When Stan and Wendy Levin tried to find an Orthodox rabbinical court to convert their adopted baby daughter, Melody, to Judaism, the search turned out to be more difficult than they ever imagined.
"We ran into more impediments with the conversion than with the adoption," said Wendy, 39. The Levins live in Laguna Niguel, and both are members of the Reform branch of Judaism, considered the most liberal.
Raised in the San Fernando Valley by parents she called "secular Jews," Wendy Levin said, "I had no idea how strongly I felt about the Jewish religion until I had a child in my home."
Five months after they brought Melody home from the hospital, Levin said, she was "not even aware of the necessity of formal conversion" for her daughter. She read an article detailing the "Who is a Jew?" controversy in Israel, which focused on the fact that some Orthodox religious leaders in Israel and the United States questioned the validity of conversion performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis.
The couple decided to seek an Orthodox conversion for three reasons, Wendy said: "We wanted her to be recognized as Jewish by all three branches of Judaism; in case she wanted to live in Israel she would be able to claim citizenship under the Law of Return; and if she wanted to marry an Orthodox man some day."
They consulted their rabbi, Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Mission Viejo, "who was very sympathetic," Wendy said, and offered to help. Eventually they were referred to Rabbi Paul Dubin of the Los Angeles County Board of Rabbis.
Despite Dubin's help, the Levins could not find Orthodox rabbis in Orange or Los Angeles county who would preside over the conversion, since converting a child to be brought up in what was was considered a non-observant--though clearly Jewish--atmosphere was not something the rabbis wanted to do.
Finally, Dubin was able to make arrangements with an Orthodox rabbi in San Francisco who was already acting on the same interpretation of Jewish law outlined by Orthodox Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen in his forthcoming book. Cohen believes that a religious court should convert the minor children of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother at the request of the parents, and without any preconditions for religious observance.
Wendy flew to San Francisco with her own mother and Melody, where she was interviewed by four Orthodox rabbis, who still "took a lot of convincing" to proceed, she said. "They asked serious questions, and they encouraged me to have a more Orthodox life style. They did a real sales job."
Rabbis said several prayers and Wendy submerged Melody in the mikveh, or ritual bath. The conversion was complete, and Wendy was given a certificate attesting to Melody's conversion.
Easier for Adults
For adults in Orange County, conversion is much less arduous. The Orange County Board of Rabbis has for the past 20 years organized an ongoing evening course called "Introduction to Judaism."
Rabbi Stephen Einstein of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Tustin, who has taught the course for 11 years, emphasizes that it is "not just for those contemplating conversion," although he estimates that approximately 25% of those attending do ultimately convert. Some of those who take the course, a weekly, two-hour class that stretches over a six-month period, are already Jewish. Others are married or contemplating marriage to Jewish partners, who often take the course with them.
"The course often rejuvenates the Jewish partner in a mixed relationship," Einstein said.
After satisfactory completion of the course, those interested in converting generally consult with the rabbi of the congregation they would like to join, sometimes for additional instruction and counseling, Einstein said. Because there are so few Orthodox rabbis in Orange County, most Orthodox conversions are done in Los Angeles, according to Rabbi David Eliezrie of Chabad of Anaheim.
The larger and related issues of intermarriage and the Jewish identity of the children of intermarried couples are at least as important to Jews in Orange County as they are nationally, area rabbis say.
Subject of Forum
This month alone, intermarriage is the subject of a recent forum scheduled by the Orange County Jewish Federation in Garden Grove and a second eight-week series at Temple Beth David in Westminster, beginning Wednesday.
Reform congregations in the county welcome non-Jewish partners as members and admit children of such unions into religious schools.
Conservative synagogues permit only the Jewish partner to formally join the congregation, although the non-Jewish spouse is welcome to attend services and social functions. Children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers may be admitted to religious schools with the understanding that attendance will lead to conversion.