Men behaving Jewishly: Choosing Judaism, they forge their own paths

Justin Garland was a freshman in college the first time he realized he wanted to be Jewish. Raised in Denver by non-observant “disaffected Methodists,” Garland went on an archaeological dig in Israel with a professor.

“It was my first time ever being out of the U.S., and I just fell in love with the country and the people,” recalls Garland, now 32 and living in Berkeley. “I remember saying, ‘I wish I were Jewish … but I can’t be.’ I thought, you have to be born Jewish, and that’s that.”

Thirteen years later, Garland is not only Jewish, he’s deeply engaged with his community at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Most Saturday mornings find him on his way to shul, while his wife, Aubra Levine — who was born Jewish but not raised observantly — is “not a synagogue-goer,” Garland says with a laugh.

“I don’t want to take too much credit for anything, because she’s certainly a willing co-conspirator, but oftentimes I am the one who’s driving a lot of the rituals, the things we do around the house,” says Garland, who converted five years ago. “I think in part it’s that Aubra has her Judaism from birth to fall back on, so even if she’s not practicing rituals, she still feels Jewish. As someone who converted, I feel like I need to actively bring Jewish ritual and tradition into my life.”

Deciding just how to do that can often be complicated, however.

“Obviously a lot of traditions are passed on through family — you do something because that’s what your family did. You do Rosh Hashanah this way, you have brisket because that’s what your mom always made,” he says. “It’s interesting trying to integrate ritual from a blank slate, from ground zero, where you don’t have anything to go back to. Since neither of us has a strong sense of ‘this is the way we did it as a kid,’ it can sometimes feel like the blind leading the blind.”

Brad Wall (left) and Rabbi Dana Magat hang a mezuzah at Wall’s home

Historically, women who convert to Judaism outnumber men, for a variety of reasons. In the 1971 National Jewish Population Survey, non-Jewish women who married a Jewish man converted an estimated 25 percent of the time, while non-Jewish men who married a Jewish woman converted at a rate of less than 10 percent.

Nowadays, conversions are happening even less often. The 1990 NJPS reported conversions to Judaism occurring in fewer than 5 percent of intermarriages. The gap along gender lines remains.

“In terms of numbers, I would imagine that a big piece of the discrepancy is that, traditionally, if the wife is Jewish, the kids are Jewish,” said Rabbi Nat Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, pointing to halachic law that holds Judaism is passed through matrilineal descent.

But deep-seated gender dynamics within the home — where much of a child’s Jewish education often happens — also play a part: In a 2008 study on “Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, an expert on interfaith marriage, interviewed hundreds of Jewish families about gender in their homes, synagogues and communities.

Her findings: “Especially outside the Orthodox realm, husbands often delegated many religious activities to their wives, because both husbands and wives assumed that mothers will be the ones responsible for implementing day to day Jewishness. In some Conservative and especially in Reform settings, husbands and wives often assumed that the mother would be the person routinely accompanying children to synagogue for Sabbath services, for example.”

Rebecca Goodman, director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, says she sees that dynamic even in interfaith families with a non-Jewish mother.

“In my experience, it’s often the mother who’s not Jewish who’s shlepping the kid to religious school, RSVP-ing to events,” she says. “I assume some of that is just traditional gender roles, in general.”

Patrick Sutherland and family during Passover at Disneyland

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Los Angeles–based nonprofit Judaism By Choice, says that, in his experience, “Women are more receptive to traditions and rituals. I have had single men in my class who keep the rituals of Shabbat, going to synagogue and kashrut. But most men, if they are with a Jewish woman, tend to go along with what the woman does.”

And yet some men — like Garland — are breaking that mold.

A few months ago, there was a small gathering of male Jews-by-choice at Temple Sinai in Oakland. The title of the workshop: “I Converted to Judaism, Can I Start A Tradition Too?”

As the incidence of interfaith marriage continues to rise, some say more non-Jewish men are deciding to seek out Judaism for reasons that have nothing to do with children — or even a spouse — and everything to do with their own spirituality.

“I think there’s a stereotype that the only reason you would want to convert to Judaism is because of a partner, and it’s simply not true,” Weinberg says. “There are people who love Judaism for what it is, who are not doing it for anybody but themselves. It’s an insult to Judaism to say there’s nothing that would make somebody attracted to it other than this aspect of marriage.”

On the contrary, the reasons a man might want to convert to Judaism are highly varied and highly personal. When J. put out a notice asking to hear stories from male Jews-by-choice, messages flowed in from every corner of the Bay Area — from men in their 20s to men in their 70s, who belong to Conservative, Reform and Renewal congregations.

