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By Mira Sucharov, October 12, 2010

Most of the recent talk about Jewish conversion has focused on the controversial conversion bill in Israel. But less discussed is what Jews everywhere might learn from the conversion process for our own Jewish identity and practice.

For most non-Orthodox Jews, the biggest amount of Jewish learning takes place in the formative years. Let’s say the typical cycle for an engaged Jewish kid is some form of elementary Jewish education, some shabbat and holiday celebrations in the home, a bar or bat mitzvah, maybe a high school youth group, summer camp, or an Israel trip, and possibly a Jewish studies course in university. But by the time marriage and parenthood rolls around, the typical Jewish adult will have had a decade or more of very thin Jewish intellectual and spiritual life.

Contrast this to adult converts to Judaism. As Jews by choice, these individuals have spent considerable time learning about Jewish life through a mature lens. They have had the opportunity to bring an analytical eye to the study of Jewish history, culture, texts and liturgy. Since they come from other faith backgrounds, they can view Jewish ritual and symbols in broad, societal context. At a personal level, they are forced to think about how Judaism will fit into their own adult lives. And to boot, they have had the opportunity of developing an adult relationship with a rabbi.

If my kids are anything like me and most of my friends, by the time they are ready to get married, they will have left home for university, travelled overseas, and met a life partner somewhere along the way. Come their nuptials, they may or may not pop into their home town -- where they may or may not choose to settle -- for their wedding celebrations. And they probably won’t have given a lot of thought to the precise kind of Jewish life they plan to embark on as spouses and as parents.

In the days following the birth of my first child, I recall devouring a book given to me as a baby gift: Becoming a Jewish Parent, by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. (Best nugget recalled: Jewish holidays are not Christian-holiday equivalents. Purim is Purim, not a Jewish Halloween. Chanukah is Chanukah, not a Jewish Christmas.). It was in those pages, mostly bed-bound while nursing my baby daughter, that I first seriously envisioned the kind of Jewish home I wished to help run.

But why wait until a few years into marriage to think about Jewish life as adults? What would our Jewish lives as newly minted spouses and parents look like if we were required (by custom or convention) to undergo a process of engaging with Judaism with a rabbi, say for a year prior to the wedding?

Chances are we would be able to share our communal and religious vision with our partner, and help iron out differences early on. (Whether in an intermarried or in-married scenario, there often is some degree of religious tension.) We would be able to foresee a Jewish life that properly connects with who we are as adults -- not necessarily with who we thought we were at age 12 or 13. This would give us a chance to examine Judaism with the nuance it deserves. Jewish complexity is all too often lost in the types of formative education more concerned with inculcating the basics and forging simplified identities than with challenging the learner to think critically. And we would have the support of a rabbi who has helped guide and challenge us through our journey of self-discovery as Jewish grownups.

When my husband and I became engaged, living in Washington DC at the time as graduate students, we eagerly shopped for rings, flowers and musicians. On Sunday nights we headed downtown to the DCJCC (that it was a Jewish Community Centre we hardly even noticed) to get tutored in big-band swing moves for our first dance.

It never occurred to us that a dose of adult Jewish education might enrich our next phase together. We even lived across the street from a synagogue whose doorway we never thought to darken -- being the young, independently-minded, urban hipsters we fancied ourselves. We could have discussed the range of theological perspectives open to scientifically-minded skeptics. We could have deepened our knowledge of Judaic texts and ideas. (Footnote: that particular shul -- Temple Micah -- was named by Newsweek as one of “America’s most vibrant congregations.”)

The challenge for converts -- underscored by Israel’s increasingly hostile attitudes to North American conversions -- may be to feel at home in a community they were not born into. But there’s a lot that everyone can learn from the adult conversion process for  defining Jewish journeys.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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