Last week I had the privilege of officiating at a number of unique conversion ceremonies at Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul at Kibbutz Hannaton – all for people who had been scarred and/or rejected by the Orthodox establishment and found salvation in liberal Judaism.
The first was a couple, Ben and Ariella, who had converted — Ben twenty-one years ago and Ariella eleven years ago — in the United States through the Reform movement. They had since become quite traditionally religiously observant – keeping kosher, a strict Sabbath, doing regular Torah study. They are perhaps two of the most enthusiastic Jews I ever met. They even uprooted their lives in the U.S. to come live in Safed a few months before the pandemic began, thinking that would be the best place for them to live an integrated spiritual Jewish life.
However, their enthusiasm was deflated when their desire to practice their favorite mitzvah of charity was returned with a slap in the face. Ben did handiwork in a local Habad rabbi’s home synagogue at a highly reduced rate; and Ariella brought food to families in quarantine. But when Ben wanted to be called to the Torah, neither that rabbi nor the other local Habad rabbi would let him. And that same rabbi Ben helped with handiwork told the families not to eat Ariella’s food and forbade her to bring food to anyone in the community again.
Why? Because, he said, the couple were not Jews. Their conversion – although it included all of the elements of a halakhic conversion – and their many years of living a committed Jewish life, meant nothing in his eyes. And the prohibition against shaming another in public apparently meant nothing to him either.
Luckily, God is with them, even if the Orthodox establishment is not. Rabbi Haim Ovadia, an Israeli liberal Orthodox rabbi (with ordination from Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu) who is currently living in the U.S. but plans to return soon and knows the couple – and who considers it his mission to “help victims of Orthodoxy” – offered to do for them an additional conversion on Zoom along with two other rabbis who were ordained in the Orthodox movement. He contacted me to officiate the mikveh portion of the process.
And so it happened. The couple came to Shmaya down and disillusioned and left glowing and with their faith in the tradition they chose to adopt, restored. We did a ceremony by the water to mark this decision to affirm their choice to be Jewish, despite this traumatic experience, and to renew their conversion with these hopefully more broadly accepted (by at least the more liberal Orthodox community) rabbis so that they could put this behind them, have fewer people suspect their Jewish status, and move on. Their plan is to leave Safed and find a home in a liberal Jewish community somewhere else in the country. This whole incident made them realize that they miss a more progressive approach to Judaism, and Ariella looks forward to being able to participate again in egalitarian prayer services.
* * *
Two days later, a man who has been living a Jewish life in Israel for the past forty years came to fulfill his dream of converting to Judaism. Yossi came from Holland to Israel as a young man to volunteer on a kibbutz and stayed. He fell in love with Judaism and Israel and wanted to throw his lot in with both.
But after completing the process of studying for conversion with the Israeli Rabbinate, he was rejected by the beit din [religious Jewish court of three] who interviewed him. They said he and his already-Jewish-wife-to-be had to both go study in an Orthodox yeshiva full-time if he wanted to convert. A young couple with no money, they could not afford to even consider this option. Besides, Yossi was not interested in becoming strictly Orthodox.
“I could not lie. I could not commit to living in their strict and narrow way. I just wanted to be a Jew like everyone else,” he told me.
The couple married in Cyprus and raised their children Jewish. Yossi — who is a nurse at Shaarei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem and said he loves his work because he loves helping people — continued to live the life he would have had he converted: attending synagogue, participating in all of the Jewish rituals with his family, even studying the Torah portion every week and blogging about it. Miraculously, he retained his love of Judaism and Israel. But when asked to join a minyan, a religious Jewish quorum, he would tell the truth, that he had never officially converted. Honesty is very important to him.
But then he discovered the Reform movement and found his home there. And last week, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a Jew. “This will be my first Passover as a Jew,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I can even pour wine for the others at the seder [because he had never officially converted, there were those in his wife’s family who would not drink wine he had poured]. I have left Mitzrayim [Egypt, which literally means “the narrow place”]. Finally, I have found rabbis who practice the commandment not to mistreat the stranger because the Israelites too were strangers in Egypt. I cannot even describe how overwhelmed with gratitude, joy and peace I am.”
He was even more overwhelmed when I took him to view the ancient mikveh that I and my two tour guide friends Anat Harel and Steve Gray spearheaded a campaign to save from destruction this summer and have moved to sit alongside Shmaya. He photographed the mikveh and me beside it, as well as the ceremony we did next to the mikveh pool, to remember this momentous experience in his life. He sent me the photo with the following message: “Thank you for all, dear Rabba Haviva. Thank God He sent me to you and your place.”
