They finally said, 'If you are happy, we are happy.' It is a non-issue now."
Nevertheless, everyone needs a support system, and after conversion there is a gap. The converts cannot socialize with non-Jewish Filipino caretakers in the same way as before. To combat feelings of isolation, these women have resourcefully formed their own support group called Asian Ladies with Jewish Spouses, which holds regular meetings with lectures on topics pertinent to their membership. Most important, they become family to one another, attending each other's celebrations and are supportive in times of need.
Chaya, another member of the group, travels a considerable distance to attend the meetings, which she says are a pleasure. Her experiences could label her a wandering Jew even before she became officially Jewish. She met her Israeli husband in the Philippines and accompanied him on business assignments all over the world. Born and raised as a Seventh Day Adventist in the Philippines, she said she understood the differences and similarities between the two religions. Nevertheless, her choice was to convert.
From the beginning of her marriage, she read books about Judaism and in each new location where being a practicing Jew was not easy, her desire to become Jewish grew stronger. After her husband was assigned to work in Guatemala, she decided that was the right time to convert and went by herself to Borough Park, New York, to study to become a Jew.
"I was all alone in New York," she recalls. "My days were busy studying morning, afternoons and nights. I left the rented apartment only to buy food and attend classes once a week on family purity. When I passed my oral exam, given by four rabbis on Jewish laws, prayers and special mitzvot for women, I came out like I was floating on air. Now that we live in Israel, I am even happier and understand more than ever that the one who protects us and keeps us out of danger is the God of Israel. His deeds are before us each day."
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