A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Orpah as a Jewish woman.
In the first chapter of Ruth, read during the holiday of Shavuot, the eponymous convert speaks her most famous line.
Ruth, a Moabite woman, is widowed around the same time as her Jewish in-law, Naomi, and Moabite in-law, Orpah. Naomi, mother-in-law to Ruth and Orpah, encourages them to leave her and pursue new husbands. But Ruth refuses, opting to remain with Naomi. “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God,” Ruth says.
Over the course of her life, Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is bolstered by a litany of righteous acts and, by the time of her death, the woman who is often described as the first convert to Judaism has given birth to the family line that eventually produces King David.
The story of Ruth is especially resonant this time of year for the teachers and students at the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, a local educational program that provides introduction to Judaism courses. Many of the students join the academy as a part of their conversion processes, attending by themselves or alongside their Jewish spouses.
As Rabbi Neil Cooper explained, the holiday-based structure of the 23-week class ends each year with Shavuot, a fitting conclusion to the students’ declarations that they, too, will be like Ruth — in more ways than one. The academy is supported by the Rabbinical Assembly (Philadelphia Region), and the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program of American Jewish University.
“What we’re seeing today is not only a steady flow of people who are converting, but people who are converting, not because they have to, but because they want to,” said Cooper, who runs the academy and is also the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.
The academy’s namesake, Rabbi Morris Goodblatt, started the school in 1959, according to the archives of the Jewish Post & Opinion, a Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis. Goodblatt started the school as the “Academy for Judaism,” and during the first conversion ceremony of the school’s students, Goodblatt gave the charge.
“You are not 80 percent, 90 per cent or 98 percent Jewish,” Goodblatt is reported to have said. “You are 100 percent Jewish now. Don’t let any uninformed person say that you are outsiders. The Torah declares you to be part of the Jewish faith.”
The longtime rabbi of Congregation Beth Am Israel was president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, according to his obituary in The New York Times, and died in 1978. Though Cooper never met Goodblatt, the rabbi said that Goodblatt’s reputation for openness to potential converts was well-known and ahead of his time.
“That was not the norm, because the norm was that we sort of discouraged conversion,” said Cooper, who has been involved with the academy for 30 years. “As I understand, he was very open, very embracing and welcoming.”
That spirit of openness is what attracts students like Catherine Herling.
Raised in a Southern Baptist home outside of Annapolis, Maryland, Herling, 26, had a crisis of faith in college. She asked her then-boyfriend, Madison Herling, if it was OK for her to ask him questions about Judaism as needed. Her interest in Judaism grew and grew and, after the pair was married, Herling, a couples and families therapist in Bala Cynwyd, decided that she would convert. It was a familiar ride to her husband; his mother had converted when she married his father.
And the familiarity ran deeper than that. Herling’s mother had herself attended the academy for her conversion process, a coincidence revealed to Catherine Herling only after she’d began at the academy on the recommendation of Rabbi Seth Haaz, of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
Herling began in-person classes during the fall of 2019, switching to online at the onset of the pandemic. She’s come to love Judaism — its languages, its traditions — but reserves special praise for the spirit of inquiry that the academy fostered. In Christianity, she said, “sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is universal permission to ask questions. And I really found it to be comforting to be able to say, ‘Oh, I can ask these questions and it not be seen as me questioning the faith,’” Herling said.
Herling will complete her conversion process this August.
That spirit of inquiry is similarly encouraging to Eric Papa.
Papa, 40, lives in Durham, North Carolina with his husband Gill Segal and their two children. Papa was born Catholic, but as he began to understand his sexuality, he came to feel alienated from the church. Eventually, he stopped practicing.
During the years that he lived in Philadelphia, Papa came to know many Jewish people, including Segal, who is an Israeli. Segal had long expressed a desire to raise his children in Jewish tradition, and Papa, though scarred by his previous entanglement with religious life, decided that if he was going to be raising Jewish children, there was more he needed to learn.
“I can’t just be a passive bystander in the house,” he said. “I need to know more about it.”
Rabbi Jen Feldman, a Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate in Durham, introduced Papa to the academy last year. Over the course of a full 23-week cycle conducted via Zoom, Papa connected to Judaism and himself in ways that were totally surprising to him. More than anything, he found a place where he could ask questions without shame.
“Throughout this class, I’ve learned that it’s OK to be a wrestler with God, to not know whether or not He’s real, or not real,” Papa said. “And hearing somebody say that to me was like having a ton lifted off of my chest. It was like you can breathe.”
Papa will continue his studies with Feldman in Durham, and hasn’t yet completed his conversion process. But he’s already learned that religion, which once seemed out of reach for him, can be a welcoming harbor for him and his family.
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