It is not an easy road — the road from Moab to Bethlehem, from the non-Jewish world into the Jewish. For all the excitement and joy of starting a new life in the Jewish community, there is also, by definition, much new material to be learned and always something to be left behind. Ruth, whose story we will read on Shavuot beginning at sundown May 25, may have been the first “convert” to Judaism, but each year men and women undergo the arduous process of converting and becoming part of the Jewish community.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people who convert to Judaism each year, despite outreach initiatives by some denominations, especially the Reform movement. But studies, notably the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey, place the number of living Jewish converts in the United States at approximately 170,000.
In the biblical narrative, Ruth’s decision to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, and join the Jewish people was spurred by the death of her husband and by her devotion to his mother. But for “modern-day Ruths,” the reasons are myriad. Whether marrying a Jew, inspired by the Jewish commitment to social justice or simply yearning for a spiritual and religious life, “Jews by choice” are as diverse as the Jewish communities they are joining.
Meet four extraordinary women who followed in Ruth’s stead and dove into Judaism, found what they were looking for, and helped shape their community for future generations.
RABBI RACHEL COWAN also somewhat surprised her husband, the late author Paul Cowan, with her conversion in 1980, though the tragic death of his parents was a catalyst for her decision. Cowan, 62, had been drawn to “communities of meaning” in both the Unitarian and Quaker churches in her youth and during the civil rights movement. Then, after years of spiritual searching, she decided to become Jewish. “It’s not an epiphany like Paul had on the way to Damascus,” she said, but rather, “You wake up one day and say, ‘I already am Jewish.’” After her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1989, Cowan worked at the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation. She recently was appointed executive director of the Spirituality Institute, a retreat center for rabbis, cantors and lay people.
DRU GREENWOOD began to question her comfort with Christianity as early as the 8th grade. When asked in an essay exam before being confirmed in the Congregational church if she believed that Jesus was the Messiah, she answered simply, “No.” In 1970, after a long, spiritual search, and falling in love with a Jewish man, Greenwood converted. “It was something that made complete sense to me. I felt Jewish,” she said, a feeling that made her want to help others make the same transition. Greenwood was a pioneer in the Reform movement’s outreach initiatives of the late 1970s and 1980s, and today she directs the William and Lottie Daniel Department and the Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community at the Union for Reform Judaism.
“I came to Judaism from social justice work, rather than the other way around,” said
KATHLEEN PERATIS, who converted from the Greek Orthodox faith approximately 12 years ago. Peratis, a Forward columnist and an attorney who represents employees in discrimination and sexual harassment cases, has devoted herself to women’s and civil rights since her late teens. A former women’s rights leader at the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the board of Human Rights Watch, Peratis, 60, says that she was drawn to Judaism after spending so much time around Jews devoted to social justice. She converted 10 years after her marriage, to the surprise of even her husband. The couple’s children, then ages 7 and 9, converted at the same time.
PATRICIA LIN may have to suffer ribbing about “the love affair between Jews and Chinese food” because of her Taiwanese heritage. Nonetheless, the 34-year-old scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religions at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., is a committed and enthusiastic Jew. “This is what I needed to do to bring peace to my life,” she said of her 1996 conversion. Today, Lin is making use of her personal questions about how one articulates a religious identity that is different from — though not necessarily in conflict with — one’s cultural heritage. She is conducting a major research study of the roughly 1% of the total Jewish population that comprise Asian-American Jews.