‘No one can challenge my Jewishness’

‘The Jerusalem Post’ speaks to three American converts about how they see the issue of "Who is a Jew?"

311_gay spouses, fathers (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_gay spouses, fathers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – When Mindunn Rose married her college sweetheart, a fellow southerner from around Atlanta, Georgia, she didn’t convert to Judaism.
Judaism was his religion, she recalls, not hers. The rabbi marrying them required them to take an introduction to Judaism class together as a prerequisite for getting married, but it was not a conversion class.
“At the time, I didn’t want to convert. Conversion was something different from getting married, not just a step to getting married, for me,” Rose said from her home in New Jersey.
“It’s a different kind of promise, a different kind of covenant. I didn’t think it was fair for me to convert without knowing how I felt about anything.”
Upon getting married, Rose and her husband moved to New Jersey and pledged to raise their children as Jews. They did so, for almost 16 years of marriage.
“In my mind, the mitzva that I did – and that should count! – was that I agreed to raise my children Jewish. And by golly, I did,” Rose said. “That was my deal, and I think that’s reason enough to marry an interfaith couple. You’re keeping Judaism going.”
The real difference in her life, Rose said, came from sending their children to preschool at their Reform temple. “Look, I have three kids, so I did the whole thing with Jewish preschool three times. That’s a lot of basics you learn by being a parent of a preschooler in a Jewish preschool. It was such a positive way to learn about Judaism, through the eyes of a child: the simpler the better, and not as scary.”
With her interest piqued, her adult education was about to begin. Rose was asked to be on a fund-raising committee for the temple, and met the temple’s director of development, a Conservative Jew with whom she quickly became fast friends.
“I could ask her any kind of dumb question I’d want, whatever popped into my mind,” Rose recalled. “She’s a very learned person about Judaism.”
She started taking classes at the temple and at a local Conservative synagogue, and became interested in pursuing conversion. The couple’s children had already converted, Rose said.
“My husband doesn’t really care so much, because he’s not a very religious person, but one of the things I wanted them to do was to get officially converted, so that people up to a certain point religiously wouldn’t think they weren’t Jewish,” Rose said.
“Up through the Conservative end of the spectrum, all my kids are Jewish... but if they meet someone who is more religious, they’ll have to study that on their own.”
After a year and a half of study with the rabbi and in other programs, Rose underwent conversion. Her beit din consisted of her temple’s rabbis and the Conservative development director who had started her intellectual inquiry into Judaism.
“She was my teacher, too, and so in a sense she was another rabbi who helped me and guided me in making my journey to make this promise to God,” she said.
“Finally we decided it was legal to do it like that in a Reform setting, and at the end of the day I decided that was my beit din. I believe God was totally fine with it. I don’t care what other people believe – if they think I’m Jewish, or not, because I am Jewish.”
Rose is involved with the worship committee of the temple: “I fully feel that that’s my shul. That’s where I belong. I’m a proud Jew and, I feel, a religious Jew – maybe not observant, but religious,” she said.
“It was a long journey to get there, but to me, it’s more meaningful that it was a decision between me and God, not between me and my in-laws.
“I grew through study with two amazing teachers. I have a great, great love and respect for Judaism and everything that it stands for. I am Jewish.”
When asked about the stalled Knesset conversion legislation by Israel Beiteinu’s David Rotem, whose implications for non-Orthodox conversion will depend upon its final formulation, Rose said she finds it “shocking and disturbing and ridiculous.” And she noted that the bill has had ramifications for her Jewish education in more ways than one.
“The one thing I don’t have, which I’m trying to learn to have, is a deep connection to Israel,” she said. “I wasn’t raised that way, obviously. I didn’t know that much about Israel.
Learning about Israel made it special to me to an extent, but it’s not the same kind of attachment of the heart that, say, my rabbi has.
“I don’t know if other Jews, or other converts, feel that committed to Israel. So I guess that’s my missing piece.”
Rose hopes to someday travel to Israel, but said she would feel “very betrayed” if she went to Israel and was not accepted.
“The situation for Reform Jews and even Conservative Jews in Israel isn’t so hot anyway – but being told I’m ‘not enough’ certainly wouldn’t encourage me to want to learn to love Israel, if that makes sense,” she said. (The Rotem bill, in its current form, would not affect the status in Israel of non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad.) “And I want to! I want to feel about Israel, about that land, the way so many other people I see do. And I don’t. I’m good to Israel because I know I’m supposed to be, know what I mean? It’s not really because I have this visceral love.
“It’s upsetting to me that they’re not trying to understand the Diaspora. It’s not right, and I don’t believe that’s what God wants. They obviously wouldn’t accept my children as being Jewish – but then you’ve deliberately lost three more people who would carry on Judaism and who are proud to be Jewish.”
Rose converted a little more than two years ago. “I’m a toddler Jew,” she said, laughingly.
She said the reactions that surprised her most were those of her husband and her brother.
“The funny thing is that my husband wasn’t super happy or super not-happy,” Rose said.
“He was like, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine.
“In contrast,” she said, she was fearful of telling her brother.
“I was on the phone, bracing myself to tell him,” she recalled. “I was all ready for him to not understand, and then he says, ‘I thought you already converted!’ Nobody really thought it was such a big thing except me.”
