Conversion controversy

madrid | As airplanes rev their engines in the distance, the rabbi from Kansas City stands on the balcony of his airport hotel room holding a Torah scroll in his arms, and welcoming his latest convert to Judaism.

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is on a mission to convert people to Judaism in Spain, the land of the Roman Catholic Inquisition where untold numbers of people have some Jewish ancestry.

But the Reform rabbi’s efforts aren’t exactly appreciated in Madrid, where the active Jewish population numbers about 5,000 and all but one of the synagogues are Orthodox.

“We can’t be like the Catholics and think that with a drop of water you’ve become Jewish,” says Jacobo Israel Garzon, president of Madrid’s Jewish community.

Cukierkorn’s latest series of ceremonies was conducted during a layover at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport following correspondence courses with the candidates that take at least one year to complete.

In total, Cukierkorn has converted 20 Spaniards to Judaism — most of them in Madrid, where there is no Reform temple.

He also has performed dozens of conversions in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and the United States, and has written a guide to Judaism to help potential Spanish-speaking converts.

“There’s nothing I can do as a rabbi that is more transcendent than conversions. This has a future impact on Judaism,” Cukierkorn said in an interview in the cafe of the airport hotel.

Cukierkorn is rabbi of the New Reform Temple in Kansas City. He says he has a long interest in “lost” Sephardic Jews that may stem from his own personal history: Born in Brazil, he says some of his ancestors were Spanish Jews who immigrated to Poland.

Most converts find him via his Web page. He says he performs conversions only in locations where there is no Reform rabbi.

In interviews for this story, the converts asked to be identified only by their adopted Hebrew names, citing widespread anti-Semitism in Spain.

Ariel, a civil servant from Madrid, traced his family’s roots back to Jews who were forced to convert during a pogrom in 1391 in the northeastern Spanish city of Lerida.

He began reading books about Judaism and studied Hebrew in college. But after his two sons were born, he said, he “realized I had to recuperate my Jewish heritage for their sake.”

He approached the Jewish community about formal conversion, but says their demands “basically meant having an Orthodox rabbi in my kitchen, and I couldn’t demand that of my wife. After all, she did not marry an Orthodox Jew.

“The Internet was my only option,” he adds.

Several weeks ago, Ariel and his entire family underwent a conversion ceremony led by Cukierkorn.

Cukierkorn claims Jewish communities in Spain are turning away a great number of people who could be a benefit to Judaism.

“These people are drowning in a sea of indifference,” he says.

A Conservative leader in Spain disagrees.

“We are not leaving anybody by the wayside,” says Felipe Crasny, president of Bet El, Madrid’s only Conservative synagogue, which is affiliated with the worldwide Masorti movement.

Israel Garzon, the Jewish community president, also denies Cukierkorn’s allegation. He says the community accepts “sincere” converts, and about a dozen people become Jewish every year in Madrid. They take classes in Spain, but must go to Israel for the final ceremony performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Jewish immigrants in recent years have come from Latin America, and they have tended to be largely Conservative, Reform or non-practicing.

Israel Garzon has sought to open up Madrid’s Jewish community to them — and one of his policies has been to propose a fast-track conversion finalization process for people who already have become Jewish under Reform or Conservative procedures.

Israel Garzon concedes that there’s nothing he can do to keep outsiders like Cukierkorn from conducting conversions in Spain.

“But what bothers me is that he leaves people with the feeling that they’ve converted, and then they’re surprised when they’re not accepted by everyone,” Israel Garzon says.

He notes that his own wife is a convert, “and it took her years and years” to undergo the conversion.

For his part, Cukierkorn sees what he’s doing as a divine mission.

“God has guided me this way,” he says.