Each had a different take on not only what brought them to Judaism and the conversion process but the challenges and joys that have come afterward: How they approach rituals in the home and their children’s education, how they’ve been received by the Jewish community, their level of comfort with taking a leadership role versus following the lead of a partner who was born Jewish.

For Bryan Johnson, 39, it was the birth of his first child that made something click. Born in Washington, D.C., to a “nominally Christian” family, Johnson met his wife, Jocelyn, in college. She had been raised in a fairly observant Jewish family that kept kosher but hadn’t been practicing regularly as an adult.

Still, as they talked about marriage and kids, they agreed that their future children would be raised Jewish. Johnson began reading books about Jewish history and practice and found himself deeply inspired by religion for the first time. When the couple moved to Palo Alto in 2002, they joined Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, and Johnson began studying one-on-one with the rabbi.

He converted formally over the course of the next year; at the same time, his wife was reconnecting to her Jewish practice. The family had their first Shabbat dinner the Friday after bringing their first daughter home from the hospital.

“We’ve done it every week since,” says Johnson.

He credits Rabbi Ezray and Beth Jacob by extension for being “highly welcoming” to converts, for opening his eyes to the fact that he shouldn’t feel self-conscious just because he doesn’t know all the Hebrew words to every prayer. In fact, many of the lifelong Jews around him don’t know all the words, either.

“It took me a while to realize that, and to realize that every Jew practices a little bit differently,” he says.

Johnson says presenting a united religious identity as parents (their children are now 8 and 5) has taken on more importance than he initially thought it might.

While some families with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father agree up front to raise their kids Jewish, “I actually feel like that’s really dangerous,” he says. “Especially when it comes to home ritual, Judaism that takes place in the home, I think there are things that can actually be really hard to do if they’re not meaningful for both parents.”

He leads the family’s Passover seder every year, he adds.

Calvin Gibbs with his kids, David and Zoe, at Hanukkah

Ezray points out that it’s not uncommon to see a partner who has converted to Judaism become more observant than the partner who was born Jewish. He also sees situations where a person’s decision to convert brings his non-practicing Jewish partner back into the fold.

“Conversion is such an amazing opportunity to create a connection to Judaism, both in the person as an individual and in that person’s family, and ultimately it’s a blessing to the community,” he says. “I think when you study something so intensively as an adult as opposed to getting this education as a kid — especially when a lot of people have baggage about their religious school experience, or services being boring, what have you — the connection has that much more depth and maturity. People are coming from such a sincere, patient place.”

Calvin Gibbs, 42, converted to Judaism in 2010 after more than a decade of marriage to a Jewish woman. Since then, the Oakland resident has often found himself grappling with setting the tone for Jewish practice in his home; the couple has two daughters.

“My biggest question was, ‘I’m feeling like my wife who’s a born Jew is holding all the cards here. What can I offer? I don’t have any authority to tell her how to be a Jew,’ ” he recalls.

So he asked his rabbi about his predicament, and here’s what Rabbi Steven Chester, former spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, told him: “What do you think two born Jews do? Sit there and tell each other how to be Jews and agree on everything? We argue all the time!”

With an inkling that other men in his position might have similar questions, Gibbs collaborated with Dawn Kepler of the interfaith organization Building Jewish Bridges on a meeting for male Jews-by-choice.

Gibbs says the gathering, held at Temple Sinai in May,  included conversations and stories about how “you don’t just need to be a luggage-carrying spouse” with regard to Judaism. “You can be an active participant.”

He wants to hold another session like it in the coming months, because he feels the topic merits an ongoing dialogue.

Some male Jews-by-choice say the balance of ritual leadership in their home is — as with other aspects of marriage and co-parenting — a matter of give-and-take.

Patrick Sutherland, 45, converted 12 years ago, shortly after the birth of his first child. The same mohel who performed his infant son’s brit milah performed Sutherland’s symbolic circumcision (a drop of blood was drawn, as he was already circumcised).

Sutherland, an Alamo resident, has committed himself to continuing his Jewish education in the years since his conversion: He recently took an introduction to Talmud class, and when his daughter was studying for her bat mitzvah, he learned alongside her for two years. The fact that he’s attending “religious school” makes any grumbling from his children “a non-issue,” he says.

