Shalom, Javier

There’s nothing extraordinary about the way the
students at Machon Miriam’s conversion class are
engaged in afternoon prayer. Ditto for their modest
dress, their humble demeanor and their intense focus
on the lesson about Jewish customs their instructor is
teaching.

Yet Ra’anana Birnbaum, who oversees the Machon Miriam
ulpan, insists, ‘This is a very special, very unusual
ulpan.’ What is special here isn’t something you can
see. It is, however, something you can hear. What is
so unusual about these students is revealed in their
native tongues of Spanish and Portuguese.

The dozens of people gathered in Machon Miriam’s
classrooms in Heichal Shlomo, adjacent to Jerusalem’s
Great Synagogue, have come from Costa Rica, Chile,
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Palma de
Mallorca, Portugal, Spain, Bolivia and Peru. One
couple, Birnbaum says, has come from the farthest
reaches of the Amazon.

Among them are people like Adriana, a Roman Catholic
from Colombia who met her Jewish fiance in London and
has moved with him to Israel; and Gisella, the
daughter of a Jewish man and Catholic woman who has
left Argentina to ‘find herself’ in Jerusalem. Many,
many more are like Agison and Jerusa, two Bnei Anusim
(descendants of Iberian Jews who were forced to
convert to Christianity during the Inquisition) from
Brazil.

Agison first met Jerusa on a bus, making eyes at her
‘like in a soap opera.’ And like a mindbending soap
opera plot twist, the two happened to share family
secrets of converso lineage. Agison’s grandparents had
come from Portugal and maintained unusual,
non-Catholic practices that he would later realize
were Jewish customs. Although her father was Catholic,
Jerusa’s mother steadfastly refused to go to church,
part of a set of rules her own mother had established.
By the time they met, Agison and Jerusa knew they were
Jewish. She wanted to live openly as Jews, but Agison
was hesitant.

‘It took two years of marriage for me to convince
him,’ Jerusa says, as her husband smiles sheepishly.

The decision was not a simple one. It was easier said
than done.

Their town had Jews, but they were secular, and could
not teach the couple much. There was no synagogue to
provide communal prayer. So they made do as best they
could, following the Bible. Literally.

Without the benefit of knowledge of Jewish tradition,
the couple improvised. For Pessah, they meticulously
removed all hametz from their home. They made fresh
grape juice, slaughtered sheep and – without knowing
exactly how they were supposed to – baked their own
matzot. They went to the fields to count the omer.

On Succot, Agison wanted to gather for himself the
four species, but he wasn’t sure which species to
collect. For a mikve, Jerusa would travel to a
secluded beach near Rio de Janeiro.

And so it went for them. It took seven years to get
their hands on Jewish books in Portuguese. Eventually
they learned about various halachot. While still in
Brazil, the 30-something couple and their young
children underwent conversion through the Conservative
movement. They made aliya last year – not as Agison
and Jerusa, but as Eliahu and Rivka.

The changes have been extreme.

Whereas in Brazil Eliahu owned a successful business
selling packing materials, today he works in
maintenance. His wife works as a babysitter.

‘We didn’t come here for a more lucrative lifestyle,’
he says, knowing the suspicion with which Israelis
often regard strangers.

Instead, they say, they came for experiences like
their first traditional Seder, held in their spartan
apartment in the Beit Canada absorption center in
southeast Jerusalem. And although they are citizens
and already recognized by the Interior Ministry as
Jews, they are undergoing an Orthodox conversion now
because they believe that only it is valid.

‘We came to seek God,’ Eliahu says. ‘And so far,
things are working out.’

Birnbaum, who is translating the narrative, beams with
pride for her students. ‘Here we have a human fabric
that knows practically no bounds,’ she says.

THE ULPAN is connected to Shavei Israel, an
organization founded by Michael Freund that has become
well known in recent years for locating, educating and
bringing here thousands of people around the world
with previously unlooked-for historic ties to the
Jewish people.

Freund, who investigated the issue of anusim (who are
also known by the derogatory terms marranos and
chuetas, or less offensively as conversos) and
inspired the Chief Rabbinate to take an interest in it
as well, calls the Machon Miriam program ‘the best
revenge against the inquisitors.’ But Freund and
Birnbaum both know that the historical mysteries
inherent in the survival of the Bnei Anusim, and the
economic hardship prevalent in many countries where
they live, make ‘faking it’ an attractive option for
those who do not actually have Jewish heritage. Both
say they are very careful to weed out impostors.

‘We are very sensitive to those who may have Jewish
roots,’ Birnbaum says. ‘At the same time, however, we
are very careful not to be exploited by those with
illegitimate claims, who merely wish to come to Israel
for a better life.

