Contributors

Avi Montigny

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Avi is a Jew by choice who converted to Judaism in the spring of 2006 after two years of study and participation in Ottawa’s Jewish community. Although he began his Jewish journey as part of a Reform congregation, he now calls the Conservative movement home. Theologically speaking, Avi considers himself to be center left and is a fan of Mordechai M. Kaplan and Rabbi Elliot Dorff. He also draws inspiration from many other theologians, rabbis and scholars both within and beyond the Conservative movement.

These days Avi is happily engaged in the study of Mussar which can be summed up as a Torah based system of ethical development, as well as keeping strictly kosher both at home and on the road. Avi believes strongly in Klal Yisrael and finds himself increasingly committed to Jewish religious observance and although he doesn’t always like to admit it, he does view the Mitzvot (as a whole) as being binding. Avi founded the JewsByChoice.org project as part of his fourth year course of studies at Athabasca University where he is wrapping up a second degree in the Human Services. In the next year or so he hopes to begin working towards a Master’s Degree in Distance Education. Specifically he would like to focus his studies on how Distance Education and Web 2.0 technologies can be used to promote improved opportunities for Jewish Engagement and Cultural Literacy within the broader Jewish community.

At present Avi is in Los Angeles with his wife Tamara where together they are exploring what it means to lead actively Jewish lives as a couple.

David Gottlieb

The image “http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1099/1403883220_26907c6c10_m.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.David was born and raised with a vague understanding that, as a Jew, he was the proud inheritor of a dead spiritual tradition. The synagogue (Reform) was the forlorn museum of that tradition. He didn’t mind supporting the museum, but being forced to attend school in it every Sunday seemed, in childhood, to be harsh punishment for a circumstance of birth. Not until his late 30s, in a desperate attempt to escape a persistent depression, did David discover a real spiritual practice, which he found in the form of Zen Buddhism. Unbeknownst to him, he had become part of a significant trend of Western Jews being drawn to Eastern traditions. Ironically, it was the practice of Zen that introduced David to his Jewish essence. That led him back into Judaism and a practice that is still evolving. After having been lay-ordained as a Zen Buddhist in 2002, David returned to the practice of Judaism, and did an adult bar mitzvah at the following year, at age 42.

David’s Zen practice also led to a chance introduction to Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a South African-born, London-based Orthodox rabbi. He and Rabbi Tatz carried on a spirited correspondence about why David specifically and Jews generally were drawn to Zen, and Their correspondence became a book, Letters to a Buddhist Jew. David is a participant in the 2006 cohort of the Wexner Heritage Program, a two-year Jewish adult leadership program funded by the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is also a vice president of the ARK, a Jewish social services agency in Chicago.

Tamara Eden

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Tamara Eden was born into, what she had thought was a traditional (American) Jewish family. Childhood for her was not much unlike other Jewish families in the suburbs. Her grandparents immigrated from Poland in the early 1920’s. They seemingly adapted quickly to life in America. Her three brothers, her three step-sisters, and Tamara all attended Hebrew school, Reform style. They all had Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Jewish holidays were celebrated with family, friends, and good Ashkenazi foods like kugels, matzah ball soup, honey cakes, mandel bread, and chopped liver. Passover meant a seder that she very much enjoyed, even when she didn’t fully understand it. Purim meant carnivals at the synagogue, Sukkot meant playing in the synagogue’s sukkah. Hanukkah meant candles and gifts. As you can see, Judaism wasn’t so much about religion as it was about culture, food, and family.

After Tamara’s Bat Mitzvah she wasn’t engaged in a Jewish community. Most of her friends were not Jewish and yes, she dated outside the faith, but always swore to maintain a Jewish home and family. There was always a deep sense of connectedness to her roots even when they were in slumber. There are two major things that Tamara says brought her to a new sense of connectedness to Judaism; first, her love of Reggae music. She found that many of the lyrics were Old Testament quotes which she would constantly look up to learn more about. One of her favorite verses to this day is: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you Lord, my rock and redeemer” Psalm 19:14.

The second path of connectedness came around 1996. She made friends with a young couple; a secular Israeli and a Catholic (convert to Judaism) who were newish “Chabadniks”. She became close friends with this family, spent most Shabbats with them, and began to rekindle that slumbering connection to Judaism. There were things she began to realize as she dialogued more about her Jewishness. She remembered how wearing her Talit, a Bat Mitzvah gift from her Great Grandmother, felt awkward since the day she got it. She also discovered that certain traditional values just seemed to feel “right”; although she could never, and even sometimes still, has a hard time explaining why.