“You know, my son might be complaining about going to his Sunday class, and then I remind him that I didn’t have this education growing up, this wasn’t part of my upbringing, and I’m still going to classes,” Sutherland says.

His wife, Diana, however, still takes charge of many home rituals.

“She really takes the lead in general, especially at Passover time in leading the seder,” he says. “This past April we were at Disneyland, and she made sure to take the seder plate and all the trimmings … we had a seder with Mickey Mouse ears on.”

For some men, the choice to convert has nothing to do with a partner.

Scott Parsons, 43, is a gay man who decided to convert to Judaism three years ago. He’d been incorporating Jewish rituals like Hanukkah into his life since he realized at age 20 that Christianity wasn’t right for him.

Since converting, the Castro Valley resident has become involved with the gay Jewish community in the Bay Area — a community he calls “incredibly welcoming” — while grappling with his family’s reaction to his conversion. Next April, he plans to host his first Passover seder, and says he’ll invite his parents, brother and grandparents.

“It’s important to me that they see it firsthand, that they know it can be kind of fun,” he says. “It’s another part of me saying ‘This is who I am now.’ ”

Brad Wall, 64, was married to his wife, Ginny Hoffman, who was born Jewish, for 25 years before he decided to convert in 2004. The South Bay couple raised their children Jewish, with the family attending Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, but it wasn’t until his wife decided to have an adult bat mitzvah that Wall started down his path to conversion.

With his children grown and out of the house by the time he converted, Wall doesn’t need to worry about establishing Jewish rituals for the sake of his kids. So he focuses on connecting in other ways.

For example, he is a drummer in Emanu-El’s “Rock Shabbat” band, where — as it happens — four out of five members are men who have converted to Judaism. “I think for many of us, the music aspect of rituals is a main way to connect — especially during the High Holidays,” he says.

When Wall and Hoffman renewed their wedding vows in 2006, it was under a chuppah, with their adult children holding the corners.

Christopher Reiger and Elizabeth Cedars at their 2012 wedding photo/mary mchenry photography

As the incidence of conversion decreases, according to many in the Jewish community, so has the stigma — at least in the Bay Area.

“I’ve been at Beth Jacob for 19 years, and when I got here people [who had converted] would tell me stories about a snarky comment or a judgmental statement,” says Ezray.

So the rabbi used to go out of his way to use Jewish text to remind people that Jews-by-choice were “Jews in every which way.” Now, however, he doesn’t have to stress that as much. “You see the patience and commitment from people who make this connection as adults — it’s beautiful,” Ezray adds.

One person making such a commitment is Christopher Reiger, 35, of San Francisco.

As a young man, he had a “staunch resistance to any kind of religiosity or spirituality,” but in his late 20s he began reading books on the history of religion. Still, he characterized his interest as strictly anthropological and identified as an atheist.

Now, he davens every morning.

A turning point came in 2008, when he began dating a Jewish woman and asked if it would matter to her parents that he wasn’t Jewish. When she responded “No, I don’t think so,” Reiger was surprised to realize he felt “crestfallen.”

He converted to Judaism in 2011 and is now an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. He and his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Cedars, had a Jewish wedding last year.

He draws inspiration for rituals from “a whole slew of books about Judaism, that explore every possible aspect of Jewish identity,” that he has read over the past five years.

“There are passages, ideas and liturgy from all sorts of traditions which I pastiche into my morning prayer,” Reiger says. “And laying tefillin is something that’s very valuable to me. … There’s a visceral physicality to it, a connection to the ancient act and generations of others Jews.”

His excitement and curiosity about Judaism have also rubbed off to a certain extent on his wife, he says.

“I think there’s something to be said for, ‘This isn’t my Hebrew school teacher telling me [about Judaism] when I’m 12. This is my significant other, as an adult, in a way that I can engage with,’ ” he says. “She borrows some of my books. I do think she’s come back in a way.”

Of course, his Jewish identity is still emerging, and navigating Jewish life as someone named Christopher has been interesting, he says. During his conversion process, he was eager to join groups and have discussions about what it meant to be a Jew-by-choice. But over the last year, Reiger notes that he’s no longer as interested or invested in the convert community as he once was.

“On one hand, I like being able to help someone who’s struggling, or who might experience some skepticism from certain parts of the community,” he says. “But I also just became a little bored by conversations specifically about the challenges of being Jews-by-choice. Yes, I’m a Jew-by-choice. But above all, I’m a Jew.”

On the cover Elizabeth Cedars and Christopher Reiger at her family’s Passover seder.  photo/amy shaw

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.