* * *
The next day, a woman who came to Israel from Germany twenty years ago and had also been rejected at the end of her Rabbinate conversion process, but continued to live a Jewish life with her Jewish husband and raise their two daughter Jewish, called to book an appointment with her daughters. She had been studying with Yossi in the same conversion course through the Reform movement. “We were going to do our immersion in the sea, but when Yossi told us how meaningful his time at your mikveh was, we decided to make the trip from Jerusalem.”
* * *
Then there was Rami, who grew up in a Muslim home but always felt drawn to Judaism and came to do his immersion for conversion at Shmaya. He too had tried the route of a Rabbinate conversion but could not commit to living that lifestyle or outlook. He, too, could not lie when, at the end of the learning process thirteen years ago, he had to commit to living a strictly Orthodox life. He, too, was rejected at the end of his studies for a Rabbinate conversion.
But Rami kept living a Jewish life all of those thirteen years. He did not want to give up on Shabbat and the other parts of Judaism he loves, even if he did not want to keep them the way the Orthodox establishment said he should. He felt Jewish, but not Orthodox. He was a Reform Jew at heart but did not even know what that was then. When he, too, discovered the Reform movement, he knew where he belonged. He likes the energy of his female rabbi, loves the progressive approach of Reform Judaism and the welcoming community he found in Haifa, so he completed his conversion there.
* * *
Last was the conversion of biological siblings who were adopted in Serbia by two different families who did not know each other when they did the adoption. One couple adopted one of the siblings, and the other couple adopted two. Later, they were told by their adoption service that there was another family in Israel who had adopted their child/ren’s biological sibling/s.
That is how they found each other. They are now raising the children as one big extended family, brought together by these children who were born in another country to biological parents neither family had ever met.
It turned out that both families had an older sibling on the autism spectrum, too. One of them had been told by a series of Orthodox rabbis that he could not have a bar mitzvah at all because of his autism, or, alternatively, that if he could not read the entire Torah portion, lead the entire prayer service and deliver a sermon, he could not have a bar mitzvah.
The parents of this boy were so put off by these rabbis that they were not even sure they wanted to convert their adoptive children if it meant doing so through this same establishment. So when they found Reform Rabbi Oded Mazor, who created for this boy a meaningful bar mitzvah experience respecting his special needs and celebrating his strengths, they were overcome with emotion and sought out a similar experience for their adopted child’s conversion. The parents of their adopted child’s biological siblings followed suit.
These two families showed up at the mikveh with not only grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles — even the dog who considers herself an adopted sibling, too, and thought she was going to have a dunk as well — but with more food than any couple’s family ever brought for their pre-wedding immersions. I was uplifted and blown away by the warmth and love of life that emanated from these families.
The children with their adoptive mothers, Lital and Yael, went into the mikveh together and had a blast. They did not want to get out, which was fine with me. What was most important was that they and everyone else around them had a positive, memorable and welcoming experience, the polar opposite of the mikveh immersion my partner Jacob and I had experienced with our adopted son years before.
Back then, non-Rabbinate conversions were not recognized by the Ministry of Interior, and in order to adopt our son (who was born in Israel and was in the Israeli Social Services system), he had to be legally converted in Israel. Ironically, although I officiate ceremonies at Shmaya, the Rabbinate did not allow the mikveh portion of the immersion to take place there. They said we had to go to a specific mikveh in Safed — which apparently has a contract with the government — on an appointed date. We understood why when we arrived. There were busloads of people waiting to immerse for their conversions that day, and they immersed one right after the other. It was an assembly line making Jews.
This experience affirmed my insistence on taking at least an hour with each conversion immersion I do: sitting with the person who walks through the door; listening to their story; talking to them about the deeper meaning of mikveh; helping them formulate their kavanot (sacred intentions); and then creating a ceremony just right for them. I see this as the only proper way to mark this life transition and honor this person’s choice, and I feel privileged to be able to accompany these people at this pivotal moment in their lives.
Such was the case with these two inspiring families who came to celebrate their adopted children and welcome them into their families and the Jewish People. They identify as secular Jews but are connected to what they call Jewish tradition and values. While the parents and children were in the mikveh, those assembled outside hooked up the loudspeakers, blew up the balloons, and when the children came outside, they were greeted with flying candies and surrounded by dancing family in a whirlwind of love and joy.
So much joy. So much love. So much desire to connect and give. Why not accept it with open arms?