Groups aim to ease identity crises for Jews-by-choice

The three Bay Area residents, along with 31 others from throughout the nation, were chosen by the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations to attend a five-day workshop in Cincinatti, Ohio. The instruction focused on how to facilitate support groups.

One of the most important issues they dealt with is something Moskovitz has seen many times: Jews-by-choice often feel ecstatic at first, but some confusion and exhaustion sets in soon afterwards.

She particularly remembers a young woman who went through the conversion process a few years ago. The two had been discussing the Holocaust. Afterwards, the student went home and spoke to her family about how overwhelming the atrocities were.

Her mother took her aside and said she had something to tell her.

"Her mother said that her family left Germany just in time," Moskovitz said. "`We are Jews,' [the mother] told her. She called a rabbi who said, `Welcome home,'" Moskovitz said.

The woman still wound up completing the conversion process, despite the revelation that she was halachically Jewish.

Like many Jews-by-choice, the woman then had to face the less dramatic and more prolonged process of building a Jewish community around her.

"Those who have just converted are on a really intense high, and then say `Now what?' This program will take care of the `Now what,'" said Moskovitz, who is holding a support group this fall at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

Moskovitz hopes that support groups such as hers ensure that Jewish life for people new to the faith will continue beyond first attractions.

Picking up where the conversion ceremony leaves off, the programs will involve classes to discuss issues such as interfaith relationships and dealing with non-Jewish family.

In Los Altos, Haidt, a licensed clinical social worker, said the key to evolving the support group into a gathering of friends is to have the participants "connect with each other's different experiences."

For Jews-by-choice, "it can be a lonely time if they don't meet with others going through a similar experience," said Haidt, who will facilitate groups in the next few months at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

She plans to have participants take part together in Jewish activities and holidays, so they can build a Jewish tradition. She hopes they may even develop a chavurah.

Cohen has facilitated for three years a convert outreach program at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.

He sees his responsibility as helping people pass through the fragile transition "from being a stranger in the Jewish community to becoming part of the Jewish community."

Cohen said those who offer help to Jews-by-choice also gain a closer touch to their own beliefs.

Nurturing those who choose Judaism "has helped our synagogue," Cohen said. "It has reinforced for all of us who were born Jews that choosing Judaism is a wonderful decision — because in this day and age, we are all Jews-by-choice."

While the Sha'ar Zahav program embraces people who wish to convert, Cohen said, "We don't do quickies." The congregation cautiously pursues those who are interested by first requiring at least a year of participation in the synagogue.

Joining others in performing Jewish ritual activities, Cohen said, provides a crucial context in which Jewish life can mature.

"Conversion doesn't end with the ceremony," Cohen said. "It is a lifelong process, an ongoing journey, as it is for everyone of the religion."