There’s a lot of things I love doing being a rabbi– but perhaps chief among them is helping to make new Jews through teaching and facilitating conversions. This past Tuesday was a milestone for me in this regard, as I had the pleasure to sit, for the first time, on a Beit Din for students whom I had also taught. About a year ago, R’ Chaim Weiner (our Av Beit Din, or ‘President’) asked me to assess and work with two young people, brother and sister, who lived in rural Romania and wanted to convert. Maria and Sam had grown up in a family haunted by the supposed Jewish past of their grandfather, but without much knowledge of rabbinic Judaism. Rather, their unusual religious upbringing involved dedicated study of the Torah and observance of the festivals written therein, but without the context, or community, of Judaism.
As they and their siblings grew up, they all decided they wanted to convert to Judaism and affirm and solidify this connection with which they had been raised. Their two older siblings both moved to America and underwent conversions there, but they, for a variety of reasons, remained in their small town in rural Transylvania. Being fairly isolated, they have been studying on their own for years, and only got in touch with us through the European Masorti Beit Din a year or two ago. I had the pleasure of working with them via Skype over the last year to help prepare them for the final step of appearing before the Beit Din here in London and immersing in the Mikveh.
This past Tuesday was finally that day for Maria and Sam– the culmination of many years of study and persistence. As always, I was inspired and moved by the passion for Judaism of the people I meet when presiding over conversions, but it was especially poignant to have personally helped tutor Maria and Sam to reach this day. In addition to working via Skype, we also have a robust little group of 5-8 people who are studying with me here at SAMS, some of whom you may meet at services or events at the shul.
Few things bring me greater joy than being able to help people who have chosen to adopt Judaism into their life and who have elected to be adopted into the Jewish people. I am, due largely to my own background, a firm believer in the notion that a Jewish life which is consciously and actively chosen (whether through conversion or simply a process of learning and an attitude of self-empowerment) is stronger and better than a Jewish identity which is simply a side effect of one’s parentage.
One of the (many) things I love about SAMS is that we are a community of individuals who have all chosen to make Judaism part of our lives. It is certainly not a guarantee– no one moves to St. Albans because they want a robust Jewish life, kosher restaurants, and a culturally-Jewish milieu. Rather, because of the predicament in which we find ourselves, Jewish life is a choice.
When thinking about the importance of conversion, of choice, of self-election and self-empowerment, I often come back to a letter written by Maimonides to a man named Ovadia. Thanks to the Cairo Genizah and other such formats, many personal letters have been preserved, and in this one, Ovadia wrote to Maimonides to explain that he was a convert, and was worried that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for him to say ‘God of my ancestors’ during the Amidah. Maimonides wrote back a powerful letter which reassures him that:[…] everyone who converts until the end of all the generations—and everyone who unifies the name of the Holy Blessed One as it is written in the Torah—are students of, and members of the household of, our father Abraham; all of whom he turned back to the good [way]. Just as he caused the people of his [own] generation to turn back [to the good] through his mouth and his teaching, so did he cause everyone who would convert in the future to turn back [to the good way] through his command to his sons and the members of his household. Consequently our father Abraham is the father of his students, […] who are all those that convert.
We would do well to remember that the story of our people is about not only being chosen, but choosing– with each and every generation making the conscious and active choice to commit to our shared history, values, culture, language, and faith. The ties that bind us together are not those of blood, but of values.