This Easter was the first Barbra Long did not celebrate. No baskets of chocolate bunnies, no family dinner, no church services.
As she was doing her best to ignore Christianity’s holiest day, she noticed how many strangers wished her a Happy Easter.
“Do all Jewish people get this, or is it just because I don’t have a Jewish name?” she wondered.
Long, 37, is converting to Judaism. Raised Presbyterian, this one-time born-again Christian is studying with a Reform rabbi in Manhattan and expects to become a Jew in August, shortly before her Labor Day weekend wedding to a Jewish man.
A tall, fashionable human resources professional who dreams of one day selling a screenplay, Long is part of a group about whom surprisingly little is known: Americans who choose to cast their lot with the Jewish people. She has agreed to share her story with The Jewish Week, which will follow her conversion process and the immediate aftermath.
Data is scarce when it comes to conversion to Judaism in America, although it appears relatively constant over the past decade — roughly 3 percent of American Jews said they converted from another religion, according to the American Jewish Identity Survey. That 2001 study also indicated that far more women than men convert to Judaism.
In the Reform movement, which recently eclipsed Conservative as the largest American Jewish stream and since 1978 has had a stated policy of outreach to non-Jews, no formal research has been done on “Jews by choice.” However, there is a perception in the movement that conversion has been on the rise in recent years, so much so that in 1998 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Jews) created an “outreach fellows” program to train lay people to help rabbis prepare potential Jews for their conversion and welcome them into the synagogue community. So far, 150 Reform congregants have trained in the program.
Conversations with outreach professionals and local Reform rabbis known for performing many conversions indicate that people come to Judaism for a variety of reasons. For most, like Long, it is through a romantic relationship with a Jew. But rabbis say they are also seeing a growing number of children of interfaith marriages who were not raised as Jews, as well as Christians who are simply “seekers,” or who come to Judaism later in life, after they have been married to a Jew and begun to raise Jewish children.
For the past decade, the Reform movement has offered a free introductory course called “A Taste of Judaism,” which has been credited with inspiring many people to convert.
Long’s journey to Judaism was sparked by her opera singer fiancé, Oren Gradus, 29, who even before they began dating wanted to know if she would consider converting.
The two met in January 2003, when Long saw him perform alongside her friend, Richard Bernstein, in “Don Giovanni.” Long asked about Gradus, and Bernstein checked it out, later reporting to her that when Gradus asked if she was Jewish, Bernstein assured him, “No, but she’d convert.”
“I was like, ‘How do you know I would convert?’ ” Long recalls, still a little indignant. “I don’t know if I would convert. Richard, don’t go telling people that.”
But after a few months, as the couple fell in love, moved in together in an apartment downtown near City Hall, and became “parents” to a dog, Moby, the issue of conversion moved to the forefront.
Gradus is not religiously observant — indeed, he is an ardent fan of barbecued pork and other non-kosher treats. He is half Israeli and grew up in a strongly cultural Jewish family in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He attended Hebrew school at a Reform temple. As a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Gradus led Shabbat services, and a few years ago while working in Houston, he took a “Jewish appreciation” course at a Reform congregation.
Although Gradus told The Jewish Week that part of his attraction to Long stems from the fact that “she’s different from what I grew up with,” he believes “it wouldn’t have been easy marrying someone who was not Jewish.”
“I want my children to be Jewish. [Raising children as Jews] was something I demanded of any relationship,” he said.
Meeting The Rabbi
In the Reform movement, which in 1983 adopted a policy of “patrilineal descent” — children of a Jewish father are considered Jewish even if their mother is not, as long as they are given a Jewish upbringing. But for Long, the idea of raising children as Jews without being Jewish herself did not feel right. So in August she called Rabbi Andrew Bachman, director of the New York University Hillel and a friend of Gradus and his parents.
“I said, ‘I’m interested in maybe converting. Can you talk to me?’ ” she said.
Rabbi Bachman suggested she start by reading “Embracing Judaism” by Simcha Kling. To Long’s surprise — and relief — the book’s summary of Judaism “was exactly everything I believed in.”
“As I study more and more, it just makes more and more sense and I feel more at home in the religion,” Long said.
Although she has lived in New York for most of her adult life and has had some Jewish friends — and though she is named for Barbra Streisand, one of America’s most famous openly Jewish performers — Judaism rarely surfaced on Long’s radar screen until she met Gradus.
Long grew up in Washington State in a not particularly religious Presbyterian home. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she moved with her mother and brother to southern California. Two years later Long’s mother was killed in a car accident, and the children moved back to Washington to be with their father.
Feeling adrift, Long gravitated to an evangelical youth group called Young Life.
“It was safe and something to latch onto,” Long recalls, noting that it provided a structured environment, one with summer camps, activities and a community.
