Sunday, October 25, 2009

Garecht Outreach Institute 2009

This past week, our 3rd year class participated in the annual Garecht Outreach Institute, a 2-day seminar/retreat that deals with the issues of conversion in Reform Judaism. This seminar is offered for 3rd year students at each campus; the NY crew traveled to this amazing mansion turned hotel and conference center in Glen Cove, Long Island.

This is where we stayed:

Come on, Garecht, couldn't you have scrounged up the funds to treat us to something better than Econolodge? (I'm kidding, in case there was any question...) It was like a cruise ship; indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, libraries, a gym, and FOOD. Food to our hearts' content--beautiful buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners, snacks and drinks available 24/7, cocktail hours--it was unbelievable.

Our days were filled with interesting lectures and breakout sessions about the history of conversion in Judaism, and how a Jewish professional handles a congregant or outsider who is interested in becoming a Reform Jew. We looked at Halachah (Jewish Law) and other traditional texts to understand exactly what needs to happen before one can become a Jew (it doesn't happen overnight...) as well as current texts put out by the CCAR and URJ about the modern-day requirements regarding the education of one who is looking to convert. There was also much discussion about ways Jewish leaders and congregants can reach out to these people who are looking to join the Jewish faith, and how to integrate "new Jews" into an existing Jewish community once they've converted. On the last day, we had some role-playing exercises where we played the parts of potential converts and Jewish clergy. I played the part of "Vicky the lesbian Lutheran who needed to convert before her civil union with her fiance Charla in exactly 7 months." Twas great fun.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this seminar was a panel discussion on conversion from the perspective of the convert. We had 6 Jews-by-choice share their conversion stories with us and telling us the reasons why they chose to convert, their feelings during the actual conversion process, and their experiences trying to mainstream into their congregations. It was fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking, and inspiring to hear the reasons behind their decisions and the sacrifices they had to make to find their place in the Jewish world.

Many of us were in charge of planning various t'fillot for our time together. My classmates Daniel and Vicky and I were in charge of Thursday morning t'fillah. I must say we planned a beautiful and memorable service, including Torah readings and study and a lovely d'var Torah by our classmate Leora.

Aliyah for rabbinical students during our Thursday morning service

There was, of course, plenty of time to explore the incredibly gorgeous grounds of this hotel. Autumn in New York really is everything they say it is around this part of the state. The trees were lush and beautifully colored, the air was cool and refreshing, and fallen leaves, acorns, chestnuts and crab apples crunched under our feet. We had some fun taking a walk after lunch on Thursday, of course stopping for some fun pictures.

Totally beautiful. We would have been willing to move HUC to Glen Cove...we still would be, actually...

Lyle wanted a new JDate picture. I suggested he take on surrounded by beautiful women to suggest that he was such the ladies' man. Yeah, right. Love ya, Ly-Guy!

Sitting in the shade of a HUGE Chestnut tree

For me personally, this seminar really got me thinking about my own family and the ways that conversion has effected it. For those of you who don't know, my dad's younger brother converted to Christianity when he was around my age. I've always felt a tinge of sadness about this, wondering why Judaism wasn't for him. My uncle and his family are religious Christians (and wonderful people, just for the record) and because of this, there has always been a bit of an uncomfortable religious divide within our family. This divide has become more and more apparent since I've been in in cantorial school and developed my own strong opinions on why Judaism makes so much sense in my life.

Truth be told, there are a lot of things I don't understand or agree with in Christianity, and I will always be a little heartbroken about my uncle's decision. However, after this seminar, I at least understand what he had to go through to accept his new identity and be accepted within a new religion.

I realize after this experience how much I want to attempt to bridge this gap in our family, for the sake of myself and my entire family. I'm hoping I can find the strength to create dialogue between us that puts us both on the same page, where we at least understand each other's reasons for believing what we believe. It's a tall order and not one that can be filled overnight, but I am hopeful that in time and with patience, we can learn to create comfort for everyone within our family.

For the record, the feelings expressed in that last bit of the post are my own and do not necessarily represent feelings within my entire family. To these family members: if I have hurt or offended you with my honesty, I am truly sorry.

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