One goy's quest to become chosen
April 5, 2009 12:59 PM   Subscribe

I (think I) want to become Jewish in the California Bay Area, but need some help.

My finace is Jewish, and I was raised non-religious/agnostic. The more I learn about Judiasm, the more intrigued I am. I want to potentially convert, but have no idea how to begin this process. Instead of just looking up the nearest synagogue, I want to find a rabbi who is on the same wavelength as me.

I'm a scientist by nature so I need someone who can debate logically with me and won't expect me to accept things just because he or she "said so." I know that religion requires some leap of faith, but I need somebody who can explain the basis behind the many traditions. For instance, it isn't kosher to eat milk and meat together because of the prohibition on cooking the kid in the mother's milk, but then why does this apply to birds, which don't make milk?

I'm looking for a good rabbi/synagogue in the Bay Area to help me with the process of learning and hopefully converting. Most likely I'm looking for a reform congregation, but possibly conservative. I live in Menlo Park, and would like to find a rabbi within a 30 minute drive (San Francisco and Oakland are too far, but San Jose is probably not). I know many synagogues have conversion classes, but those seem to all start with the new year (September, that is, the Jewish new year), and I would like to start the process now.

So here's the question MeFites: do you have recommendations for rabbis or congregations in the neighborhood that can help me with this quest? Failing that, do you know of any internet resources for potential converts? I don't need an encyclopedia of Judaism, but I could use a more tailored introduction.
posted by hatsforbats to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So you know, many rabbis will refuse to help you convert three times before agreeing. It's to see if you're sincere enough to come back. So if you get rejected don't be discouraged, that too is part of the process.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:15 PM on April 5, 2009

Best answer: My wife converted in Washington, DC and was lucky enough to find a very good rabbi (who I liked a lot as well) just using The Google. He's conservative, but based on the kinds of things you are saying here, it seems like he would "get" where you are coming from and might know someone in your area who would be well-suited to working with you. (As an example, one Rosh Hashanah, a congregant who is scientist gave a fascinating guest-sermon on understanding and appreciating the limits of both science and religion.) If you'd like to send me a private message, I can send you this rabbi's contact info.

And I know you didn't post this to get a specific answer to your question about milk and meat, but while I'm here... there's a concept known as "building a fence around the Torah." That is to say, so that you don't violate Known Prohibition X, we will also prohibit X+1, so that you don't commit an accidental violation. The milk & meat rule is a good example of this. The prohibition, as you state, is against cooking a kid in its mother's milk. To avoid making a mistake, we say "don't cook any meat in any milk". Obviously today, the odds of the milk you buy at the grocery store coming from the mother of the cow that led to the steak you bought at the butcher shop are nil - but the law carries on.

The prohibition against fowl + milk follows from this same "fences" idea - chicken is considered a type of "meat," often sold right alongside beef, the Torah even refers to fowl as "meat" in some places, etc. As you can see, the idea of building fences can be taken pretty far in some instances.
posted by DavidNYC at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Or Shalom, in San Francisco. Just come to a service or talk or gathering and check it out.
posted by jasper411 at 1:31 PM on April 5, 2009

This rabbi and his wife are exactly who you need to be speaking to. If you need any assistance, please do contact me directly. Be glad to help.
posted by watercarrier at 1:46 PM on April 5, 2009

BTW - conservative conversion is not considered to be valid by Orthodox Judaism.
posted by watercarrier at 1:48 PM on April 5, 2009

I strongly disagree with the Chabad suggestion above. Based on your description they would be a very bad fit for you.
posted by davidstandaford at 1:57 PM on April 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

2nding the disagree with the Chabad suggestion. Unless your finace was raised in an orthodox home and you plan on participating in an orthodox community, I don't think an orthodox conversion (particularly a Chabad one) would be a good fit for you. The reconstructionist suggest from Jasper (Or Shalom) might be interesting, but if you end up joining a conservative shul later, you might get a little flak for the reconstructionist conversion.

