April Oldenburg grew up in Berkeley with an agnostic father and a “pagan witch mother.” She occasionally accompanied her grandmother to a Methodist church, but found the Christian denomination too regimented for her. “My family was always intellectually interested in world religions, but we had no real ritual practice while I was growing up,” Oldenburg said.
Omar Sedky of Pacifica was born and raised in a nominally Muslim family in Cairo, Egypt. His mother’s family had emigrated from Greece, and his ancestors on his father’s side were originally Hungarian Jews who had converted to Islam upon settling in Egypt centuries ago. “We were Muslims on paper only,” Sedky explained. “I remember my parents being upset by the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred that was part of radical Islam in our country.”
Now, after embarking on spiritual journeys as adults, both Oldenburg and Sedky have converted to Judaism. Along the way, they availed themselves of various resources, but one was particularly useful one — and its name mirrored the process they were undertaking. It was a website called Becoming Jewish (www.becomingjewish.net).
BecomingJewish was created four years ago by Linda Burnett, a relatively recent convert to Judaism, together with Dawn Kepler, the director of Building Jewish Bridges, a Berkeley-based program out of Lehrhaus Judaica offering support and education to interfaith families.
“When I was converting to Judaism and was looking for resources on the web, I wasn’t sure which ones I could trust,” recalled Burnett, a retired SFO customs inspector. “I knew Dawn and that she was providing good information via her Building Jewish Bridges email list, so I suggested that we work together to permanently locate all the information in one place on the internet,” Burnett said in explaining the genesis of BecomingJewish.
“We felt that the stuff out there was either too general, or it was just personal stories,” Kepler said. “Our goal was to provide relevant and useful conversion-related information for all streams of Judaism that was focused on the Bay Area, and that included recommendations and testimonials from people who had gone through the process.”
Their website offers a variety of resources, including recommended readings, a list of Bay Area rabbis who do conversions, links to local Jewish organizations and Jewish education classes and programs, and a “What’s New?” section with updates. Recent additions to the site include an FAQ section and a blog.
Burnett serves as the webmaster for the site and is in charge of BecomingJewish’s active Facebook and Twitter accounts. She keeps a keen eye on the site’s metrics. “I love to look at the stats,” she said. “We average about 200 people per day coming to the site. During holiday times, it’s more like 300.”
BecomingJewish also reaches people in person through workshops it organizes, like “Mysteries of the Mikveh,” held Jan. 24 at Oakland’s Beth Jacob, and “Below the Belt: Circumcision and Hatafat Dam,” to take place Feb. 28 at Temple Sinai in Oakland, where Burnett is an active member. Both she and Kepler serve on Sinai’s outreach committee and have mentored individuals interested in converting.
Although BecomingJewish is geared toward the local region, Burnett and Kepler routinely get inquiries from all around the world — including from Muslim countries where it is illegal to convert to Judaism (in those cases, Kepler advises the inquirers to wait until they are in a safer environment to pursue their interest in Judaism).
When initial inquiries come in, Burnett passes them on to Kepler for fielding. She begins a correspondence with the person making the inquiry. Sometimes this consists of a single exchange, but other times an ongoing relationship forms.
“For the most part, people are coming to us with little or no knowledge of Judaism. They have some sense of interest, but they are clueless as to how and where to start,” Kepler explained. “They are at a very basic level and are not emotionally ready to speak yet to a rabbi. Even later on, when people are further along in the process, they ask us questions they are uncomfortable asking a rabbi.”
As a result, Kepler’s role has become that of personalized adviser, guide and even cheerleader to those who move beyond the initial interest stage.
“Dawn was very gracious and sweet,” recalled Oldenburg, who converted in June 2011. “I got to her via the website, and she met me for lunch and was very helpful in assisting my then-fiancé (now husband) and me find the right synagogue and rabbi for us.”
Oldenburg, a 41-year-old trauma nurse who lives in Emeryville, studied with Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, making sure to complete her conversion in time for a congregational trip to Israel in summer 2011. “I wanted to go to Israel as a Jew,” she said. Oldenburg and her husband, Michael Tarle, are active members of Netivot Shalom, where Tarle is now the president.
For Sedky, 42 and working in corporate finance, Becoming Jewish was “a great resource that got me going in the right direction. It connected me to the right people.” After initially attending a synagogue in Oakland, accompanied by Kepler and a recent convert she invited to join them, Sedky ultimately found his spiritual home with Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. Now an active member of the Reform synagogue, he tries to go to services every Shabbat. “It’s the source of my spiritual peace,” he says of the community, where he feels he has been readily embraced.
Sedky’s mother came all the way from Egypt to attend his conversion to Judaism in April 2010. Kepler, of course, was there too.