We invited friends around the San Francisco Bay Area to join us for a field trip to Afikomen Judaica. Afikomen is one of the few places still in existence that offers Judaica for sale. And that's its only purpose. (Send us a message here if you'd like to be invited to the next visit.)
We were only a few days from Passover, and so we all brought lists of things we may buy. As soon as we entered the shop, we were greeted by a visual display of color, as the purples, reds and blues of the talliot, kippot and other Jewish items delighted our senses.
We all immediately split up to go to various areas of interest within the shop. I had marching orders to obtain some matzoh, and, sure enough, Afikomen had a nice display of matzoh. They even had (shmurah matzah) the round, hand-made kind from Israel! After picking up several boxes, I looked around for a menorah, a hanukkiah, and found one on sale. Others looked for books on Pesach, or tallitot or other items. We even had to text photos of the kippot to a friend so he could see what colors they were!
After our hour-long visit, we all met up outside, compared our purchases, and walked or drove to a nearby restaurant on College. At lunch, we agreed that we had to do this again soon!
Above is a gorgeous Seder plate, part of the Passover display. To the left is a selection of menorahs.
Probably my favorite sign in the store is below, written by Chaim, the delightful owner.
When a person is considering conversion to Judaism they usually want to answers to a set of questions. We asked these questions of Rabbi Corey Helfand of Peninsula Sinai of Foster CIty and we share his answers below.
Could you tell me what your general process is?
The process is on average 1 to 2 years, although to be fair, it is all dependent on the individual person. Some take longer, some less time. I try to customize it based on each person’s needs and goals.
Does it generally take a year for a person to learn all they need to convert?
The reason for one year at minimum is that I like for all of my students to see/experience/live a full holiday-cycle in the Jewish tradition. The second year focuses more on Jewish thought/philosophy, theology, the Holocaust/Zionism, and lifecycles. Learning and living Judaism is a life-long journey and through that lens, conversion is about beginning the journey. While it’s absolutely possible to learn the basics in the first year, including writing your spiritual autobiography and personal theology, it’s also important that we create a process that works for you. The first year will get you going on your journey, and hopefully inspire you to keep on learning.
Do your students take a basic Judaism class? If yes, with you or elsewhere?
All students are encouraged to take an intro to Judaism class, either with me or somewhere else locally. If one isn’t being offered, then I work with the student one on one.
In your one-on-one study how frequently do you meet with a student?
One-on-ones are either weekly or every other week depending on scheduling. I am also available to meet by phone and over Skype/FaceTime/Google Hangout etc.
Are there particular books you have your students read?
I ask everyone to start by reading Rabbi Wayne Dosick’s, Living Judaism as well as Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s, Jewish Theology in our Time. Students are also asked to read the weekly Torah portion. As time progresses, I have them read a book in each of the following categories: Jewish history, philosophy, Israel, and spirituality. Some book are a great fit and others are not. As our relationship develops, I’ll help you find additional reading material that will speak to where you are on your journey.
Where do you take your students for immersion and beit din?
I do batei din at the mikvaot in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Gatos. Just depends on scheduling and logistics.
When someone contacts you and says they want to convert do you turn them away 3 times?
Absolutely not. I follow Hillel and welcome them in. The rest is commentary and then we start learning.
One of the questions that comes up frequently is, “Will I ever really fit in and feel totally Jewish?” This is a two way question. First, will the Jew by choice come to a point of feeling competent and comfortable with being Jewish? Will they “forget” not being Jewish and just BE?
Second, will the community accept converts as Jews?
To the first question the answer is a resounding YES. If you simply live a Jewish life, doing Jewish on a daily basis it will become who you are. There’s a good chance that it will take a few years. But it takes years to absorb a new language, get to know a new friend, learn a new skill. So don’t be discouraged, enjoy the process.
The second question is more difficult. Some born Jews will never accept the idea that a person can convert/become Jewish. For those who have less of a Jewish education and Jewish life, being a born Jew may be all the claim they have to being Jewish. They may not want others to “get to be Jewish” because it feels threatening to their own identity. Other Jews have much knowledge of rabbinic teaching and don’t accept that Judaism had accepted conversion since its inception.
