As congregations struggle to attract and retain members, some synagogues are merging, as others experiment with new dues structures and youth-targeted initiatives to bring in young people and families. Only about 25 percent of Jews nationally say they attend synagogue once or twice a month, according to a Pew Research study, and less than half of Jews in Baltimore hold synagogue memberships, according to the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study. That study also found that while the Orthodox community in Baltimore is growing, synagogue membership at Conservative shuls is holding steady and Reform congregations are losing ground.
But in the midst of these seismic shifts in the Jewish community are non-Jews who are actively seeking out Judaism, converting and joining congregations of all stripes, from Orthodox to Renewal, hailing from a range of ethnic and faith backgrounds — black, white and brown, from atheist to evangelical Christian. Whether attracted by Judaism’s focus on family, community or intellectual exploration, some say finding Judaism felt like they had finally found home.
For Gerry Gilstrop of Baltimore, the influence of his father’s Catholicism and his mother’s Baptist faith was keenly felt growing up in California. When his mother divorced and moved the family to Baltimore when Gilstrop was 8, he attended a number of schools.
“Revelation 22 Academy was a shocking kind of school to me,” Gilstrop, now 51, remembered. “It was Christian evangelical. I had never been exposed to anything like that coming from the Catholic tradition, so there were some things that didn’t jibe with me.”
At 15, Gilstrop, who is African-American, began a religious journey to discover what truth was for him and what it meant to live a good life.
“I didn’t know about world religion at that age, and we weren’t taught it in school,” he recalled. “So I started to educate myself about what the faith beliefs were around the world, not with the idea of converting, but just to understand, was there one path to truth or many paths to truth?”
Kylie Ora Lobell, 28, grew up in Carney and Mount Washington in a Catholic home, where Catholicism was only observed on holidays such as Christmas and Easter. But Jewish influences entered her life early.
“Growing up, I always dated Jewish boys. I did my first Passover when I was 14, and all of my friends at Carver [Center for Arts and Technology] were Jewish,” she said. “And that kind of continued in college.”
Unlike Gilstrop and Lobell, Bennet Wilcox, a recent transplant to Baltimore, grew up in a strongly atheist household. And although both parents were raised Christian, neither were practicing by the time Wilcox came along. Now 20, Wilcox said atheism was a “salient part” of his identity from the time he was 5 or 6. In his predominantly conservative and Christian neighborhoods, he experienced religion as exclusive.
“So that was the religion that I grew up knowing and the religion that I very much identify myself against,” he said.
Paula Faith Kurrus had Jewish friends as a girl and occasionally dreamt of being Jewish, but she was devoutly Christian, feeling at home in the Disciples of Christ church, where her father was a minister. As a youngster, her family moved a lot, and she later traveled internationally with her husband, eventually settling in Cockeysville. Kurrus, now 62, said that when interacting socially with Jews, she often felt a kinship but never questioned her Christian faith and background.
Miryam Madrigal of Baltimore was raised Roman Catholic in Ohio and California. The playwright and mother said when traveling through Seville, Spain, as a young woman, she met an ethnographer who knew a lot about the Jewish Diaspora. He said her father’s Mexican surname was Jewish.
“At that moment I had an epiphany, and I knew that I would explore Judaism,” she said.
About 17 percent of Jews say they came to Judaism from another religion, with 6 percent raised unaffiliated, 4 percent from major Protestant religions, 3 percent from Catholicism and 2 percent from evangelical or other religions, according to the Pew Research Center 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans study.
The ways that people come to Judaism are also varied and unique. Their exploration may be fast and furious or take a lifetime. But one thing that seems common among converts is that they take their study of Judaism seriously and become increasingly devoted to their new spiritual life.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, of the Orthodox Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation, teaches a 36-week Basics of Judaism course that is primarily for people seeking conversion. The class is followed by two months of observance and a trip to Israel. Shapiro has observed that people seeking conversion usually fall into a few groups, including individuals who want an Orthodox conversion because they want to be accepted in the Orthodox community.
“They typically have been inspired by Jewish friends from a really young age and felt a longing to join the Jewish people,” he said.
Shapiro said when it comes to couples, there are usually two types of people seeking conversion: those who have been married to a Jew for a long time and have decided they want to make it official; and those who are getting married. He said, traditionally, there has been some pushback against converts who are marrying into Judaism because rabbis want to be sure they are sincere.
“But the vast majority of the people I meet are extremely sincere and are inspired by what they see as a religion that values family and morality and has a strong intellectual base,” he said. “So, I’ve found that these people are really coming with their full heart.”
When Gilstrop began his study of Judaism in earnest as a teenager, he wanted to read the Bible in the original Hebrew text but found few resources on Judaism at public libraries near his home. His mother didn’t drive and he was too young, so Gilstrop walked from his Woodlawn home to Baltimore Hebrew College in Upper Park Heights (now Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University). There, he enrolled in the Hebrew course offered at night.
By age 17, he was in Israel at the Ein Hashlosha kibbutz near the Negev Desert for a two-month summer program.
“It gave me a chance to experience life in a foreign country. And to better understand biblical culture,” he said. “It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I fell in love with the land and the culture and the people all at once. How it all fit together in the present and how it’s connected to the past.”
When Lobell met her future husband, Jewish comedian Danny Lobell, she was finishing college in New York, interning in television and beginning a career in journalism.
