The legendary comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The Groucho persona was highly individual. But isolation offers little to the soul. In that regard, some people join one particular “club” that accepts—but doesn’t seek—members.
Last week, a young man named Collin went before a three-person beit din—a Jewish religious court. As his mentor, I was part of that beit din. Colin answered questions regarding his desire and readiness to convert. Then he immersed himself three times in the mikva (ritual pool). He emerged as a Jew.
For over a year, Collin studied Judaism at my San Francisco synagogue, Sherith Israel. He was all in—enthusiastic and committed. He took our introduction to Judaism class. He learned to read Hebrew. He attended Shabbat services and Torah study. Two Torah study groups. We chatted over coffee every other week before Friday-night services. We discussed his challenges and progress, and a wide variety of topics from kosher eating to Israel to Jewish life (my own) in New York. He became part of “the guys’” coffee group. (A young woman who recently converted joins us occasionally.)
Why would a young man—why would anyone—cast his lot with the Jewish people? Make no mistake. Judaism is a “club” I want to belong to. I’ve found great meaning and stability in living Jewishly. But let’s face it. We Jews have had a difficult history in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear after the Holocaust. It has simmered and periodically flared up in Europe, and come to a boil in the Middle East.
Moreover, while Jews welcomes converts, we don’t proselytize. (We stopped when Rome made that a capital offense in the late fourth century.) Still, some people explore Judaism at Sherith Israel and elsewhere. A few engage intellectually. Many are non-Jews with Jewish partners. Of those, some pursue conversion. Others don’t but wish to build and maintain Jewish homes and families.
Then there are people like Collin, who is single. They discover that the Jewish soul matches their own. Many say they’ve always felt Jewish. Maybe it’s the breadth and depth of our traditions. Maybe it’s the fact that questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. And that within Reform Judaism, each individual explores observance in his or her own way.
The Tanhuma—a collection of stories and wisdom—states: “Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” After all, the Israelites witnessed God’s power through incredible displays of thunder and lightning, as well as the shaking of the mountain. The convert did not, yet still accepts God’s commandments.
With Passover beginning this evening, it’s worth noting again that the Jewish people has survived many tragedies—slavery in Egypt being the first. Existential threats still exist. Yet some people outside our tradition find Judaism deeply meaningful. Their choices teach us born Jews a lesson. As Larry Raphael, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, says, “In America we are all Jews by choice.” A free society offers us the option to drop out—even if doing so is somewhat illusory. Jews who come from outside our tradition demonstrate the value of choosing Judaism. And the courage involved in making that choice.
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