Jews by Choice and Shavuot




Shavuot, or "the festival of weeks," is Erin Souza's favorite holiday, epitomizing for her Judaism's focus on study and intellectual examination.

There's another reason the 24-year-old Souza is partial to the holiday, which begins Saturday night: She is a Jew by choice.


Shavuot is the festival most closely associated with converts to the faith because the Book of Ruth is read aloud. The Bible's most famous convert, Ruth the Moabite, after her husband dies, says to her mother-in-law, Naomi the Israelite: "Your people will be my people and your God will be my God."

The notion that every Jew, through the ages, stood together at Sinai and witnessed the revelation of the Torah is a concept that has inspired Souza and other converts. "The idea that there is a Jewish soul within every Jew, whether they were born a Jew or converted, and that we were all at Sinai, I think is really helpful to me in connecting with the Jewish people and creating that identity for myself," said Souza.

Not so long ago, it was rare to find a non-Jew wanting to convert to Judaism. After all, what sense did it make to join a persecuted people?

But today, perhaps more than at any time in Jewish history, Jews by choice have been woven into the fabric of the Jewish people. They serve as presidents of synagogues, head Jewish organizations and even have become rabbis.

"Those who convert to Judaism are quickly becoming accepted very widely and embraced warmly," said Rabbi Neil Cooper, religious leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but Cooper, who chairs the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which runs the Conservative movement's local courses for potential converts, said that 30 to 40 people in the area undergo Conservative conversions. That number, he said, has remained constant since the early 1990s.

An estimated 100 individuals a year use the mikvah at Beth Hillel, one of two non-Orthodox mikvahs in the area where converts undergo a ritual immersion as part of the conversion process, according to his wife, Lori Cooper, who runs the ritual bath there.

Here are the stories of five local converts who made the choice to enter the mikvah and make the leap of faith that Ruth made more than 3,000 years ago.


A Spiritual Yearning

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Souza recalled always feeling a sense of mystery and wonder, a connection with nature that bordered on the mystical.

"There would be birds chirping and I would be in my nice Sunday dress and the sun would be shining and I really felt like, in that moment, I was closer to God," said Souza, an administrative assistant at Maccabi USA.

But she never experienced that same feeling in her parents' Lutheran church.

Her religious education, she said, consisted of memorizing Lutheran creeds. She never had a chance to ask the important questions, she said, let alone get satisfying answers. She stopped going to Sunday school while still in junior high.

While a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., Souza encountered the arguments of committed atheists and recoiled, realizing how deeply she believed in God. She just didn't know what religion she believed in, if any.

Enter Marc Dreyfuss, a Jewish friend from high school who was also attending Knox. The two got into intense philosophical discussions, and Dreyfuss remarked that some of Souza's statements sounded very Jewish.

She started reading everything she could about Judaism — delving into the work of theologians such as Abraham Joshua Heschel — and attending services at a small Reform synagogue near the college. She was attracted to the fact that Judaism required more than just faith — and placed very little emphasis on accepting certain principles. Judaism, she said, requires actions, such as acts of tzedakah.

Convinced that she was on a journey, Souza made the decision to convert in the fall of 2010. By the end of the year, Dreyfuss — by this point more than just a friend — popped the question.

She was surprised by her family's positive reaction to her plans to convert and marry a Jew. Her parents even took part in the Passover seder the next year. Her mother brought along a printout of the entire Wikipedia entry on the holiday.

The Reform conversion ceremony took place a year ago in Nashville, where the couple was living at the time. Since relocating to Ardmore, they have become more observant and now identify themselves as Conservative Jews.

They keep kosher and regularly attend services on Shabbat at Adath Israel in Merion Station. She attends Torah study each week, and Dreyfuss — a graduate student in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania — has taken to wearing a kipah outside of synagogue.

Now, less than two weeks before her wedding, Sousa said that she's comfortable with the Jewish faith but acknowledges that it's harder to connect with the concept of Jewish peoplehood and there are many cultural cues she still misses.

"I've always connected more with the theology side of it," she said. "The cultural part, some of it I've picked up on; the food not so much. I do like matzah ball soup."


More than a Political Transition

Steve Santasiero, a 47-year-old father of three from Upper Makefield Township in Bucks County, has experienced some major transitions in recent years. A corporate lawyer working in Manhattan when the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks hit, he responded by quitting his job and becoming a social studies teacher.

Then, in 2008, determined to make a difference on a larger scale, he ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and won. (The Democrat is facing Republican challenger Anne Chapman in the fall.)


In March, he underwent perhaps the biggest change of all: He became a Jew, just two months before his son's Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Kol Emet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Yardley.Then, in 2008, determined to make a difference on a larger scale, he ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and won. (The Democrat is facing Republican challenger Anne Chapman in the fall.)

"In many ways, I've considered myself a Jew for several years," said Santasiero, who married a Jewish woman.

Santasiero said his conversion was less a process of wrestling with theology and more about a gradual immersion in Jewish family and communal life. Raising three Jewish children, he said, he become deeply concerned with the future of the Jewish people and saw his own fate as intertwined with Jews.

He was deeply involved in the Catholic church growing up, but began to drift away from formalized religion as a young adult. He met his wife Ronnie Fuchs at the University of Pennsylvania law school and the couple decided to raise their children as Jews.

Though he was able to stand beside his 14-year-old daughter Nancy on the bimah when she became a Bat Mitzvah, that experience convinced him it was time to formally convert before his son Billy, a year younger, had his turn. Only as a Jew, he said, could he fully partake in his son's religious experience.