Today Tamara considers herself a liberal Conservative Jew. In other words, she likes the idea of following long standing traditions, upholding rituals, and being committed to learning. At the same time, her social and political beliefs are quite liberal. This can sometimes make her feel torn or at odds; however, even this she sees as an important part of being Jewish. Some of the ways she practices and observes her faith are keeping kosher in and outside the home, celebrating Shabbat with her husband Avi and friends; and simply being connected to a community.

Tamara teaches high school English at an urban public school, when not there you can find her in Los Angeles with her husband Avi, trying to hammer out together what it means to be Jewish, in her thirties, and married.

Chaviva

The image “http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1184/1404227186_3ea78ebf28_m.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Chaviva came into Judaism amid growing up in the Bible belt and eventually in conservative, Christian Nebraska. Her story includes an inspired childhood revelation about death, attempts to be a Christian, and the eventual meeting of her heart and mind in 2003 when she realized that Judaism was where she would find peace. A year later she began attending the only Reform synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska, and two years after that, in April 2006, she became the first convert for her synagogue’s newly ordained rabbi.

Living in Chicago since March 2007, Chavi’s Jewish observance is constantly evolving, and she often feels that she leans more toward Conservative ideals than Reform. Even still, the pursuit of a holy life is a process, and every day proffers a new challenge, where “because it just is” is never the answer. Chavi intends to pursue a master’s degree in Judaic studies in Fall of 2008, and she is currently applying to a variety of schools. Her greatest desire is to teach Judaic studies, whether as a professor or within a religious school, although rabbinics is often suggested to her as a career path. She fancies herself an expert on Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11, though her passion for Judaic studies resides in the life and work of Rashi and his daughters, the poetry of Emma Lazarus and her approach to her Jewish identity, the Middle Ages, and so much more.

As an editor by training and degree, one of her greatest delights in her personal, weekly Torah study is Rashi’s occasional, extensive grammatical diatribes. For more on Chaviva’s conversion, read her conversion letter to the bet din and her rabbi here.

Yair

The image “http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1343/1472916252_01383c4047_m.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Yair is a Jew by Choice who made his conversion in 2003 after a couple of years of study. He came to Judaism from the evangelical Christianity in which he was raised, and he is now a member of Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota, a congregation dually-affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. In his community Yair serves as a gabbai, he leyns Torah and Haftarah, teaches Torah and Haftarah cantillation to b’nei mitzvah students, and leads the occasional adult education class. His specific areas of interest and study in Judaism include Jewish mysticism, the history of Jews in Muslim lands, Mizrachi and Sephardi music, and the relatedness of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish rituals, traditions, and collective consciousness. As a convert, issues of Jewish peoplehood are also a special interest, as are Jewish men’s issues. He maintains his own blog called Northwoods Jew.

Having studied with rabbis of all major movements in American Judaism, Yair believes that each one of the groups can learn valuable lessons from all of the rest. While his own perspective is (currently) somewhere in the liberal Conservative to traditional Reconstructionist overlap, he feels that labels of this type are much less important than the dialogues they often prevent. His philosophy of Judaism has been most strongly impacted by the works of Rabbi Arthur Green, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

Yair has a Master’s degree in Social Work, and is currently employed at a university where he spends most of his time engaged in community research. He lives with Jennifer, his wife of seven years, and their two daughters, Navah and Eliana, ages 6 and 4.

Micha

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Micah–his Hebrew name–converted in November 2008 (8 Kislev 5768) after years of study. Micah was born in 1970 and raised in Southern California’s semi-rural Inland Empire by non-practicing Protestant parents. At the age of 15, he declared himself an avowed atheist, more so out of teenage rebellion (coupled with a basic intellectual rejection of Christianity) rather than as any sort of educated, universal indictment against all religion.

Micah obtained a BA in history at the University of California, Riverside with a study emphasis in anti-Semitism in modern Europe. He’d been horrified in his youth by reading about Shoah (Holocaust) and was hoping to gain a better understanding of such inhumanity on a massive scale. He didn’t get that from his studies; but this was the beginning of his interest in Jewish history and culture—and a realization that there was a much bigger world of theology out there than the one he’d been exposed to. He was fascinated by the story of the Jewish people; he began to identify with the powerful message of hope and survival that emerged from dark periods in human history.

After college, he married the love his life (his college romance), a non-practicing Catholic. The couple gave birth to a son, whom they decided not to baptize in any religion. Micah continued his self-study of Judaism and Jewish writers.

