The journal Sh’ma, a “gathering place for independent dialogue” on wide range of subjects important to the Jewish community, has chosen to cover in its November edition the issue of conversion. It’s described as a complex and contentious issue, and Sh’ma has solicited essays from many people who can offer unique insights and various points of view – including Edgar Bronfman & Beth Zasloff, authors of the new book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, Mothers Circle alum Abi Auer, and Empowering Ruth alum Monica Rodriguez.
[For a free copy of the November Sh’ma, courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, please email Lindsay at email@example.com.]
JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky was asked to participate, and he wrote an essay on how the Jewish community can help make conversion easier for those who are interested. Instead of putting up “artificial barriers in front of people who want to convert,” he says we should instead focus on how we can lower barriers to participation. Kerry is not advocating for the “dilution or diminution of the conversion program,” but he wonders how we can utilize modern technology to help facilitate the conversion process – and open more doors for more people. He writes:
Because the Internet lowers accessibility barriers, let’s create an online transdenominational introduction to Judaism/ conversion course that would offer a significantly more accessible initial step into the Jewish community. Not only would this bring Jewish learning to the potential convert at their convenience, it could also facilitate the Jewish community’s efforts to engage unaffiliated Jews directly rather than first requiring them to walk through an institution’s doors.
This proposed program seeks to address barriers such as time, location, scheduling, and cost of classes. A guided online curriculum for the potential convert to Judaism (and others interested in intensive, introductory Jewish learning) will allow for asynchronous learning where students learn at their own pace, on their schedule, in the privacy of their home or office. Students would be guided by online mentors who assist the target audience through interactive Jewish learning. The wealth of already available online resources could be utilized as well as giving students access to the greatest Jewish teachers and thinkers from across the globe, regardless of denomination. And the no-fee policy will ensure the program is accessible to all.
This doesn’t mean a person finishes a course and prints out a certificate. Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn has an online conversion program in place where after the course is over, all the participants come to one central location to finish. Kerry believes it can be even easier. Throughout their studies, “candidates will be introduced to local rabbis and mentors in a national, apolitical network of rabbis who will introduce them to their local communities (and we will work with them to make them welcoming communities and synagogues), meet with them, and accompany them to the bet din and mikvah.”
We believe these methods are not just useful for engaging those converting to Judaism - lowering barriers and providing more access points will help us reach out and welcome in all who seeks to strengthen their Jewish identity.