But in college — Arizona State University before transferring to NYU, where she studied film — she lost interest in “the born-again thing.”
As an adult Long has attended Presbyterian churches but has not been especially active. For nearly eight years she was married to a Catholic, but Long said the Church seemed inaccessible to her and she did not like the idea of priests serving as intermediaries between congregants and God.
In contrast, Judaism has a certain resonance for her.
“I haven’t really put down roots anywhere so to speak, and I think that parallels the Jewish experience in history, how they’ve traveled around from country to country,” she said. “That’s how I view my own teenage and adult life.”
In addition, Long said she identifies with Judaism’s emphasis on family and education.
So far the conversion process has been relatively smooth. By and large her family has been supportive of her decision — her father and stepmother celebrated Chanukah with Long and Gradus when the couple visited in December, and other family members sent them gifts wrapped in Chanukah paper.
One relative, Long’s “evangelical” Aunt Betsy, may be more of a challenge, however. Long had avoided telling her about the conversion plans, and Aunt Betsy recently sent her an e-mail asking how Long and Gradus plan to work out their religious differences.
“I hope you won’t deny Jesus and what he did for us all,” Aunt Betsy wrote. Long is still trying to figure out how to respond.
Gradus’ family has warmly welcomed Long.
“I never felt at any time like ‘What’s my son doing with a shiksa?’ ” Long said, laughing as she uses the Yiddish slur for a non-Jewish woman. “I never felt like an outsider. I’ve always felt totally part of the family.”
As for the nuts and bolts of becoming a Jew, it has mostly consisted of working her way through a reading list and meeting every few weeks with Rabbi Bachman to discuss the readings. When Rabbi Bachman believes she is ready, and he has assured her it will be before the wedding, she will answer questions for a bet din, or panel of rabbis, and then immerse herself in a mikveh.
The procedure is not atypical for Reform conversions, although many rabbis also require prospective converts to first take an Introduction to Judaism class before working one-on-one with them.
In the Reform movement, rabbis are autonomous and do not see Jewish law as binding, so there is no set procedure for conversion. However, in 2001, the Central Conference of American Rabbis approved a set of “guidelines” for working with prospective converts. The guidelines recommend such traditional conversion rituals as the mikveh and bet din. They also reaffirm the Reform movement’s rejection of the traditional Jewish approach in which rabbis turn away prospective converts three times before agreeing to work with them.
Because Reform conversions do not adhere to Jewish law, traditional Jews do not recognize them and the State of Israel does not completely recognize them — Reform converts can immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but face difficulties undergoing various Jewish life-cycle rituals in Israel. That’s a source of some concern to Gradus’ father, since he is Israeli. For that reason, he had raised the possibility that Long undergo an Orthodox conversion.
But since no one in the family is Orthodox and Long has no intention of becoming Orthodox, to do so seemed untenable. And since the chances of Long and Gradus ever moving to Israel are “fairly slim,” it did not seem necessary.
Of more immediate concern for Long right now is tackling her reading material, figuring out what Jewish practices she and Gradus will incorporate into their home and familiarizing herself with the mystery of synagogue services — something she confesses to being “in the dark” about. She has attended services on a few occasions and was surprised by how long they lasted.
Asked if she has any concerns about specific aspects of Judaism, Long said she is a bit apprehensive about getting by without knowing Hebrew. She is relieved to learn that the majority of American Jews don’t understand Hebrew and that most prayerbooks have English translations alongside the Hebrew.
Until her last visit with Rabbi Bachman a few weeks ago, she was anxious as well about the bet din. A relative of her fiance had led Long to believe the process would be akin to cross-examination by a panel of aggressive lawyers.
Sitting with Long and Gradus in his office, its floor scattered with a Mr. Potato Head and plastic hammer as a result of a recent visit from the rabbi’s toddler daughter, Rabbi Bachman assured Long no one expected her to be an expert on Judaism.
“The goal isn’t to make you the most knowledgeable Jew in the world, but to give you tools to be a lifelong Jewish learner,” he explained.
When Rabbi Bachman mentioned that the members of the bet din were his friends, Gradus smiled at Long as if to say, “We’re set.”
The three chatted about Passover: Gradus and Long would be preparing their own seder for the first time because Gradus’ work obligations were keeping them from traveling to his family’s annual gathering in Washington, D.C.
As the meeting drew to a close, Long admired Rabbi Bachman’s expensive-looking, sleek black desk chair, and Rabbi Bachman bragged about the low price he had paid for it, saying, “You need to learn how to shop for bargains.”
“In my family that’s the next step to Judaism,” Gradus joked, turning to his fiancée. “But already you prepare too much food, which is great.” n