In 2001, Micah and his family moved to Los Angeles, where his growing connection to Judaism was strengthened by seeing others living Jewishly. He ultimately realized that he was not an atheist–that his beliefs actually fit within the diverse spectrum of Judaism.

Fast forward to: a few years of career moves, various life stages, the birth of another child and on-set of mid-thirties—and a lingering feeling that he could not shake: he’s Jewish. Maybe not by birth, but in theology, culture, values, identification and a growing desire to express this. In short, he wanted to begin to live a Jewish life. And most importantly: he wanted to pass this on to his young children. Micah realized that his situation (married with kids, wife not converting) was uncommon amongst potential converts. But his Intro to Judaism Rabbi (Reform) believed the fact that because children would be ultimately converted, and that the family would have a unified Jewish religious identity, this would be acceptable.

The intense year of formal study concluded with mikvah, Beit Din and a ceremonial pin prick. He chose “Micah” as his Hebrew name, the Prophet whose words of hope gave people courage and strength to live as God’s people during very troubled times.

As of this writing, Micah is finding his denominational footing, looking for the right place to affiliate. He’s also eager to start the process of his children’s conversions, deepen his own observances and become (adult) bar mitzvah.

Jenny

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Jenny discovered Judaism way back in her early 20s as she attended Oberlin College in rural Ohio. Her interest was piqued first through conversations with friends and then through a Talmud class that introduced her to the Jewish style of learning that she has since not been able to get enough of. In Judaism she found a relationship to God and a spirituality that had been lacking in her Roman Catholic upbringing. On March 30, 2004 (8th of Nisan, 5764) Jenny officially became a Jew after a year of official study with her rabbi and nearly 3 years since the thought of converting first entered her mind.

Subscribing to a decidedly Reform theology, Jenny finds herself drawn to Torah, to study, and to making herself more knowledgeable about the mitzvot so that she can make informed decisions about her own observance. Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings you can find her teaching Alef Hebrew to 4th graders at her temple, which she dearly loves after teaching art, 3rd grade, and kindergarten the previous years.

A voracious reader and regular attendee of Torah study at her temple, Jenny’s favorite commentators are Sforno, Rambam, and Nechama Leibowitz, and has no problem arguing with Rashi and other long-dead sages.

Shimshonit

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Shimshonit began life as a patrilineal Jew, though when she actually began life (1967) there was no such thing. (The Reform vote to recognize patrilineal descent didn’t come about until 1983.) Uncomfortable with the awkwardness of having to tell people she was “half-and-half,” and painfully conscious that she was in fact neither, she played hide-and-seek with Judaism for most of her childhood and early adulthood. It wasn’t until she began to think about marriage and a family that she made the decision to pursue Judaism once and for all.

In 1996 she packed up and went to Israel. For sixteen months she studied Hebrew, Jewish history, practice, and philosophy, and traveled all over the country. (She also met the man who would someday become her husband.)

Though Orthodoxy had always been remote and even repugnant to her, in Israel Shimshonit began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat a little at a time, and meeting Orthodox Jews who were surprisingly normal people. In the end, to strengthen her ties to the Jewish nation and to reclaim her Jewish ancestry, Shimshonit made the decision to undergo an Orthodox conversion. Returning to Boston, she completed the process (dunked November 9, 1998), married, and began a family in the warm, inspiring modern Orthodox community of Newton, Massachusetts.
After some years, heeding the siren song of Israel, Shimshonit and her husband returned to Israel with their three young children in 2006.

Rachel-Esther

Rachel-Esther is a Jew By Choice who found her way to Judaism via Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Rachel-Esther was brought up in the Southern Baptist church but began rejecting the teachings at an early age.

After some struggles with atheism/agnosticism, she began feeling something missing in her life. In her late twenties, Rachel-Esther began searching for a religious practice. After exploring Catholicism, Baptists, Islam, and Buddhism, she realized that Judaism was where her heart was leading her. Rachel-Esther began her study in a Reform congregation but felt moved toward following the Conservative Movement. After moving back to her home state, Rachel-Esther finished her conversion and became a Jew in August, 2000.

In 2003, she began becomingjewish.org and continues to run the site. Her practice of mitzvot is continuing to grow and she is striving toward daily Torah study. Rachel-Esther believes that the mitzvot are binding upon Jews and firmly believes that Jews are responsible for each other. She has a firm love of, and commitment to, fellow Jews and Eretz Yisrael. She continues to strive to learn more about Judaism and to become a more committed Jew.

Rachel-Esther has two bachelorʼs degrees(Psychology/Philosophy and Criminal Justice) and a masterʼs degree in Rural Public Policy. She currently lives in the Eastern United Statesand works full-time for a state Medicaid contract. Her future plans involve(G-d willing) becoming either a Jewish Studies teacher or rabbi and make aliyahto Israel.

Past Contributor -Yankel Kvetch

The image “http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1393/1481232512_7509bfeee4_m.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Yankel Kvetch (his real name) was born in Queens, New York, smack in the middle of the Baby Boom. A Jew by birth, he received his early Jewish education at the Clearview Jewish Center and at the YM-YWHA of Greater Flushing, a Jewish day camp. Both were Conservative institutions at a time when the Conservative movement was in its most brain-dead and directionless phase. Thus Yankel learned to be proud of his people and his religion, knew their folkways, language and history (in fact, it was the Clearview Jewish Center that first exposed Mr. Kvetch to ancient history, a subject he pursues to this day), but grew up unsure as to what, if anything, his people and religion had to do with God. It was a time when much of the Conservative movement, dominated by notions of Judaism as a “religious civilization,” seemed embarrassed to talk about God as such, though God as such was a subject much on young Yankel’s mind. Predictably, given this background, Mr. Kvetch, like many of his generation, abandoned his faith soon after his Bar Mitzvah, having come to the conclusion that those parts of it that were comprehensible to him were totally meaningless in the world in which he lived.

It was the Sixties remember, and there were so many attractive alternatives: drugs, radical politics, sexual revolution, the glory days of Mets baseball. Mr. Kvetch indulged in all of these, but always pursued, formally and informally, his twin passions of religion and ancient history. Mr. Kvetch went on to an undistinguished college career (see the drugs, sexual revolution, and radical politics referenced above), moved to Northern California, had a daughter (with a Jew), got married (to a non-Jew), and lived that life of quiet desperation of which so many of us are familiar. Having reached a point in life where the specter of his eventual demise was coming into focus, Mr. Kvetch felt moved to reengage his faith. Having been gone so long he took the easiest route back and joined a Chabad shul. He read deeply about contemporary trends in his faith and now considers himself a Universalist Jew. With Reform, he believes Halachka is no longer binding (if it ever was), but feels that one cannot be an authentic Jew without engaging Halachka in some way.

After studying the intellectual and spiritual foundations of the Conservative movement, he has come back to that fold and, to the best of his ability, tries to follow their Halachkic standards. (Kosher is a problem. You try telling your Italian spouse, no more shrimp scampi, no more veal parmagiana. You know where the word vendetta comes from?) And of course, he davens and lays tefillin every morning at his Hasidic/Orthodox shul in Southern California, where he now resides.

Past Contributor -AviShalom

AviShalom emerged from the mikveh as a new Jew on day 16 of the Omer in 5767 (2007). He had already been married to his wonderful Jewish wife for over 17 years before he decided to pursue conversion. His mother had tried her best to raise him a good Lutheran, but he never quite bought into that. Were she alive today, she would probably be relived to know her son, now in his mid 40s, is not an atheist, after all. So, now he is not in an interfaith marriage, though really he never was, given that to be interfaith, both partners must actually have a faith.

He was drawn to Judaism precisely because it is so much more than a faith. The key for him really was the emphasis on mitzvot as the way that Jews seek to make their own lives, and the lives of the people around them, holy. A key turning point for him was traveling in Poland and Ukraine with his wife, visiting the town where her grandmother had emigrated from in 1920, and having the opportunity to visit with a Holocaust survivor who is one of the few Jews left in his Ukrainian town.

In his secular life AviShalom is a professor of political science, and also enjoys tending more than 100 different varieties of fruit trees on his small organic farm in southern California. His interests in both voting and fruit-growing carry over into how he views Judaism’s contribution to his own life, as well as what he hopes can be his own small contribution to Judaism. His sense of the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam is that he is called to apply his knowledge of how elections work (or don’t work) to educating people about better ways to elect the leaders they entrust with the vast powers of the state. And he is interested in the agricultural origins of many of our Jewish holidays and customs and in promoting awareness of what the ethics of the Torah teach us about how we as a species sustain ourselves from the land.

AviShalom does not much like the labels that go with the various so-called movements of Judaism today. He and his wife affiliated with a Reform shul in 2006—the first affiliation ever for either of them—and they feel very much at home in that context. However, AviShalom might be said to be on the conservative/traditional side of progressive Judaism. In politics, AviShalom is an affiliated Green, and he is as proud to be a member of a transnational political movement committed to improving democracy and to sustainable living as he is to be a member of the progressive Jewish community. He writes about these themes and others at his blog, Ararat Scrolls.