Online conversions create ‘virtual chavurah’
Some converts question faith they were born into, try other creeds but may not have Jewish resources available
Susan Bowers grew up in a “typical Protestant home” in Michigan, but her parents always encouraged their children to “question things and find their own path,” said Bowers, now 65 and living in Lakeland, Fla.
Bowers did indeed question the faith into which she was born and tried out other creeds. For many years she identified as Episcopalian, followed by a long involvement with the Unitarian Universalist Church.
She eventually decided to look into becoming a Jew.
Reading a Unitarian Universalist news article, Bowers found what was to be “the perfect” way to convert: an online program that she could complete at her own pace.
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The program is one of the offerings of Sim Shalom, an online Jewish community led by Rabbi Steven Blane, that offers streaming Shabbat and holiday services, Jewish education courses and conversion.
The conversion program is comprised of eight online courses. Monthly study sessions are included so that students can ask questions of the rabbi and interact with others who are preparing for conversion. The cost is $944.00 for the eight courses of study, and $250 for the bet din.
“It’s online, but it’s also interactive,” Bowers said. “Once a month, I got together with my class in a virtual classroom with the rabbi. There were people there from all over. There was one woman from Germany and a young man in Canada who didn’t have a synagogue within 300 miles from where he lived. Another person was from Tennessee and another from Kentucky.”
Bowers is now practicing as a Conservative Jew and has been welcomed into the Conservative congregation in Lakeland, Temple Emanuel. Her husband, who is part Native American, comes with her to services and is also considering converting to Judaism.
Bowers recommends the Sim Shalom program, calling it “very thorough.”
“Anybody with no shul close to them — or even if there is — I think would be very pleased with it,” she said.
Blane, the rabbi behind Sim Shalom, is also the founder and dean of JSLI-The Jewish Spiritual Leader’s Institute, an online rabbinical school.
“I served in the mainstream Jewish world for many years,” Blane said. “I served in a brick-and-mortar synagogue as the rabbi and had served others as the cantor. They were all in decline, and the boards were afraid to do anything.”
After he told the congregation’s board that he was not going to renew his contract, he spent some time thinking about his future, he said.
“That’s when I conceived of the online synagogue,” he said. “My mission is to reach out to anyone with Jewish worship, with no restrictions.”
Blane founded what he calls “Jewish Universalism,” and now has a network of 16 Jewish Universalist rabbis around the country.
His online conversion course is “rigorous,” he said.
“I require my students to visit houses of worship in all the denominations to find the place that’s right for them,” he said. “Our concept is a rigorous course of study online, and my students come out knowing more than a high percentage of most Jews.”
So far, Blane has converted 20 people through his program. He does not require brit milah.
“I’ll support it if a couple is doing it; God bless them,” he said. “But it’s a cruel thing to do. I didn’t really understand it until I began researching it. It’s pretty horrible.”
Sim Shalom does require its conversion candidates to go to a mikvah. But because most mikvahs are operated by the Orthodox community, which might not condone a conversion completed through Sim Shalom, candidates also are permitted to “go to the ocean,” Blane said.
“We convene three rabbis for a bet din, we ask all the appropriate questions, we say the Shema, and they’re in,” he explained.
Blane admits that those converting through Sim Shalom would not be recognized as Jewish in Israel.
“I’m not concerned about Israel,” he said. “I love Israel. But if someone wants to convert to move to Israel, they should find an Orthodox rabbi.”
Another online program, Darshan Yeshiva, offers resources to prepare for conversion, allowing students to “convert to Judaism from anywhere in the world at your own pace with your own personal rabbi,” according to its website.
The potential convert chooses from a menu of study levels (the “Chai Level,” which costs $1300, includes conversion and lifetime learning opportunities; the “Scholarship Level,” running $800, is reserved for students with financial need) and from a choice of 15 rabbis and cantors from the Reform, Renewal, Humanistic, Post-Denominational and Pluralistic movements. The rabbis and cantors each specify their conversion requirements in short bios on the website, such as whether they require brit milah/hatafat dam brit, mikvah or a bet din.
Darshan Yeshiva’s students typically fall into one of two categories, according to Sara Stirne Ibanez, Darshan’s director of administration and student experience.
“The first category of students are those individuals who do not have local Jewish resources available to them,” she wrote in an email. “These students may live in parts of the country or even parts of the world which are less populated by Jews, and therefore, the nearest synagogue with a rabbi may be hours away.”
The second category of students that typically engage with Darshan are “those individuals who have Jewish resources available in their local community which they find to be inaccessible; this can encompass a number of reasons from the anti-Semitic climate of a country to the perceived ‘otherness’ of the student and/or his or her family, e.g., interfaith family, LGBTQ, etc. or even conflicts with the individual’s work and/or travel schedules,” she said.
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who grew up in Pittsburgh and is the first woman rabbi in Italy, has been working through Darshan to help people all over the world convert to Judaism.
“It’s not online conversion; it’s online Jewish study that leads to a face-to-face conversion,” stressed Aiello, speaking from her home in southern Italy. Once a potential convert has achieved his or her required level of Jewish education, that person must come to Aiello to receive their certificate, their Hebrew name and be welcomed into her congregation, Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud.
Aiello conducts online Torah study for six or seven students at once, creating a “virtual community,” she said.
She currently is mentoring students from Singapore and Croatia — who have limited access to live Jewish communities — and Switzerland and London, whose work circumstances and time constraints make it difficult to access Jewish resources in their communities.
Aiello uses technology in creative ways to foster community for her students. She has conducted a Tu B’Shevat seder on Skype and online Hebrew reading tutorials.
Last July, the rabbi had nine students come to Italy from all over the world to finalize their conversions. Aiello convened a bet din with two additional rabbis, and the students used the Mediterranean Sea as their mikvah. The students had challah and wine on the beach, and a rabbinic intern from the Reconstructionist movement taught a workshop on how to lay tefillin. This summer, Aiello is anticipating converting six students.
“It’s an actual coming together and creating a community from all over the world,” Aiello said. “It’s so wonderful to see them come together after forming a virtual chavurah.”
The program, she said, offers “an opportunity for people to become Jewish who couldn’t any other way. There’s so many people I believe who are attracted to Judaism if we would only extend a hand to welcome them.”
Through the Darshan Yeshiva, Aiello is now offering a conversion study program in Italian.
“Now you can study online in Italian to be Jewish,” she said. “How about that?”
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis has not taken an official position concerning preparing for conversions online, according to Rabbi Hara Person, director of strategic communications for CCAR and publisher of CCAR Press.
“While we do not have an official stance on online conversions, the majority of our rabbis do not work with conversion students in this way,” Person wrote in an email. “The connection to a rabbi and the connection to a community are crucial to the conversion process because you can’t be a Jew on your own. Being a Jew means being part of a community.
“There is a concern among our rabbis that people who do the conversion process only online miss the community connection and context and miss the personal relationship with a rabbi,” Person continued. “However, we also understand that technology today allows relationships and learning to happen in ways never before possible. Today there are some rabbis who are using technology in thoughtful and meaningful ways to meet the needs of Jews who are not able to attend classes in person for family or geographic reasons. We don’t want to close doors to people, we just want to ensure that the process is thorough and has integrity.”
Not all features of Judaism work well in an online environment, noted Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Just as attending a Shabbat dinner online would leave you lacking the full flavor, the same thing is true for online conversion. Online conversion programs tend to stress that conversion is primarily a process of study. But while conversion involves study, it is primarily about belonging: belonging — fully — to a community. And communities are local.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.