Becoming Jewish: Three views and two Gilgul converts

Does it matter if you become Jewish through an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Beit Din? For some it does and for some it doesn’t.

ONE VIEW: I had my beit din/ mikva several years ago with a rabbi who is associated with the Reform movement. In the city where I live, there is one Reform congregation, one Conservative, a Chabad, and a Renewal congregation.

When I started dating my husband (born Jewish) 8 years ago, I was a lapsed Lutheran and I had significant theological problems with Christianity in general. I had many questions about Judaism, very few of which my then-boyfriend could answer, as he was raised with little observance.

He bought me the “Jewish Book of Why” but I still had more questions. When he received a mailing about the “Intro to Judaism” course given at the Reform synagogue, he told me about it and I signed up.

I had no intentions of converting when I started, but when the course ended, I found myself very sad not to have any excuse to go back, so I signed up for a Hebrew course and started reading more about Judaism. Two years later I made the decision to convert, and a year after that I became Jewish.

During the learning process, I did consider other branches. I attended some Chabad services and events, and gave serious thought to converting there. I felt that my Jewishness and the Jewishness of any potential progeny would then be more universally recognized, and traditional Judaism has much appeal to me.

But I also struggle with other aspects of traditional Judaism, such as the strict gender roles for women in communal prayer. And, I was making many friends at the Reform congregation, and had a great rapport with the rabbi there. So in the end, I converted there, mostly because of the sense of community.

We are not looking to move from this area, so I’m not worried about the acceptance of me personally as a Jew in more frum communities. I do worry a bit about the status of our potential children. Ruth Ann

A SECOND VIEW: I converted with the Conservative movement. Like Ruth Ann I was attracted to traditional Judaism, but simply could not come to terms with the role of women in traditional circles. (I’m female.) Oh, how I tried! But I really couldn’t. And, at the same time, I met two wonderful Conservative rabbis in my Introduction to Judaism class. I connected with them and wanted to learn with them, so it was an easy choice from there.

It isn’t a closed issue for me, though. It cuts me to the core that my conversion isn’t valid in some circles. I very much envy those brave folks who seem to just brush this off as nonsense – I let it get to me far too much. Logically, rationally, in theory, I believe fully that my Conservative conversion has made me a Jew. But because a vocal minority would argue with this statement, I feel…just…there aren’t words for it.

I made the best choice I could. I love the Conservative movement and would shout from the rooftops that I am a proud Conservative Jew, if I were a born Jew and nobody could question my identity. But as a convert, Conservatism has been a surprisingly tough choice.

I’ve had conversations with several people who converted through the Reform movement. They always seem much more confident than I. I’m convinced that this says something notable about the Conservative vs. Reform question.

A THIRD VIEW: I first converted Reform, because it was the only branch in my area and the one I was most familiar with before I started learning. I soon was put off by the fact that most of the congregation knew less about Judaism than I did, and weren’t interested in learning more.

I also couldn’t get around the idea of Halacha not being binding. I did not attempt a conservative conversion, because most conservative Jews I know give lip service to Halacha (some of it), but are in fact unobservant of most Mitsvot and are not interested in changing that. In fact most are very antagonistic to a large part of Halacha which is disconcerting to me.

I am now converting with an Orthodox rabbi, because I find the community to be warm, I like the community wide commitment to Halacha and Jewish learning. I also wanted to ensure that my children and I would be considered Jewish in Israel and all over the world.

As a Reform Rabbi who has taught Introduction to Judaism classes for almost 30 years I always tell people that one of the important differences between Orthodox Rabbis and non-Orthodox Rabbis is that very few Orthodox Rabbis would present the views of non-Orthodox converts in their own, sometimes critical, words.

Non-Orthodox Rabbis are not like that. Non-Orthodox Rabbis are much more accepting of diversity within the Jewish community and much more welcoming of non-Jews who desire to join (or rejoin—see below) the Jewish people.

I also always inform people that most non-Jews who become Jewish already have a Jewish soul. This Jewish soul could never make sense of the trinity, and always resented the claim that good people who do not believe in Jesus are not going to heaven. Their Jewish soul attracts them to Jewish people.