Therefore, it may be hard in some Jewish environments to be affirmed as a Jew when you are a convert. If you find this to be the case – you are in the wrong place. That is not the synagogue or organization for you. Your sponsoring rabbi should be able to put you in touch with a community that is welcoming of converts.
In a class I attended an Orthodox rabbi was asked, “Are there any converts who are members of your synagogue?” He replied, “Yes! Any synagogue that does not have converts is not a real one because it would not include our ancestors Abraham and Sarah who were converts to Judaism.”
(Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh at American Jewish University. Photo courtesy of Rabbinical Assembly)
A young person in Los Angeles emailed me to say that they will be going to the mikveh at the American Jewish University next month. I think it is important to SEE what mikvot look like to give folks an idea of what to expect. This one in Los Angles is quite modern and simple. In general, so are many mikvot. There is often a spa-like appearance. (Take a look at the local Bay Area mikvot also by choosing Category "Mikvah".
This article, Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh, shares some of the wonderful stories that the mikvah ladies, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal, have experienced.
Here's a very heartwarming article from the Forward by a woman who converted with her son to Orthodox Judaism. Her mother is a minister and did/does a beautiful job of supporting her grandson and daughter. What a good and generous spirit she has.
How My Southern Baptist Minister Mother Explained Her First Christmas to My Orthodox Jewish Son
How have you engaged with family who celebrate Christmas? Was your first non-Christmas year hard? Does it get easier with time?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.
A young person converting to Judaism asked for suggestions on how to tell their parents and grandparents that they are leaving Catholicism.
Here are the responses of three Jews by choice.
A monk at the Graduate Theological Union Franciscan school told me about one of his students who converted to Judaism because she wanted to share the same religion as Jesus. That could be seen as a logical next step for some Christians who love and honor Jesus, no?
This is a hard decision to make if he was raised Catholic, as I was.
My suggestions is make sure he can justify his reasons for converting, then invite them to a life cycle event, wedding, baby naming, Hanukkah, etc. include them to his Jewish world.
The last thing they want is to lose him, by including them means they are not losing him but gaining another culture.
Be sure he is prepared for the worst, they may be very hurtful, be strong in his conviction.
Start with the person that he thinks will understand and go from there.
It's not easy but if he feels strongly about the decision to convert and he has a supportive family they will accept his decision.
1. I wonder if he has any siblings whose life choices would make his decision look good by comparison? (That’s one factor that helped me with my parents.)
2. Many Christians admire the “Old Testament” as a sort of “Grandparent” religious text (as in, “He’s going with the grandparents’ faith.”)
3. Any scientists in the family? Tenets such as Immaculate Conception, Resurrection, and “Son of God” (aren’t we all sons and daughters of God?) are hard for scientists to reconcile with Christianity.
Many of us loved attending classes at Beth Jacob in Oakland with Rabbi Dardik. When Rabbi Dardik made aliyah we were quite sad. Luckily Rabbi Gershon Albert is Beth Jacob's rabbi now and he will be following in the footsteps of Rabbi Dardik in offering a series of classes on THE BIG QUESTIONS!
Drop in on a topic that interests you or come every week. It's all good! See you in class.
Judaism’s Big Questions
“Ask good questions.” This piece of advice has fostered a thirst for knowledge in the Jewish people for generations. This year, we have compiled some of the most important and interesting Jewish questions; let’s engage in the study of some answers (and of course more questions) together!
With Rabbi Gershon Albert
Date and Time: Tuesday Evenings at 7:15 – 8:15pm
Location: Beth Jacob Congregation, 3778 Park Blvd, Oakland, Main Sanctuary
Tentative Schedule (Subject to Change – contact Beth Jacob at (510) 482-1147 for up to the minute details.)
November 8: Introduction: A brief history of Jewish history and thought
November 22: Is the world actually 5777 years old? And other contradictions between science and tradition?
November 29: What is the soul?
December 6: Evil Part 1: What is evil and why does it exist?
January 10: Evil Part 2: why did God create man with an evil inclination?
January 17: Does Judaism believe in the afterlife and reincarnation?
January 24: What is the Messiah? What do we believe about the end of days?