‘I know these people,’ she adds. ‘I’m Latin myself.’

Although she was born and raised in Jerusalem, she
spent several years in Uruguay with her husband, Rabbi
Eliahu Birnbaum, who served as chief rabbi of the
country. Birnbaum’s father also served as chief rabbi
of Uruguay for many years.

‘I can tell after 10-20 minutes whether someone is
telling the truth about these things,’ she says,
speaking in the rapid-fire cadence common to many
Spanish speakers. ‘I have been told by one woman who
wanted to join our class – a devout Christian – that
she just wanted to bring her mother and sister to live
out the rest of their days in Israel. That’s why I
understand, as well, the strictness of the Interior
Ministry and the Rabbinate. There’s no end to the
people who apply.’

At the same time, Birnbaum says, ‘I see how those who
are honest and sincere only become more serious [about
the classes] all the time. Listen, this is a difficult
process. It’s a year of bonding with a community, of
coming to class twice a week, seven hours at a time…
someone who comes to this ulpan with ulterior motives
won’t be able to stand it.’

Moreover, Birnbaum continues, ‘It doesn’t matter to me
why a person comes to convert. It doesn’t matter to me
whether he comes because he has fallen in love with a
Jew, or whether he has fallen in love with the Jewish
people as a whole. What matters to me is that, as soon
as he has made that decision to convert, that he
undergoes the process with a sincere desire.’

GISELLA’S DESIRE, says the shy 22-year-old from
Argentina, is to ‘seek myself, to find an identity.’

That has been a painful process so far for Gisella,
who made aliya in 2003. The child of a Jewish father
and a Catholic mother, she has been wrestling since an
early age with the question, ‘Who am I?’ First,
Gisella went to public school. Then she was sent to a
private school that taught both Catholic and Jewish
children. Feeling part of neither crowd, she hung out
with a small group of kids who considered themselves
atheists. Eventually, in a bid to ‘fit in,’ Gisella
started to take lessons in Christianity with the
Catholic kids, but they wouldn’t speak to her.

So, Gisella went back to public school. There, a
strange thing happened when the drama class prepared a
presentation of the movie Sister Act, in which Whoopi
Goldberg impersonates a nun.

‘My father absolutely refused to allow me to take part
in this,’ Gisella says. ‘He had never made much of a
big deal about his being Jewish, but all of a sudden,
the idea of his daughter dressed up as a nun made him
very upset.’

The incident also compelled Gisella to explore what
Judaism meant to her. After high school, she came to
Israel. Once again, she doesn’t quite belong in any
particular crowd.

‘Growing up, I suffered because of my Jewish name,’
she says. ‘Now in Israel, I am treated as a non-Jew.
When people hear that I am converting, they start
testing my knowledge of Judaism. Some people say,
‘What, are you looking for more money in Israel?’

‘I’ve learned to be inconspicuous about my past. It’s
easier for me that way.’

Gisella, however, is finding her way. She has a job in
telemarketing and is studying for her psychometric
exams. She has a boyfriend (‘He’s religious,’ she
notes) who is helping her through the conversion
process.

More than a few times, Gisella thought of going back
to Argentina. Her parents, though, encouraged her to
stay here.

‘They know,’ she says, ‘that there is something here
that I need.’

THE TRANSITION from Spanish-speaking outsider to
Hebrew-speaking Israeli immigrant is a complicated
one. The Machon Miriam staff tries to make that
transition as smooth as possible.

‘When someone comes to us,’ says Birnbaum, ‘I ask, ‘Do
you have a community? Do you have an adoptive family?’
If not, we provide them with one. We have a network of
graduates who support and guide the students on their
path to a new life. They have connections to
communities, to rabbis, to synagogues. We make sure
students find jobs. There’s a lot of ‘togetherness’
here.’

There is also, she says, a focus on more than just
basic knowledge of Bible stories.

‘My approach is that conversion is a cultural
transformation as well as a religious one, so students
need to learn about everything – about society, about
history, about culture, about Halacha, about faith and
dogma. That’s why this is such a broad curriculum.

‘For example, when they walk down the street, the
students see so many different modes of dress, just
within the religious community – many different kinds
of kippot, so many different kinds of women’s head
coverings. There are cultural codes to understand. So
we teach them the history of the Jewish people, we
teach them Hebrew literature… but we also teach them
about these Jewish cultural cues.’

All these elements, Birnbaum says, add up to success.

When the ulpan’s graduates stand before the Chief
Rabbinate’s conversion court judges, she says, ‘they
are so well prepared that 99 percent of them pass
their tests. I can count on my hands the number of
students who, over the years, haven’t passed.’

The connection does not end there, however. Graduates
are welcome, even encouraged, to hold their weddings
and bar and bat mitzva celebrations at the ulpan. The
organization’s social network is mobilized to ensure
that new converts aren’t simply thrown into their new
surroundings.

‘You have to remember,’ Birnbaum says, ‘that the
conversion process is difficult even after the
conversion itself. You’re in a state of euphoria. Your
whole life has changed. But everyone sees you as the
same person they knew yesterday. Work doesn’t just
fall from the sky, nor does a spouse, nor do friends.

‘There’s always an emotional let-down after
conversion. So we always try to guide them through it,
and beyond. Converts need to acclimate to life after
the conversion. It may sound very easy to someone who
doesn’t understand it, but it can be very hard.’

The current class is Machon Miriam’s ninth. Overall,
about 500 students have finished the course. The
surface, Birnbaum says, has just begun to be
scratched.

‘We have a full class right now, and there are more
people waiting to get in. There’s never a situation
where our classrooms aren’t full to bursting.’

(BOX #1) The monk in the minyan

If only the abbot could see Justo Jorge Calderon now.
With curling peyot dangling below his chin and the
long black cloak of his small hassidic sect hanging
off his broad shoulders, Calderon sure doesn’t look
like a Benedictine monk anymore. Besides, he goes by
Aharon now, and he’s the proud father of three little
children.

Calderon’s story is one of those stranger-than-fiction
tales that grows more intriguing the longer it goes
on. Fortunately, it’s also one he doesn’t mind
sharing. It begins in a small town outside Buenos
Aires, Argentina, where Justo Jorge was born into a
family of Roman Catholics.

‘Today I am a very kosher Jew,’ the 36-year-old says
with a smile, ‘but once I was a very kosher goy.’

When Calderon was 12, he says, his parents sent him to
a private religious school to get a better education
than the public schools provided. Before long he was
spending extra time studying with the monks. At 14, he
joined the pre-mission seminar.

‘I was young and idealistic,’ he explains with a
shrug.

After high school, with his religious zeal increasing,
Calderon went looking for the ‘ancient, original
teachings’ of Catholicism. The local Benedictine
monastery offered the oldest, ‘purest’ form of
Christian life around. Based on a 1,400-year-old order
and centered around a largely self-sustaining ‘holy
village,’ it meant spending most of the day in
silence, reflecting on the divine.

‘The word ‘monastery’ is derived from the Greek
‘monos,’ meaning one, or alone. We monks were each one
seeking the One,’ explains Calderon, revealing his
divinity student’s mind-set.

Although Calderon’s parents weren’t happy about his
commitment to the monastic life – he’s their only son,
and they hoped for grandchildren – the young man felt
at home in the Benedictine monastery. At home, that
is, until he experienced what he calls ‘my two
surprises.’ The first came in the monastery’s library.
One of the largest around, it helped make the
monastery famous, Calderon says. Of the thousands of
volumes it held, though, one particular book would
change his life.

‘One day,’ he says, ‘I chanced upon a Haggada, in
Spanish and Hebrew. I was drawn to it, and read it
from beginning to end, in amazement.’ At the end of
the Seder service, Calderon read the prayer looking
forward to celebrating the Pessah holiday ‘next year
in Jerusalem – Jerusalem rebuilt’ and stared at a
drawing of the Third Temple.

Calderon sat in silence – not his usual contemplative
silence, but a stunned silence.

‘Christianity,’ he explains, ‘looks at Judaism as
something of an archeological concept, not as
something that is still alive, relevant and
flourishing… Looking at this prayer at the end of
the Haggada, I was shocked that modern Jews still
nurtured hopes for the future of their religion.’

The discovery rocked Calderon, but he was still unsure
what to make of it. Shortly thereafter, though, he
experienced his second ‘surprise,’ which sent his
spiritual quest in an entirely unforeseen direction.

It came on one of his weekly visits to the abbot of
the monastery. Upon entering the abbot’s study,
Calderon found him poring over a Hebrew Bible. (The
abbot, Calderon learned, had once studied in
Jerusalem, and was comparing ancient texts.) ‘I was
fascinated by the language,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to
know, what secrets are in those letters?’

By that point Calderon had spent several years in the
monastery and, although he was well on his way to a
permanent stay there, he returned to his home for a
planned one- or two-year break. Once at home he began
attending classes at the Catholic-run university in
town and working as a nurse for the Red Cross. But,
with his ‘surprises’ spurring him on, Calderon also
sought out Jews who would be willing to teach him
Hebrew.

At the time, conversion was not on his mind. ‘I just
wanted to know how Jesus prayed,’ he says.

On Friday nights, Calderon attended services at a
local synagogue (‘it was kind of like a Protestant
church’) where the rabbi agreed to let him join the
weekly Hebrew class. He also discovered a Messianic
Jewish congregation, and prayed there as well.

Thus began a period when, Calderon recalls, he would
pray to Jesus while in synagogue on Friday night, and
wear a kippa to church on Sunday morning. To Calderon,
these interreligious prayer sessions didn’t seem like
a contradiction.

‘It sounds strange,’ he admits, ‘but at the time, it
made sense to me. Judaism was not ‘outside’
Christianity, but part of it… like an ancestor.’

Soon, however, something in the Shabbat prayers struck
Calderon, and shook the foundations of his faith. It
was part of the Saturday morning kiddush,
specifically, the passage from Exodus that says: ‘And
the Children of Israel observed the Sabbath, to make
the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant.
Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign
forever…’

‘This expression stuck in my mind,’ Calderon says,
repeating the words. ”It is a sign forever.”

‘That meant,’ he says, ‘that there is an eternal bond,
established by God. And since God does not change,
then that bond’ – the sign observed by Jews, marking
Saturday as the Sabbath – ‘must still be in effect!’
Why, Calderon asked himself, would the Church move the
Sabbath day to Sunday, if it wasn’t really a day
sanctified by God?

The question was more than a little troubling to
Calderon. After all, if Sunday was not really the holy
Sabbath, and if God’s covenant with the Jews had not
been abrogated and superseded by Christianity, then
maybe other tenets of the Christian religion were also
not true. Maybe, he allowed himself to think, Jesus
was not actually the son of God?

Calderon stopped going to church.

‘Everything I believed,’ he says, ‘just fell apart.’

He started a conversion class at the local Reform
synagogue. When the synagogue closed down due to
financial difficulties, Calderon sought out more Jews
and discovered the local Chabad rabbi.

Rather than eagerly welcome a new convert, the rabbi
at first tried to dissuade Calderon.

‘He would say, ‘Why would you want to be Jewish? We
have so many commandments, while non-Jews need only to
observe the Noahide laws. Besides, you are already a
good person in God’s eyes!” This, however, only made
Calderon’s desire to convert even greater.

‘Until then, I had thought that Judaism was a religion
of strictness and law, whereas Christianity was a
religion of love. But suddenly I realized that it was
really the opposite.’

‘You see,’ he explains, ‘in Christianity, if you don’t
believe in Jesus, you can’t go to heaven. But in
Judaism, there is a place in heaven for everyone; you
don’t have to be Jewish. So really, Christianity is
the religion of strictness, and Judaism is the
religion of love!’

After a period of ‘trying it out,’ Calderon knew that
he wanted to convert, and that he wanted to move to
Israel to do so. There was just one problem: finances.
‘A ticket to Israel cost $1,200. As a nurse, I was
only making $200 a month. How could I ever afford to
go to Israel?’ he says.

The situation was bleak. But then something happened
that would be right at home in a hassidic story, the
kind that circulates in the little Stropkover shul in
Jerusalem where Calderon is now a gabbai: There was a
raffle in Calderon’s town, with a grand prize of a new
ambulance; he entered. Just before Rosh Hashana,
Calderon was informed that he had won the grand prize.
He sold the ambulance and, suddenly able to afford the
airfare, flew to Israel.

At first, Calderon, in his new identity as Aharon,
studied at a yeshiva for potential converts. But
within a few months the yeshiva had closed. In early
1999, Calderon met Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum and joined
the Spanish speakers’ ulpan his wife had just started.
Around Rosh Hashana that year, Calderon underwent a
brit mila. Before Succot, he entered a mikve and
completed his conversion.

Back home in Argentina, there was little celebrating
going on. Although Calderon’s mother was happy that he
would, having given up the monastic life, provide her
with grandchildren, several family members told
Calderon, ‘If you’re Jewish, don’t come back here.’

‘A few years earlier, I had realized that love, hate
and jealousy were separated only by a fine line,’
Calderon says. ‘I made a choice to love the Jewish
people. Later, I began to see the hatred that some
people in my town had for Jews.’

Back in Israel, Calderon met and married a Jewish
woman who had emigrated from Russia with her family.
In yet another strange turn, Calderon’s mother-in-law
met Russian Orthodox missionaries in Jerusalem and
converted to Christianity.

‘Family gatherings,’ Calderon says with a knowing
shrug, ‘can get pretty weird.’

(BOX #2) What about the Russians?