I'd suggest looking for a progessive conservative congregation. You can always move to a reform temple after the conversion if you think it's a better fit. I'm sorry I don't have any specific suggestions for you.

And to address watercarrier's point - any conversion not done by an Orthodox rabbi will not be considered valid by orthodox Jews, but it will be considered valid by pretty much everyone else. My experience has been that no matter what you do the orthodox will probably tell you you're doing it wrong and you're a terrible Jew. So if a conservative or reform conversion is good enough for you, your loved ones, and your future Jewish community, go ahead of get a conservative or reform conversion. A conservative or a reform conversion will qualify you for a right of return to Israel if you ever decide to make aliyah. Unless you have a specific need for an orthodox conversion, or a specific desire for one, I don't think it will match up spiritually with what you're looking for. Chabadniks are the master of explaining things with because G-d said so and a long line of Rabbis have agreed so do it.
posted by Arbac at 2:10 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Chabadniks are the master of explaining things with because G-d said so and a long line of Rabbis have agreed so do it.

This is exactly what I am not interested in.

conservative conversion is not considered to be valid by Orthodox Judaism.

I am aware of this, and I really don't care who thinks my conversion is or is not valid, beyond me, my family, and my potential congregation.

My fiance is, in his words, "conservative in belief but reform in practice," so I'm ideally looking for a synagogue along these lines, reform or conservative. I'm willing to talk to a number of rabbis and attend many different services to find the right fit, what I'm looking for is recommendations on who/where to try.
posted by hatsforbats at 2:32 PM on April 5, 2009

Best answer: Don't ignore Reconstructionist rabbis. At its best, it's all about having the laws make sense for today -- but it varies a lot between congregations. It is generally not about a personal god.

I do not imagine that any flavour of Orthodox will make you happy, and I imagine that many types of Conservative will be problematic as well. Note that Sephardic synagogues tend to be more "well, the rules are strict and that's what we're supposed to do, if not how we actually practice" while Ashkenazi tend to try to change the rules to fit what people actually do. (This is a tendency only.)

The real question is what kind of conservative your fiance is. I'm going to assume that if you follow through with the conversion, you'll end up being more religious than he is (this is often the case), so you want to at least see what page you're both on.

Things to consider, and answers you should try to come to an agreement on:

Do you want a synagogue that will perform interfaith weddings?
Do you want a synagogue that will bless same-sex marriages?
Do you want a synagogue that has bar and bat mitzvahs identical?
Do you want a large congregation or a small one?
Do you object if men and women are separated? Allowed onto the bimah?
Do you object to a synagogue where people don't keep kosher/wear tefillot/do other traditional things?
Do you want more Hebrew or more English at services?
What kinds of things do you want the sermons to be about? (More about the secular world, more about Israel, more about personal acts?)

If he grew up going to services or a Jewish school, you might want to take the tunes they sing into account: I don't really like the local Reform synagogue because all the singing sounds wrong, but I don't like anywhere else because they're all otherwise too conservative. This sounds minor, but it often is not.
posted by jeather at 3:32 PM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

My fiance is, in his words, "conservative in belief but reform in practice," so I'm ideally looking for a synagogue along these lines, reform or conservative.

I know a number of people who would describe themselves this way who love their Reconstructionist synagogues, and a number of people whose self-description would be inverted (agnostics who cherish Conservative practice traditions) who also love their Reconstructionist synagogues.

So that might be the best fit for you and your fiancé, and for your eventual family. Also, a converted-to-Judaism-from-Episcopalianism friend is the head of her Reconstructionist synagogue's Hadassah, so I have at least one datapoint about that community's opening its arms to converts.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:42 PM on April 5, 2009

The question you asked about milk and meat could lead on a completely fascinating journey through Jewish traditions, customs, texts, exegesis, and rabbinic authority. If you're into that stuff, I would look for a Rabbi who's into the Jewish legal tradition and brings a critical perspective. Among the liberal branches, it's the Conservative movement that tends to require the most text/talmudic study, and so attracts people who are into that to their rabbinic programs. That doesn't mean you couldn't find a Reconstructionist Rabbi, or less likely, a Reform Rabbi, who's also knowledgeable and into all that, but it's less likely.