Over the course of a year, he studied with Kol Emet's Rabbi Howard Cove. Reform Rabbi Eliot Strom of Shir Ami and Conservative Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg rounded out his Beit Din, a three rabbi panel that determines if one has acquired enough knowledge and commitment to become a Jew.

"I really feel like it was a confirmation of how I already felt," he said. "At the same time, it was a milestone" that he said helped reinforce his faith.

"When it comes to politics, you have to present yourself as who you are to people, and either they accept you or they don't," he said. "There are a lot of things that go into winning and losing an election and someone's faith should not be part of it. My faith is personal to me."


A Rabbinic Journey

Rabbi Selilah Kalev's given name was Heather. The 37-year-old grew up in Alaska and is the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister who had spent much of his life as a missionary in Iran. Her mother was somewhat religiously minded; her scientist father was less inclined to go to church.

"I did not feel connected to Christianity in any way. I felt disconnected with religion for a very long time," she said, adding that she stopped going to church with her parents at age 8.

Like Souza, Kalev began delving deeper into religion in college. In her case, Kalev converted while still a music student at the California Institute for the Arts. That's when she took the Hebrew name Selilah and made it her English name.

Though many seek to find a connection to God when exploring spiritual paths, Kalev decided what she really wanted was to find a community where people held similar values. She was also looking for a system that taught people how to behave better and be more accountable for their actions.

With her exploration of Judaism, she said, she discovered an inner strength and clarity of purpose she didn't know she had. After attending her first Friday night service, she approached the rabbi and said she wanted to convert. And when she attended her first conversion class not long afterward, she said to herself that she wanted to teach this stuff one day — maybe even become a rabbi.

"Judaism was so rich with deeper meaning and insight into the human experience that I wanted to share that," said the mother of two.

Within two years of her 1996 conversion, she was enrolled in rabbinical school at what was then known as the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. That's where she met her husband, Rabbi Joshua Kalev, who is the religious leader of Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Blue Bell.

When she first told her grandfather she was leaving Christianity, he had responded that "it sounds as if you have encountered the holy."

At first she thought he hadn't really been listening to what she'd been saying about discovering a community. But his words stuck with her, and over time she realized that if she hadn't quite found God, she was on a path in that direction.

"I definitely have a belief in an intentional universe," she said, adding that she and her grandfather have kept up an evolving dialogue on theology and religion.

Kalev, who serves as the director of education at two local synagogues, said that the title of rabbi goes a long way toward gaining acceptance. But over the years she still has been asked whether or not she's a "real" Jew.

"Jews come in all shapes and sizes," she said. "My journey is a great tool for me as an educator."

She often shares her story with parents of Hebrew school students who sometimes feel embarrassed they don't know more about Judaism.

"I say, 'I get it, it's OK not to know, and we are going to learn together,' " she said. "With 5,000 years of content we will always still be learning."


A Youthful Transformation

For girls so young, Aminda and Odilia Kirshenbaum, 13 and 11, have traveled a long way, both physically and spiritually.

The biological sisters were born in a rural Guatemalan village to a family that survived on subsistence farming. Members of an indigenous Mayan tribe, the girls spoke a local dialect and practiced a native religion.

For a several reasons — poverty, lack of stability at home — the biological sisters were removed from their birth family and placed in foster care in Guatemala City, where they had to learn Spanish and were exposed to Catholicism.

Five years ago, the girls were adopted by Lyn Kirshenbaum, a single woman who resides in Center City. Even though the girls spoke no English, Kirshenbaum, now 54, decided to enroll them in religious school at Society Hill Synagogue, where she's a member.

Aminda, then 8, was placed into a kindergarten class, but she was so quick to catch on to both English and Hebrew that soon she was in a class with kids her age.

During a recent interview sandwiched between the end of class and rehearsal for the school play, mother and daughters recalled the serious dinnertime discussions about Judaism and whether they would ultimately choose to become Jews.

They wanted to know if becoming Jewish would mean they were no longer Mayan. Kirshenbaum told them that they could be both, that people of all races practiced Judaism, belonged to the Jewish people and maintained complicated identities.

"For me, it means to respect the traditions and follow them," Aminda said of Judaism. Initially reluctant to be interviewed, her eyes began to light up as she described the process of becoming Jewish.

The girls both decided to convert, and Aminda prepared for her Bat Mitzvah even before she officially became a Jew. She underwent the conversion ceremony on April 3, just weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. Kirshenbaum hopes the family can return to Guatemala for Odilia's Bat Mitzvah.

Each described the process, especially the immersion in the Beth Hillel mikvah, as transformative. "I felt that I changed," said Odilia, who was quieter than her older sister. "Something about the water made me feel so calm." She felt, she said, like an eagle, soaring above the earth.The girls both decided to convert, and Aminda prepared for her Bat Mitzvah even before she officially became a Jew. She underwent the conversion ceremony on April 3, just weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. Kirshenbaum hopes the family can return to Guatemala for Odilia's Bat Mitzvah.

Aminda said she feels like she has more of a responsibility to the world around her. If she spots someone littering, she'll directly approach that person and ask them to pick up after themselves. If they refuse, she said, she'll do it herself.

For Kirshenbaum, the fact that her daughters chose Judaism represents a success story for Jewish education. She was thrilled when Aminda told her that reading from the Torah was one of the best experiences of her life and brought her closer to God.

"All these things are beyond my wildest dreams of what I thought they would get out of" Jewish learning, she said. "It's pretty thrilling."



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