There’s a famous story about a brilliant young man who entered Harvard Law School at the age of 18. It was 1875, a time of anti-Semitic discrimination and quotas. The young man was repeatedly told he could have an extraordinary legal career – maybe even serve on the Supreme Court – if only he were not Jewish. On the day of his induction into a prestigious honor society, the young man walked to the podium and declared: “I’m sorry I was born a Jew.” People were stunned. Anti-Semites in the room cheered. But then he continued: “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”[1] The student was Louis Brandeis, who would become the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.

I think of Brandeis’s words in my work leading Mishkan’s Considering Conversion program. The course, which begins again next month, introduces people who were not born Jewish to the theology, customs, and practice of Judaism. I’m amazed by the students. They possess a level of passion and curiosity for Judaism rarely seen in Jews by birth. These students bring fresh adult eyes to Judaism and draw connections from a wealth of life experiences. I’m awed by their courage to do the intellectual and soul-searching work of exploring if they want to become Jewish.

Mishkan’s Considering Conversion program is academic, spiritual, and transformational. The course’s unique structure offers an unprecedented opportunity. Across the country, most people who are considering conversion study privately with a rabbi. In our program, students receive significant pastoral support from me and my co-teacher Rabbi Jeff, while taking the class in a cohort of fellow seekers. The cohort structure transforms what can be a lonely experience into a supportive community where students study and process side by side with peers asking the same questions in their lives. The class covers history, theology, life cycle events, food, comedy and more, while exploring the emotional dynamics at play when considering a new religious identity. At the end of the course, if students decide to become Jewish, we guide them through the sacred process of making that official. Our students have told us that whether or not they ultimately chose to become Jewish, the course changed their lives.

Maybe you want to join our class. Or maybe you know someone who would enjoy it. Tell them about it! For many important historical and theological reasons, Jews don’t proselytize. This can result in people waiting on the margins of Jewish life, wanting to come closer but not knowing how. If you have someone in your life who has expressed interest in pursuing Judaism, consider what it might mean to them if you offer a loving invitation into our community.

We are immeasurably strengthened by the people who choose Judaism. I can’t wait for our class to begin; it has been one of the most meaningful and fun parts of being a rabbi. Come talk to us if you want to learn more. I look forward to connecting with you and until then I wish you peace and blessings.

[1] Anita Diamant, Choosing A Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (New York: Schocken Books, 2016, 25-26.

Rabbi Ally Tick Brill has been leading Mishkan’s conversion program for the past two years. She was a congregational rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, one of the country’s largest Reform congregations, and is a trained hospital chaplain. A graduate of the University of Rochester, Rabbi Ally lives in Old Town with her husband David and their son, Melvin.