This Jewish soul is in a Gentile body because it is a Gilgul; a reincarnation of an ancestor who was Jewish and was cut off from the Jewish people; usually due to marriage to a non-Jew 2-7 generations previously.

Some people who become Jewish are new souls who are here for the first time. Perhaps for them it is more important to do an Orthodox conversion. The others are simply returning home where they belong, You can learn more about Kabbalistic teachings of Gilgul/reincarnation and how in manifests itself in people who become Jewish in my new book “Which Religion Is Right For You”

Here are two examples of Gilgul converts.

Juan Mejia, of Oklahoma City, once dreamed of becoming a Roman Catholic monk, but a life-changing discovery that began with a joke set him on a different path. Once, at age 15, at a family Christmas gathering in his native Bogota, Colombia a relative made an anti-Semitic joke that made his paternal grandfather very upset.

Urged to explain why he was so upset his grandfather revealed that his own grandfather was Jewish, and the family’s ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Mejia was intrigued by his grandfather’s words. His only knowledge of Judaism had come from the Christian Bible up to that point.

Suddenly, some of the practices of many older men in the family began to make sense, Mejia said. “I wouldn’t say it was an earth-shattering moment but it did create a curiosity, an interest (in Judaism),” he said.

For Mejia, the knowledge of his Jewish ancestry changed the course of his life. Instead of serving in a Colombian monastery. Mejia traveled to Israel during his college years. Eventually he embraced his Jewish heritage and then became a rabbi.

Mejia, now is Southwest coordinator for Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco, Calif.-based nonprofit that works to connect people across the globe to Judaism. He moved to Oklahoma with his wife, and daughter in 2009, when his wife became rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City.

Mejia said his staunchly Roman Catholic mother, who died when he was 18, probably would have disagreed with his choice to learn more about his Jewish heritage, but that’s just what he did. A trip to Israel in 1998 opened up a whole new world of Jewish culture and spirituality for him and he began to feel he had missed out on something wonderful.

He converted to Judaism in 2002 and went on to earn a master’s degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he met his wife. The couple both received rabbinical ordination in 2009 from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Mejia’s wife feels he has found his calling: to help other Jews reconnect or connect for the first time to the Jewish faith. As more and more people learned of his faith journey, many of them sought out his help. Mejia began to see himself as a bridge builder, helping people bridge the chasm between ancestral memories to a practicing Jewish faith.

Rabbi Mira Rivera, a Filipino-American yoga teacher dancer rabbi is also a good example of a Gilgul conversion.

Rivera attended a Catholic school but started practicing yoga as a teen, came to Judaism through her two lifelong passions: meditation and dance.

A Detroit native, she was raised in the Philippines by her grandmother from the age of 2. After finishing high school, Rivera went to India to study meditation and yoga. She studied there with Jewish teachers from around the world and had her first exposure to social justice teachings rooted in the Jewish precept of Tikun Olam- to heal the world.

Rivera later moved to Israel to teach yoga, where a visit to the Western Wall had a profound impact. She recalls seeing the Kotel lit up by the sun and having an urge to “plaster my body against the wall.”

“I had this feeling of emptying, emptying, emptying, emptying, until there were no more tears to come out, and I just felt a total sense of calm,” she recalled. “Then this really subversive thought in my brain, ‘I am home.’”

Eventually that thought would lead her to convert to Judaism, raise a Jewish family and become a rabbi. She and her husband, Jerome Korman, the music director for the National Dance Institute, have two children and would often lead musical programs at B’nai Jeshurun, an unaffiliated synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In New York she pursued her dream of becoming a dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company. She performed modern dance with the New York-based company from 1987 to 1991.

There, too, she found Jewish connections. Among her teachers were the prominent Jewish dancers Gabriela Darvash and Pearl Lang, as well as conductor Stanley Sussman, who all encouraged her to further explore her connection to Judaism. “The Jewish world was the dance world for me,” Rivera said.

In 2009, her religious journey led her to enroll in rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. During the application process, a rabbi asked about her family origins.

That led Rivera to look into and discover something unexpected: Her family might have Jewish roots. Her maternal great-grandmother’s family came from Spain to the Philippines, and Rivera believes they were conversos, Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.

She points to food practices that her family passed down that bear similarities to the rules for keeping kosher.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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