January 31: Does Judaism believe in free will?
February 7: Do Jews need to believe? (Do we need to believe in God?)
February 14: Why do Jews call themselves the “Chosen People”?
February 21: What does Judaism think about other religions and cultures?
February 28: What are Jewish attitudes towards work?
March 7: Kashrut, Shatnez, Mikvah, and more. Are there reasons behind the laws I can’t wrap my head around?
March 21: Why do observant Jews dress funny? Modesty in the Jewish tradition.
March 28: What is Torah and what is the significance of its study?
May 2: Philosophical Responses to the Holocaust.
May 9: What is Halacha and how did it develop?
May 16: It’s just a hug! What does Halacha say about interactions with the opposite gender?
May 23: What is the value of Israel in traditional Judaism?
June 6: What is Judaism? A nation, ethnic group, religion, or culture?
June 13: It’s your turn – send in your big questions about Judaism!
Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent out an email to his congregation about Jewish Names.
If you are working out what Hebrew name you'll choose, take a look at what Rabbi Milder has to say.
Note that he sent this message out and invited congregants who don't have a Hebrew name to get one on Shabbat Shemot, Friday, January 20, 2017
What's Your Jewish Name?
It's not Frank, even if you can transliterate that into Hebrew letters.
Your Jewish name includes your Jewish parent's name, because it is an indication of how you acquired your Jewish identity. That's why Jews-by-choice get the parentage of Abraham and Sarah [Avraham v'Sarah], not their own parents' names, as their own parents are not Jews. Similarly, the child of one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent includes the Jewish parent's name in his/her own Jewish name. This is a name that has a ritual role, and is a Jewish identifier; hence, the focus on Jewish lineage. So, if Peter (Pesach) has a Jewish father named Paul (Shaul) and a non-Jewish mother named Mary, his Jewish name is Pesach ben Shaul. His Jewish name is not Pesach ben Shaul v'Mary.
Back to Frank. Jewish names are names derived from Jewish tradition. They generally have a Hebrew etymology. For that reason, Carol is not a Jewish name. It may be the name of a Jew, but Carol's Jewish name is a name drawn from our heritage, not from the heritage of other peoples.
Many of us have Yiddish names. Some rabbis prefer to translate Yiddish names into their Hebrew equivalents, while others (like me) view Yiddish names as part of our heritage. Zisl ben Motke v'Sheindel is a name that might have been used for centuries in Jewish ritual contexts, like Ketubot (wedding contracts) or Aliyot (being called to the Torah).
Over the course of time, the pronunciation of Jewish names sometimes becomes corrupted. It is always appropriate to reclaim the authentic pronunciation of the person for whom you were named, particularly if the way your great-aunt pronounced it makes no sense whatsoever.
I would like to help you record your authentic Hebrew name. Please be in touch!
By a female Reform convert
I’ve always felt a connection to Judaism ever since I was young. I remember telling my Mom when I was younger that I wish I was Jewish and that I wanted to marry a Jewish man. She would just look at me puzzled and ask me “why?”. I was never sure why…. and I still can’t explain it. I wanted to be part of that tradition. The history intrigued me and I loved Jewish humor. It never occurred to me that I could ever actually be Jewish. I thought the only way to be Jewish was by being born that way.
I started dating my fiancé in 2010. I didn’t seek him out because he was Jewish...that was just a happy coincidence. We had mutual friends and started playing music together and became best friends for 2 years before we started dating. After 5 years together he proposed and said that he hoped that I would convert to Judaism and that it was important to him. I always wanted to be Jewish, but somehow I didn't think converting would be what I wanted it to be. I had preconceived notions about it. I thought that I would have to believe in God or at least pretend to believe to convert. I thought I would have to practice the conservative version of the religion because that’s all I knew about. I thought I might have to believe every literal word of the Torah. I thought converting only meant that I practice the Jewish religion, but I could never really be considered a Jew. I thought I would feel like a fraud.
I was sour on the idea of “organized religion” even though I never really thought about what was meant by the term. I wasn't clear on my beliefs towards God. I was agnostic and didn't really take time to think about these questions or about spirituality. I was too busy with work and life.
