From Jew-by-choice to rabbi: Women forging new paths

Kate O'Brien Goldstein felt a call to serve in the ministry from a very young age. But as a strict Roman Catholic, it seemed rather unlikely the calling would be a Jewish one.

When the 28-year-old resigned this year from her development and marketing job at Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco, the improbable became a reality.

Goldstein, a Jew-by-choice since 1997, had decided to become a rabbi.

The niece of a nun will begin her studies in the fall at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. She has already relocated with her husband, David, and is taking a brush-up course in Hebrew.

"I have always felt an intimate, immediate connection with God," said Goldstein before she left for New York. "But it wasn't until I found Judaism that I felt I'd come home to a life I could believe in."

Besides Goldstein, there appears to be only one other Jew-by-choice from the Bay Area who decided to enter the rabbinate — Cyndie Culpeper, a formerly Catholic San Francisco native, now leads a Conservative congregation in Birmingham, Ala.

Within California there are others, however — Rabbi Paula Reimers of Burbank Temple Emanu-El, for instance, converted from Christianity to Judaism in May 1981.

Still, it is not necessarily clear just how many Jew-by-choice rabbis there are. The number of them to enter JTS each year, for instance, is unknown since "within the tradition, once they convert, that's the end of the story," according to Marianna Mott Newirth, assistant director of media relations for the seminary.

At JTS, Goldstein "is considered a Jew," not a Jew-by-choice. "We don't keep a running list of those who converted," said Mott Newirth, herself a convert to Judaism.

The West Coast is home to another Conservative seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mimi Weisel, assistant dean of that program, estimated that the school has graduated at least one Jew-by-choice from each of its graduating classes. Founded five years ago, it has had three graduating classes thus far — each made up of between 10 and 20 students.

"But conversion is not an issue," said Weisel. "When we admit students we look at them in terms of where they are at now in their theology and observance, not where they've been."

The campuses of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also have one or two Jews-by-choice in each class of 40 to 55. But this "is not an issue when it comes to choosing students," said Rabbi Roxanne Schneider, national director of admissions and recruitment.

"The real issue is the applicant's commitment and involvement with Judaism," she said. "Sometimes we find that those who converted actually have more knowledge or a greater appreciation for Judaism than those born as Jews. They feel that they chose their path. And they didn't take their religious classes for granted."

The Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York did not have any information on the number of Jews-by-choice to enroll in its rabbinical seminary, according to its media relations department.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has graduated between six and 10 converts out of a total of 240 graduates since it opened in 1968, according to public affairs associate Gari Weilbacher. Like JTS, the RRC also does not see its Jews-by-choice students as anything other than Jews.

"They have obviously made a commitment to Judaism if they are here," said Weilbacher.

Regardless of which movements they select, converts study Judaism "because they have fallen in love with it," said Rabbi Ted Alexander, spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco, where Goldstein was formerly a member.

"I don't blame them," he said. "I'm in love with it, too. I'm firmly convinced that if we had missionaries, the floodgates to Judaism would open."

Alexander, who has taught conversion classes at Lehrhaus Judaica for 16 years, said, "Those who make a conscious choice to be Jews take it very seriously."

Goldstein is no exception.

"She has a tremendous feeling for Jewish ritual," added Alexander, who used to love to "watch her daven — her head bowing, her rising up [on her feet] three steps" — during Shabbat services.

"And I didn't even teach her," he said, noting that Goldstein underwent conversion in New York City before moving to San Francisco in 1998.

Alexander did teach Culpeper, who said she "enjoyed practicing and living Judaism so much that I decided to make a career out of it." She studied at the JTS and was ordained in May 1995.

"When students come out of my mikvah," said Alexander, "I usually greet them with the words, 'As of tomorrow morning you can go to rabbinical school. That's the beauty of Judaism; once you're a Jew, you're a Jew."

Then he added, "Some of the finest rabbis I know were not born as Jews."

But as far as Alexander knows, there are no Jew-by-choice rabbis leading Bay Area congregations.

Farther south in Burbank, however, Reimers has made a name for herself leading Temple Emanu El.

"I had problems with Christianity early on," said Reimers, citing the concept of original sin — that humans are born in sin and only those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven — as a primary reason.

"Whenever I asked a question I was told, 'You just have to take things by faith,'" said Reimers. "I wanted answers and I wasn't getting them."

She turned her back on the church and God, spending the majority of her late teens and early 20s "happily an atheist." But after she lost her mother to cancer, her brother to suicide and learned her husband had multiple sclerosis in the mid-1970s, Reimers accepted God — albeit reluctantly at first.

"I began having what could only be explained as religious experiences," said Reimers. "I felt self-conscious, I had butterflies, queasiness, I thought I was mentally unbalanced."

After a lot of soul searching and counseling she finally came to the realization that "my sense of unease was a sense of being looked at by the all-seeing eye of God. This was a very hard thing for an atheist to admit, but I couldn't deny it."

She went back to church, but despite reading and studying the texts, she still couldn't find satisfactory answers to her questions. She hadn't thought of turning to Judaism, considering it "Christianity without Christ," but she believes someone else had it in mind for her: "God was giggling in heaven," she said.

In 1978, the Christian social service agency she worked for in Los Angeles contracted with L.A.'s Jewish federation to help resettle Vietnamese refugees. Reimers, who had never before been exposed to Shabbat, was given the duty of presenting the mission during Friday night services.

"I immediately fell in love with the spirituality, the sense of peace and wholeness," she said. "I wondered, where has this been all my life? Why didn't anyone ever tell me?"

Eventually she converted. Afterward it seemed "there was always more to learn" about Judaism, so she kept on studying. When the Conservative movement gave the go-ahead to ordain women as rabbis in 1985, Reimers decided to go ahead.

"I believe in personal providence," said Reimers, "that the things that seemed like coincidences in life just aren't."

Because she never got any answers in Sunday school as a Christian, now, as a rabbi, "I treat every kid's question as if it could make or break their faith."

Like Reimers, Goldstein also didn't have much of a "concept of Judaism while I was growing up."

She felt close to God, but within Catholicism "there just was so much that didn't resonate with me intellectually and emotionally," she said. "There was no comfort for a girl whose family was torn by divorce, no appreciation for a curious young woman not content to swallow her catechism cooperatively, and no place for a woman who wanted to lead on a playing field level with her male counterparts."

Still, she badly wanted to affiliate with a religion because "I find it helpful and necessary to have a community around me to help me celebrate God."

Moving away from Catholicism, she experimented with Buddhism, agnosticism, Congregationalism and finally Judaism. Judaism was a perfect fit.

Although her boyfriend around that time — who is now her husband — was "a nice Jewish boy," she said that did not influence her decision.

"I'm sure it made him happy, but it wasn't why I did it. I did it because when I first read the Torah, I knew that was where my soul was."

Once Goldstein becomes ordained as a rabbi, she hopes to engage the masses in an interfaith dialogue — and also stimulate discussion within the movements of Judaism. She also has an interest in forging a role in abolishing the death penalty.

As a convert, she believes she has "an extra nuance of understanding about people seeking a home in faith." She hopes to use this understanding to help her congregants "reinvest in Judaism before they choose to go elsewhere.

"I think a lot of people who convert to Judaism bring a real commitment to the lifestyle," said Goldstein. "And if they decide to become a rabbi, they bring that same love, intellectual rigor and energy to the congregation."