PERHAPS NO one knows more about converting to Judaism than Wendy Marcus. After all, she’s done it three times.
Marcus, a South Carolina native, was the only child of a Jewish father from Rego Park, Queens. After graduating from college, Marcus’s father served in World War II in the American army and was a liberator of Buchenwald.
His last post was in Texas, where he met Marcus’s mother and married her.
While she thinks her mother may have converted to Judaism when she married her father, Marcus says her mother “never quite bought it.”
“My dad took me to a Reform synagogue every Sunday for Sunday school lessons when I was little,” she recalled. “I considered myself Jewish, always. I had relatives who weren’t Jewish, of course, on my mother’s side, but I was Jewish in my own mind.”
However, to make sure that Marcus was legitimately Jewish, the rabbi of her El Paso synagogue supervised her conversion under Reform Judaism.
Years later, Marcus found herself married and attending a Conservative congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, where she quickly became involved and served on the board of trustees for 15 years.
“I just really loved that synagogue,” she said of Emanuel Synagogue. “It was my second home.”
Marcus took adult education classes with the rabbi, who advised her that she might want to think about converting, this time under Conservative criteria.
“He said that there’s sometimes a ‘not quite good enough’ attitude about Reform, so why didn’t I just go ahead and convert with the Conservative movement?” Marcus recalled. Not a problem, she thought, so she did.
Subsequently, Marcus became a member of another Orthodox synagogue as well, Brith Shalom, in Charleston.
She studied with the rabbi and his wife, who suggested that her husband convert her under Orthodox rules as well.
“If there were ever an issue of your sons meeting an Israeli girl, they might question your conversion and it would be hard for them to get married,” Marcus recalled having been told.
“One more time the beit din organized, and yet again I converted,” she said.
Her three sons went with her that time around, and all three were converted as well.
Marcus readily concedes that her story is “a little, you know, peculiar” – particularly in an era, she said, where DNA can easily trace a person’s genetic history and heritage.
“Look, that’s just the way it was – I went along with the ride because I didn’t want there ever to be any question down the road for my family – my children, my grandchildren, anywhere down the line,” Marcus said, adding that the conversions were little more than “personal housekeeping.”
“I’ve been dedicated to my Jewish heritage,” she said, citing her service as president of the Charleston Jewish Federation, as well as her work on committees in both the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues to which she belongs.
She also lived in Israel for a year and a half on a kibbutz during the Yom Kippur War as a civilian volunteer. She speaks Hebrew, and had an adult bat mitzva on Masada with her father 12 years ago.
Marcus said she knew “nothing” about the Rotem conversion bill, but that she couldn’t see how her Judaism could be challenged by anyone.
“I’m Jewish, and my kids are Jewish,” she said. “It’s not an issue.”
RODRICK DIAL grew up in Tennessee as a Roman Catholic – a long journey to his current status as an adoptive gay parent and active synagogue member on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I can’t say I was all that familiar with Judaism, but I certainly knew Jewish folks growing up,” Dial said from his home as his younger son napped one afternoon. Even before meeting his Jewish partner, Adam, Dial said he had been looking for a religious tradition with which he would feel more comfortable than Catholicism.
“Before we adopted kids, we’d talked way back about whether we were going to have any religious tradition or observance,” Dial said of his relationship with Adam, to whom he was married in a then-not-legal ceremony with a rabbi in Boston. “I knew we were going to have a Jewish home.”
But adopting the couple’s daughter, who is now five, was the trigger for Dial’s conversion study.
Dial met with the rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform congregation in New York, and took 18 months to study in order to convert. The class consisted of a discussion group covering life-cycle events, Jewish texts, Jewish tradition and Jewish history, and included independent study with a rabbi.
“That was a phenomenal experience for me, having an opportunity to study with a rabbi,” Dial said.
He said his ritual circumcision, mikve and beit din all took place at the Upper West Side mikve, and were then followed by a short service in the synagogue with 10 family members and friends.
“Shortly after, we did the naming and conversion of our children,” Dial said. “It was kind of neat to say to my daughter, ‘Oh sure, I’ve done that!’ We went in the mikve with them and it was wonderful.
“So now we’re all official, I guess. According to some.”
Dial, now a full-time father, is vice president of the congregation’s brotherhood, and does a lot of volunteer work with his congregation.
As a Jew by choice, he has strong opinions on the Rotem bill.
“Anything that makes the Orthodox rabbinate more powerful in Israel is not a good thing,” Dial said. “I think Israel’s future is going to have to be more based in pluralism. If the Jewish people are going to be together across the continents and together in support of the State of Israel, Israelis need to be a little more openminded.
“It’s not like we’re talking about making aliya any time soon – but don’t shoot yourself in the foot!” Dial said, adding that he feels more people would consider aliya in the first place if they didn’t have concerns about how their religiosity would be perceived by the State of Israel. “ Of the Rotem bill, Dial said, “I think it sends the wrong message to Jews all over the place.”
But as for conversion, “I’m glad I did it,” he said.
“I still need to get better at Hebrew, the liturgy, things you kind of take for granted,” Dial said, adding that he plans on taking a class to become a bar mitzva next June.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my daughter learn to chant Torah before me!”