Guiding the Converts

Rabbi Stephen Lerner has earned a reputation as the leading maker of new Jews in the New York area

By Richard C. Firstman

AFTER FINISHING his pastrami-on-rye and his can of diet cream, and ordering a kosher hot dog covered with potato salad, and consuming the arrangement in three laborious bites, Rabbi Stephen Lerner turned to his lunch companion. "You want to see a fascinating case?"

On the way from the deli in downtown Teaneck, N. J., to his home a few minutes away, Lerner outlined the basics of his 2 p.m. appointment. "I have a Yemenite Moslem who's married to the daughter of a prominent Orthodox rabbi. Ooh boy."

Perhaps this is what he had meant when he said in the deli, "One of the things I like about my work is I meet so many interesting people." Lerner's work is converting people to Conservative Judaism, and in this field he is without peer. He estimates he's converted 500 people in the six years since he created his Center for Conversion to Judaism, which has earned him a reputation as the leading maker of new Jews in the New York area, if not the country.

Jewish tradition prohibits proselytizing, but Lerner, a 47-year-old father of two with the God-given gift of schmooze, has no trouble gaining students. They find him in various books and guides to conversion, through word of mouth, and in the Yellow Pages. As perhaps the only rabbi in America doing conversions full time (except for a few hours a week when he conducts services at a small no-frills synagogue in New Jersey), Lerner, in the words of one Jewish sociologist who has studied conversion, "has managed to capture market share."

HE HAS converted blacks, Hispanics, Orientals and, as he puts it, "dyed-in-the-wool midwesterners." Among his current crop is a 75-year-old widow who wants to be Jewish because her friends are; a 60-year-old man who recently married his second Jewish wife; a Brazilian married to an Iraqi-Israeli.

"I did a wedding recently of two born Jews," Lerner said. "It was the first time in a year. Here I'm on the front line of bringing people into Judaism. The rabbinate has a tremendous dropout rate, but I'm a happy rabbi."

Mohamed and Sheila Saleh were sitting on the stoop when the happy rabbi arrived at his house. They were married five years ago, which was the last time Sheila's father spoke a word to her. Only recently, the father had made it known, through his wife, that he would reluctantly accept his son-in-law's Conservative conversion, and now Mohamed Saleh was sitting in the rabbi's living room wearing a simple black yarmulke and practicing some Hebrew words.

The hour's discussion was of kosher dietary laws. He told the couple how, growing up in the Bronx, he would refuse to eat in Chinese restaurants with his family, "except at the end I would go for the ice cream, which was kosher. At 12, I came home from school with the news that Nabisco crackers weren't kosher and I told my mother either the crackers go or I go. She had to think about it a little. I was a stubborn little self-righteous kid."

Saleh listened politely; he was willing, he said, to keep a kosher home. It was his rebellious wife who seemed unsure.

The night before, at his other venue, the borrowed library of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan, Lerner had spent five hours lecturing about the upcoming Jewish high holy days to a succession of classes, made up mainly of married or soon-to-be married interfaith couples. Lerner cannot help but digress, and in the course of an evening, regardless of the topic, he will explain many of the mysterious and sometimes arcane ways of Judaism, which can be terribly alien to the convert.

To a convert of Armenian ethnicity who pronounced the Jewish new year "Rush Hashayna," Lerner explained how to figure out the Jewish calendar ("seven out of 19 years you add a month"); to a pregnant Catholic woman, he told the horrifying story of a Reform synagogue where a trumpet was blown in place of a shofar; he recalled how Copenhagen-brand snuff was passed around one synagogue to keep people going through a day of Yom Kippur prayer. "Yom Kippur is an ordeal that purifies," he explained proudly. "We go home really on a high. If you miss that climax you're missing one of the most powerful religious experiences you'll ever have."

Conversion is one of the most controversial issues separating the three major denominations of Judaism. Orthodox Jews don't recognize Conservative conversions, while some Conservatives think Reform conversions are too easy. The Jewish establishment has never adopted any minimum requirements for conversion - a Reform rabbi can convert someone almost instantly.

Many of Lerner's prospective converts are involved with observant Jews who want what they consider a more serious conversion than one offered by the Reform movement. During the nine-month program (about 15 percent drop out, he says) Lerner becomes personally involved in the religious lives of his students. Besides 25 or 30 classes (at $25 per for private sessions), he holds a spring weekend retreat upstate, conducts walking tours of places like the Lower East Side to introduce the idea of Jewish culture and often invites his students to his home for events like Passover seders.

AND THEN there is the matter of circumcision: Uncircumcised male converts (including Lerner's current 60-year-old student) must go under the knife, and even those who are already circumcised must shed a symbolic drop of blood. When one student complained that such a requirement is barbaric, Lerner responded: "Killing six million Jews is barbaric. This is quaint." Still, Lerner says, three of the last four rabbinic interns he has brought to the hospital as official witnesses to the circumcision have fainted. 

"There are less intense programs," Lerner said. "More people go Reform. I tell people I expect them to change their way of life, to go regularly to synagogue, to keep some level of kosher, to try to make the Sabbath important, and to try to identify with the Jewish people, which is what born Jews feel most strongly about but which is probably the hardest part for converts."

A subtheme of this involves anti-Semitism. "If you hear `Dirty Jew,' " he tells students, "they're talking about you now."

Because of the complex emotional, spiritual and practical upheaval converts may experience, Lerner is part teacher, part social worker, part tour guide to Judealand. Family tensions often figure in his work. When a woman married to a Jewish man brought up the issue of Christian holidays during a class last week, Lerner told her: "Going home for Christmas is not the best way to go. You should avoid the most Christian of things."

Generally, he said later, "I tell them, `You have to tell your family you love them, that this is not a rejection; you're changing your religion, not your family.' I realize while I bring some joy, I bring a lot of sadness. Some Jewish families are not happy either. Parents who are Holocaust survivors tend to go crazy. For many of them the gentile world is the enemy. They're still living with the reality of Eastern Europe. I had one case where the parents came and screamed at me, cursed me, threatened my children."

No matter. Lerner's way is to argue back, shrug and keep on indoctrinating. He has found his favorite group of people: people who want to be Jewish and are willing to follow his commandments to get there. "With born Jews," he says, "you can't require them to do zilch."

Originally published in Newsday, September 22, 1987