IJC’s former rabbi Nathan Alfred, now living with his family in Jerusalem, sent me a document last week, which he had discovered while weeding out his old papers. It dates back to November 9th 2008, a couple of years before I joined IJC and it is the agenda of a special meeting of the Religious Affairs Committee with the then President Steve Brummel and Rabbi Nathan on the question of conversion at IJC. I hadn’t seen the document, but I had heard a lot about the meeting – apparently at the apartment of Ben Gil z’’l.
It raised some fairly candid questions. Does IJC want to have a conversion programme? Does the community have the capacity to organise a conversion programme? But perhaps the most important question: are we a real community, with sufficiently regular Shabbat services and Festival celebrations, enough to expose potential candidates to Jewish synagogue, cultural and social life and to embrace them into the people of Israel. A pretty tall order!
As a result of that early, and I’m told vigorous, discussion a conversion programme was established, with Rabbi Nathan and later Alex Licht as teachers. The programme is now in its fifth ‘season’, taking two years - and often longer - for candidates to complete prior to their presentation to the Beth Din and immersion in the Mikveh. The present group is made up of eight wonderful and dedicated people, and a further group of seven interested individuals is being considered for the sixth season. The present teaching team consists of Nada Joppe, student rabbi Andrés Mosquera and myself, with Anneke Silverstein offering Hebrew classes, and we have had some excellent visiting speakers along the way.
Many members will have noticed that the present conversion class and the new ‘explorers’ are more numerous than before. Indeed, many rabbis across Europe, the UK and the US have observed a substantial surge in interest in conversion and de facto conversions, some associating it with the Covid pandemic and the search for meaning it instilled in the lives of many – if not all – in addition to the increased public exposure of progressive Judaism’s approach to Jewish life and to conversion.
At IJC, around one third of members have a conversion background and this is close to average (although many communities have higher percentages). Yet in line with liberal congregations across the globe, converts at IJC play a disproportionately active and important role in the day to day existence, progress and growth of our IJC community.
In the final analysis, we can be grateful that the key question of the 2008 meeting – are we a real community, with sufficiently regular Shabbat services and Festival celebrations, enough to expose potential candidates to Jewish synagogue, cultural and social life and to embrace them into the people of Israel? – was met with a confident YES.
We can be proud of ourselves and our conversion candidates, but let’s not forget how much they still need us to be a ‘real’ Jewish community for them… until us and them dissolves into we.
Ruth 1, 16: Wherever you Go I Shall Go and Where You Lodge I Shall Lodge. Your People Will Be My People and Your God My God.
אֶל־אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי