Finding Yourself a Teacher
Here's a note from a reader:
"Information on how to approach a synagogue or rabbi for the purpose of furthering one's education would be much appreciated. Which folks are more open to converts? Perplexingly, it sometimes seems the more conservative, the more open."
In Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers") -- a book of incredible Jewish wisdom, insight and inspiration -- the Talmudic sage Yehoshua ben Perachyah advises: "Asei l'cha rav," which means, "Provide yourself with a teacher." Unfortunately, good old Yehoshua doesn't give us any "how-to's."
So I'll try to fill the breach.
You ask: "Which folks are more open to converts?" Ideally, everyone should be, whether they're Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Traditional Orthodox. We are instructed in Torah to welcome the "ger" in our midst (the literal translation of "ger" is "stranger," but it's traditionally understood to mean a person who has converted).
In reality, however, some communities are more open than others because they aren't hung up on narrow ideas of who "belongs" at their synagogue. Other places are so locked into preserving their "identity" that they really don't want any "new blood."
The only way to find out is to go shul-shopping. Visit synagogue offices on a weekday and ask about the community. Does the staff eye you suspiciously or do they seem overjoyed to see you? They should load you up with a schedule of events, a copy of the newsletter, a few pamphlets about their classes and then introduce you to the rabbi, if he or she is available.
Then go back to the synagogues on Shabbat. Are the congregants welcoming (during my first visit to the synagogue I eventually joined, a woman walked up to me and said, "Hello. Are you new? Are you married?"), or do they bury their faces in their prayerbooks and ignore you? How does the service feel? Not to sound hokey, but what's the vibe? Are people davening (praying) with earnestness and sincerity? Or do they seem listless and bored? Do they smile at you and one another? Are ordinary congregants actively involved in the service (i.e., leading the singing, reading from Torah)? This is a sign of a Jewishly literate and educated congregation that could connect you with capable teachers.
Which brings us to finding a "rav." Of course, you could use the cold calling method, in which you contact a rabbi out of the blue. I don't recommend this approach. Many years ago, I called a rabbi about conversion. He was the head of a community about 15 miles from me. "Do you plan to move here and join my congregation?" he asked. When I said no, that I was just looking for someone to study with for conversion purposes, he suggested I call a rabbi closer to home. He told me he only worked with candidates who would eventually become members of his community, so that he could make sure they continued to live a Jewish lifestyle after conversion (hey, at least he was upfront).
I suggest that you hold off on approaching a rabbi until you've seen him or her "in action" a few times. This is the safe way to scope them out. Every rabbi has his or her own unique style, which is determined by age, gender, personality, upbringing and Jewish life experiences. Finding yourself a rav is a little like dating -- you don't want to commit until you have a good sense of who the person is.
And with all due respect to Yehoshua ben Perachyah, why confine yourself to just one rav or one synagogue (I belong to a Conservative and an Orthodox shul. And I go to Torah class at a Chabad house). Jewish learning takes many forms and happens in many contexts. I believe you can learn something from every single Jew you meet. Take lots of classes and workshops with lots of rabbis and with knowledgeable lay leaders too. If you're lucky to live where there are a lot of choices, sample them all. Take a class at a Reform temple one week, then go to your local Chabad the next. And if there's a Jewish community center (JCC) in your town, that can be another place of learning for you.
Wherever you go, I want you to know that you do not have to say you converted to Judaism. Not that it's a deep dark secret, but if the conversion process is complete, you are a Jew and should be accepted as one. Any synagogue in the world is your spiritual home. You have a right to be there, as much right as someone born into Judaism. Don't feel that you have to explain how you arrived at the threshhold.
I've emailed all my rabbi friends (they cover the spectrum) about how they suggest finding the right teacher. As their responses come in, I'll post them.