Still, nothing says you have to get that from the Rabbi that converts you/you work on converting with. That's all out there to be learned in multiple places, and it seems to me you might be better off looking for a Rabbi who feels to you like you could trust them and work with them on spiritual stuff, AND who can guide you in learning, including helping you find teachers for what's most interesting/relevant to you. To me that seems equally likely to be from any of the denominations, as long as it's someone with strong background knowledge and connections across denominations/institutions, etc. I wish I could help with a more specific recommendation, but I'm not familiar with the community.

I would suggest looking for Jewish community events - lectures, learning, etc. Go and talk to the people there, talk to the speaker if you like them, and learn. Read, there's a ton of stuff out there. Really, find your thing, your entry way in. It could be anything. I'm a law geek, but history, music, cooking, art, philosophy, mysticism, etc, could all be rich ways to start exploring things.

Finally I would say, there's no hurry. There's a whole lot you can do in Jewish communities without being Jewish (and if you have the child, the child could be converted independently in a fairly straightforward, iirc, infant conversion). It's usual for an average conversion to take 2-3 years, but take as much time was you want to feel for what's right. Some converts have said they've felt Jewish since forever, and are happiest to convert asap and go through struggles of finding their relationship to laws/tradition/belief later (struggles that many many Jews by birth go through). Some people would prefer to hash (more) of that out before converting. Like I said, no hurry! And enjoy, it should be super fun and interesting.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:03 PM on April 5, 2009

Please check your MeFi Mail.
posted by mosk at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2009

Before you go to all this effort, are you sure you're not Jewish (as far as Jews are concerned) already? It happens. If your mother - or her mother - or her mother - ad infinitum were Jewish then you would be Jewish too, according to Orthodox (and, I think, Conservative) belief. In theory this doesn't work for Reform Jews, who require a Jewish parent plus some acts of adherence, but you might get a pass anyway.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:05 AM on April 6, 2009

How did I only discover this question now?

I'm going through an Orthodox conversion right now, with my sponsoring rabbi being a Chabad shliach (emissary). I just want to go on a brief tangent: It is not a "Chabad conversion": until recently, schluchim would not even touch conversions with a 10-foot-pole, and the people actually running my classes and my beit din are non-Hasidic Orthodox/Modern Orthodox, and their only relationship with my Chabad rabbi is because he refers converts to them. That's it. My rabbi is not dumb and is not trying to turn me into a Chabadnik: I'm sure he intuitively guessed that I would never be a Lubavitcher. They are a good resource for entry into the Orthodox community where you live, if the emissary in question is good at his job. But, as I'll discuss below, I agree you shouldn't go Orthodox.

While there's definitely room within the Orthodox tradition for questioning on an intellectual level, the room for non-orthopraxic levels of observancy is kinda slim, and Chabad would be even worse. I agree with everyone who said you'd be a good fit for the more liberal denomination, and that Reconstructionism MAY work for you. Go on interviews with Rabbis, basically: there's such huge variation within all of those movements that it's the best way to find a Rabbi.

I also agree triply with figuring out how to deal with any potential problems in your household if you choose to adhere to different levels of observancy. What if one of you wants to keep different meat/milk dishes and the other doesn't? What about Sabbath/yom tovim observance? I'd assume you'd be converting the same 'flavour' as your fiance (Sephard/Ashkenaz, mainly, but I guess you could claim some Hasidic dynasty, like Chabad, as a flavour distinct from Ashkenaz/Sephard), but if you choose to convert to a different 'flavour' because its practices and prayers make more sense to you, how will you guys reconcile the differences?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:31 AM on May 7, 2009

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