It is generally agreed that roughly 300,000 of the 1.5
million olim from the former Soviet Union are not,
according to Halacha, Jewish; that all but a minuscule
number of these olim have not converted here and are
not likely to, and that this situation is unacceptable
to everyone.

To be certain, claims of insensitivity and unnecessary
stringency on the part of the Chief Rabbinate’s
conversion courts have been frequent. Also, many FSU
immigrants say, they were ‘Jewish enough’ to be
persecuted in their birth countries, and ‘Jewish
enough’ to qualify for aliya. Why should the Chief
Rabbinate make further demands on them?

However, hundreds of Bnei Anusim – and tens of
thousands of Ethiopians, as well – have accepted the
obligation to convert, and to do so according to the
standards of the Chief Rabbinate. Why is the Russian
community not following suit?

‘I asked our guides this exact question,’ said Angela
Levine, lifestyle facilitator director at Itim, a
non-profit organization that offers information and
counseling about Judaism, and creator of the
conversion course at the Hebrew University.

‘Some ask why they, as converts, have to keep kosher
and observe Shabbat, while born Jews who are secular
routinely violate these laws. It doesn’t seem fair.

‘Also, because circumcision is a necessary step for
male converts, some people have the impression that
mitzvot in general are physically demanding. Others
say the studies are too hard. Some say the process
should be as easy as converting to Christianity. One
woman actually suggested a mass conversion ceremony
where everyone would simply be declared Jewish.’

Levine, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1992, said many
responses revealed what she called the typical
perspective of someone from a communist society.

‘Some said that conversion was just like switching
political parties – you used to be in one party, now
you’re in another one. Why make such a big deal? Some
said that Judaism was just a culture (and therefore no
formal conversion process should be required). Others
said, ‘Why bother? Converting won’t bring me a
living.”

Often, the rabbinate is portrayed as being
unreasonably strict with prospective converts,
especially Russian immigrants. According to Levine,
however, that is not an accurate portrayal today.

‘The rabbinate is actually more flexible today than it
was before,’ she says. ‘It knows that people aren’t
going to be haredi, and it tries to be sensitive to
Russian immigrants. I think they demand the minimum
they can. The approach of the beit din has definitely
changed – toward the lenient.’

About 80 percent of prospective converts who open a
file with the Chief Rabbinate pass their tests on
either the first or second try, according to Itim. But
with only several hundred Russian olim converting each
year (plus a few hundred more through the army’s
conversion programs), that means most of the
immigrants are not even applying.

‘The truth is,’ Levine says, ‘there are a whole lot of
people who don’t want to take on a religious Jewish
lifestyle.’

A survey of Russian immigrants carried out by the
Tzomet Institute in 2003 showed that the primary
motive for conversion was not a religious one. For
these respondents, the religious motive was only half
as strong as the desire to integrate socially, and it
was barely stronger than nationalistic or familial
reasons.

‘Sometimes it boils down to the fact that people just
don’t want to change their lifestyle,’ Levine says,
‘and conversion demands changes.’

Levine knows what it’s like to change. ‘In Ukraine,
other children in school would bother me for being
Jewish. They would say, ‘You Jewess! Go to Israel!”

Once she moved here, the shoe was on the other foot.
‘There were several girls in my school who were not
halachically Jewish. One particular student in class
really didn’t want to be here, in a Jewish country.
Every day in class, this student would draw a cross
next to her name on the attendance sheet. It bothered
me terribly. I said to myself, ‘There’s no place here
for people like this; they should go back to Russia.’

‘But now,’ says Levine, who became religious during
high school, ‘I’ve changed my approach. I deal with
lots of Russian immigrants who aren’t Jewish, but who
serve in combat units in the army, who want to stay
here, who want to marry. Why not help them?’

Ever since finishing high school, she has been helping
explain the ins and outs of Jewish life – first as
part of her National Service stint, then with the
Jewish Agency and now at Itim.

‘We deal with all kinds of people,’ she says, rattling
off a list of people who have approached the
organization – which does not run a conversion class
of its own – for help in navigating through the
conversion process.

‘There are also more than a few people who have
trouble producing all the necessary documents [from
their birth country, attesting to their Jewishness for
marriages, etc.]. Why not make an effort to resolve
their situation? We make calls to whomever we can, to
help them find whatever they can.’

Going out of one’s way, rather than telling the
potential convert, ‘It’s your problem,’ is a courtesy
that too few receive, Levine says.

‘There are those who, although they are open to it at
first, despair along the way to conversion,’ she
laments. ‘Personally, I think Israeli society – and
religious society in particular – does not do enough
to welcome prospective converts, to show them warmth
and compassion and to help them on their way to
Judaism.’

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