Call it what you will, a “shandah fun der goyim” (a stain on all Jews), a chilul hashem (desecration), the scandal over Barry Freundel, the Washington rabbi who may have spied on women using a mikvah, has provoked an outcry in the community. Converts have expressed their feelings of vulnerability, victimization, and alienation from a community that they were seeking to embrace.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In another mikvah, just a few miles up the road from that infamous one in Georgetown, another young woman recently completed her conversion process. Her journey from a small town in Brazil, to conversion, to war-torn Israel, to the chuppah is inspiring. It reveals the best the Jewish community can offer.
My daughter-in-law, Luana Dias Figueredo Rubin grew up in Paudalho in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, an hour’s bumpy car ride west of the storied city of Recife, home to the first Jewish community in the New World and the place from which the first Jews of North America set sail. But if Jews ever stepped foot in Paudalho it has long been forgotten – the first Member of the Tribe Luana ever met was my son Ben who was interning as a chef in Atlanta while she was working as an au pair. She returned to Brazil when her au pair term ended and he joined her in Paudalho a few months later when he completed his education at the Culinary Institute of America.
A day school graduate and proud member of the Habonim-Dror movement, Ben largely took his Judaism for granted until he landed in Brazil. At Purim he introduced Paudalho to hamantaschen. On Passover Ben took Luana to a seder with a Jewish family in Recife to whom they were introduced through my former colleagues at Hillel. That seder proved to be transformative.
“As I watched my husband interact with the ‘strangers’ I realized they were not ‘strangers’ at all, at least not to him,” Luana wrote in her essay for her conversion Beit Din. “They were his people…. And that’s when I realized there was something missing in my life for all these years… . From that day on I knew I was meant to meet my husband. Not only because of our relationship, but because through him I would find a religion that is meaningful to me. Most people think I want to convert because of him, but that is not true. I want to convert because through him I found something meaningful and fulfilling.” (Her complete conversion essay can be read here.)
After nine months, the couple decided to leave Brazil for the U.S. and Luana immediately began the conversion process. They participated in an introductory course sponsored by the Jewish community of Baltimore but it was intense, one-on-one weekly lessons by Skype with Rabbi Elisheva Brenner that embedded Judaism in Luana’s heart. By focusing on Luana’s unique relationship with God, community, and the world, Rabbi Brenner brought faith to life and made it personally relevant. Luana took her studies seriously, keeping kosher and joyfully celebrating Shabbat every week.
When Luana came before the Beit Din her responses were so profound that they left the rabbis – Rabbi Brenner, Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, and Rabbi Mark Novak — in stunned silence. She interpreted this reaction as a reflection of her poor command of the English language when, in fact, they were moments of awe. Asked how she felt about joining a people that has been subjected to so much hatred over the centuries, she replied, “I want to join the people fighting against prejudice, not those who are doing it.”
Luana then entered the mikvah –a mikvah run by Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation, and open to all Jews — and emerged a Jewish woman.
A few weeks later she had the opportunity to experience the intensity of Jewish life first-hand when she participated in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Her visit coincided with the clash between Israel and Hamas and she spent ten days within earshot of emergency sirens and rocket explosions. The adventure left her more committed to her new faith and to Israel than ever before.
“I had an amazing time,” she wrote on Facebook. “I feel so lucky I had the opportunity to meet 48 amazing people whom I will always keep in my heart! I thank God for all the blessings!”
A month later she stood under the chuppah with my son, part of a celebration that brought together Jewish and Brazilian customs and communities.
Through the infrastructure that the Jewish community put in place, and through the giving, supportive people she encountered along the way, Judaism became both profoundly personal and communal for Luana — she connected “ben adam le chavero,” with other individuals, and “ben adam lemakom,” with God – an important story now more than ever.