Coming from the world of entertainment Journalism, I recently heard that popular American singer Arianna Grande declared that she’s “no longer a Christian” and now thinks of converting to Judaism after her homosexual brother was shunned by the Catholic Church. Several years ago, when I interviewed Elizabeth Banks, she told me that she converted to Judaism because she loved the way Reform Judaism treats women, and that the real meaning of Rabbi is a teacher.But it’s not only celebrities who raise interest in Judaism. Many people, including LGBT people, are going through conversion to Judaism every year or consider conversion, and all of the studies to date show that converts to Judaism make steadfast and loyal members of the community.Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles’ first LGBT congregation, identified the raised interest of LGBT people in conversion, and as of this week, has begun offering sessions on conversion. These classes offer insights into many questions that one may have if exploring conversion, or if one has recently embraced the covenant. “We reached a tipping point,” says Rabbi Heather Miller, who leads the sessions, “We had a large number of people we were advising on the road to conversion, and we realized it would be great to get everyone together to meet and form a community of exploration into Jewish life.”
The new group reflects upon personal experiences, shares resources, and builds community. “The sessions are designed for people to explore topics of their choice in greater depth,” says rabbi Miller, “to unpack their impressions of Jewish communal experiences that they have taken part in (such as services, weddings, observances, or Seders that they have attended), and to create a safe space to discuss how their conversion might impact their families of origin.”
Converting to Judaism also raises some concerns, and according to rabbi Heather, each person has their own which she hopes to settle during the sessions. “Initially, people are often relieved to not only find a religious space that will not condemn them for identifying as LGB or T,” she says. “But then to find a community that is LGBT affirming, and especially a community that was founded by the LGBT community, like BCC, is extra special. Some wonder about the gendering of the Divine, others wonder if they will be able to enjoy lifecycle events rooted in religious tradition and what that might look like. Then, when they find out there are communities experienced in creating moments of meaning for members of the LGBT community, something opens for them spiritually.”
Beth Chayim Chadashim is a community meant to provide a positive Jewish environment, and although these classes allow for those interested in exploring the possibility of affirming personal Jewish identity, Rabbi Heather says that interfaith couples are also embraced, and bring their many blessings to BCC. “Sometimes people begin to think about conversion when they meet a Jewish romantic partner,” the rabbi says. “Others have begun their journey towards Judaism well before this point.”
Rabbi Heather also emphasizes that the sessions are not meant to push people into conversion: Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. “We support and honor not only interfaith couples, but their children and families and friends as well,” she says. “Converting to Judaism is not a requirement for becoming a member of BCC. We welcome everyone who wants to engage in the Jewish endeavor!”
And what makes people curious about Judaism?
“People hear that Judaism is a tradition that values questions. And we do! We are known as "the People of the Book," but sometimes I think we should be known as "the People of the Question." We like ideas and opinions and have spent thousands of years affirming that different answers to the same question can exist on the same page. People are attracted to the religion's ability to make space for them, in the whole embodiment of who they are.”
For those exploring conversion to Judaism, and those who have recently embraced the covenant, Rabbi Heather Miller is offering Monday Night Drop-In Sessions, taking place Monday nights from 7:30-8:30pm at BCC 10/5, 11/2, 12/14, 1/11, 2/1, 3/7, 4/4, 5/2, 6/6.