Since it was important to my fiancé and I was still intrigued by Judaism, I thought I would look into what conversion really looks like. The first thing I did was Google Jewish conversion in the Bay Area and luckily I stumbled upon Dawn Kepler’s amazing website BecomingJewish.net. I read people’s conversion stories and started to realize that none of my previous judgments about converting were true. In fact, in some cases people had the same ideas that I did, yet found the opposite to be true and found a home and a community within Judaism. After reading these stories I started to get excited about this opportunity. I then set up an appointment with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. On our first appointment she completely laid to rest all of my concerns about having to believe in God and old school ideas about Judaism. So I decided to start my conversion process.
Over the 10 months or so of my conversion process I had talks with Rabbi Mates-Muchin, I took the Intro to Judaism class with Rabbi Adar, I sometimes read the weekly Torah portions, I went to some Shabbat services and holidays at Temple Sinai. The things that I learned over that span of time sparked a lot of thought within me about Judaism, God, spirituality and tradition. I didn’t expect how much this process would really make a difference in my life.
Many unexpected changes took place within me as a result of the conversion and learning process that I never could have imagined. Initially, I was very judgmental about religion and prejudged people in other religions for their beliefs. In learning about Judaism it has allowed me to be open to more things. I realized that “religion” isn’t just one thing represented by one collection of beliefs. There are many interpretations of what religion can be. I’ve stopped assuming that I know what religion means to everyone or that I know what their beliefs are just because they belong to a certain religion. I always considered myself to be the most accepting person, but for some reason that didn’t extend to “religious” people. I’ve even discovered that I was missing out on getting to know really great people since I had been writing them off because of their religiousness.
In studying Jewish beliefs and traditions, I feel like it makes me a better person who wants to make wise choices, be good to people and help others. Reading Torah, learning about mitzvot and being around others who are striving to be better people has helped me to take a look at myself. I now find myself looking for ways to perform mitzvot. Not that I was uncaring before, but I just never really thought about it day to day. Now I feel more compassionate, more at peace and thankful. I also know that I’m not perfect, yet this process of learning and improving has provided a framework that will always help me as I go through life.
I was encouraged to try “Jewish things” during this process and never thought they would be as meaningful as they are. Prayer, blessings, performing mitzvot, the act of learning and Shabbat dinner have become practices that I have come to cherish. These acts have put me in touch with a tradition that has been carefully held on to for thousands of years even when it’s beholders and the right to practice them has been threatened over and over again. These traditions have strengthened my faith and connection to something greater than myself.
Through this process, I have even come around to having a belief in some sort of God, not necessarily the old bearded man in the sky that I was so turned off by initially but some sort of higher being that is beyond our understanding; something else out there beyond just the humans on earth; something outside of us that ties us together. This newfound belief has enriched my life. I can’t fully articulate my beliefs in it yet, but I know I feel a shift and for the first time since I was a little girl, I’m excited about the idea of a higher being and I’m eager to keep exploring about what it means to me.
Another favorite part of this process has been learning about Jewish history. The origin of the Jewish people, the times of peace, the times of struggle, the changes, the discussions and the triumphs of the Jewish people fascinates me. Learning this history makes me appreciate Judaism and all the generations, families and people before me who preserved it. The perseverance and spirit of the Jewish people amazes and inspires me every day. It means so much to me to be part of this community and to carry on these beautiful traditions. Throughout its history, some preserved the traditions of Judaism openly with joy, some with obligation and some with fear. I know that for the rest of my life as a Jewish woman who carries on this tradition there will be days when I will experience each of those feelings: joy, obligation, and even fear. But through it all, I will feel proud to call myself a Jew.
Rabbi Milder's father died recently and he sent this message to his congregants. In it he uses the traditional title for God at the time of a loss - Judge of Truth (מבורך הוא דיין האמת). This blessing can be confusing. Learn more about it here. Having a congregation and a tradition - a predictable process on which to lean is tremendously helpful at times of grief. Seek these out for yourself.
Thoughts from our Email List
Hopefully our blog entries will concern issues that matter to YOU, the curious about Judaism. Please let us know what you'd like to read about!