“I went to a show and it was love at first sight,” she said. “He was raised Orthodox and went to yeshiva then got into comedy and got out of practice. So when I met him, he was going to the local Chabad for Friday night dinner because he was a starving comedian.”
At her very first Chabad Shabbat dinner Lobell felt a connection.
“I really, really enjoyed it. I felt very warm, like coming home, oddly enough,” she said. “We just kept going every week, and he took me to his parents for Shabbat dinner. I was an atheist, and after that I was like, I can’t be an atheist anymore. This feels like God exists.”
At 21 and contemplating conversion, she tried a few Conservative shuls and sought out Orthodox congregations where she lived in Brooklyn, finding a modern Orthodox synagogue where she felt most comfortable.
“[The rabbi] was so nice, he was very feminist and very sensitive,” she said. “I could tell him my struggles with converting, and he was always there for me.”
Wilcox had a similar experience when he began dating a Jewish woman in college. She would joke about his converting to Judaism because she wanted her chazzan at her wedding.
“And I was like, ‘Hell no, this is not something that I am interested in,’” he said. “Because, again, [atheism] was a salient part of my identity.”
But his atheism was challenged when he began experiencing Judaism with his girlfriend’s family, at dinners at their home and attending their Conservative synagogue.
“There was something really moving about it, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. The way that Judaism worked in their family and the way it served as a door to thinking about certain big questions,” he said. “It was an interesting and moving experience. After a couple of these visits I ended up poking around online and found the RRC [Reconstructionist Rabbinical College] online Intro to Judaism course.”
People seeking conversion often take an intensive months-long course on Judaism while also studying with a rabbi. The full process can take years. Prospective converts, depending on the denomination, will demonstrate their knowledge to a group of rabbis, or beit din, who make the final determination of whether they are ready. At the end of study and upon acceptance as a Jew, they may bathe in a mikvah (a ritual bath for men and women) or undergo the ritual brit milah (circumcision) for men. And a Hebrew name is chosen for them.
The Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Center offer a pluralistic approach to Judaism study, with a 16-week Introduction to Judaism course taught by rabbis from many denominations. It attracts people of all genders, ages and races.
Lara Nicolson, JCC’s Center for Jewish Life program director, said the majority of the board’s Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis send people to the course.
“Most of them are encouraging their students to go through the class,” she said, adding that the class is open to all denominations.
“It’s made up mostly of people who are wanting to learn more or who are working with a sponsoring rabbi and are on the path to conversion,” Nicolson said. “We have 16 classes, and the [curriculum] we’re using is affiliated with a Conservative university. But when the teachers come in, they teach it with their own examples and use their experience.”
The lead teacher of the current course is Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue.
Learing about Judaism for conversion doesn’t only entail studying the bible, Jewish law and learning Hebrew. Becoming familiar and comfortable with Jewish life and culture is also important so new Jews can find community.
When Kurrus landed in Baltimore in 2001, she began teaching music at Krieger Schechter Day School’s after-school program, where one day, students began singing a Hebrew prayer. It brought her to tears.
“I felt so overwhelmed with love, and I didn’t know why or how,” she said.
Later, during a phone conversation with her mother, Kurrus found out that her mother had been hiding her Jewish roots for decades. When Kurrus shared the news with her daughter, it affirmed her daughter’s own feelings about Judaism, and she embarked on her own journey, eventually having her bat mitzvah on a Birthright trip to Israel.
But Kurrus felt very conflicted about her mix of Christian and Jewish roots and began seeking answers, eventually attending a Friday night Shabbat service with a friend at Kol HaLev, a Reconstructionist congregation in North Baltimore.
“And I fell in love,” Kurrus said of the service and singing of Hebrew prayers. “I had not experienced a service like that before. I was impressed by the brilliant and educated insights and the deep honesty of the discussion. So moving.”
For Madrigal, after discovering her own connection to Judaism, she enrolled at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and took an introductory course.
“I loved it and kept on going,” she said. “I did a life evaluation. What do I believe? What do I really want? Judaism was my psychological liberation.”
Judaism influenced Madrigal’s art and she began writing plays dealing with the Jewish faith, including “Kosher with Salsa.”
Madrigal spent five years on her conversion and is now affiliated with Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation and is a fan of “a great many Orthodox synagogues here in town.”
Conversions can take years, but even after the formal study is complete, Judaism encourages continued growth and learning and questioning, which can lead to deeper and deeper investigations for meaning, connection and fulfillment.
When Gilstrop returned from Israel, he sought out a rabbi at Shearith Israel Congregation and began his conversion education with a congregant. Three years later, the rabbi decided Gilstrop was ready.
“And one day, I came in for what I thought was a status update, and [the rabbi] said, ‘How would you like to go to the mikvah this Sunday?’ The week before Rosh Hashanah. I was so amazed. I wasn’t even thinking in that vein,” he remembered. He was 20 years old when he converted to Judaism.
For the past few years, Gilstrop has been traveling back and forth to Israel studying with Rabbi David Weiss Halivni and is soon to be ordained as a modern Orthodox rabbi with the goal of making aliyah. He and his wife, Rebecca, who was brought up in the Reform tradition, now attend B’nai Israel in Baltimore.
One of the most meaningful things in Gilstrop’s life as a Jew is a sense of continuity, of a people and a culture that that has been passed down since time immemorial.
“What one of my rabbis would say is, ‘We carry our own portable virtual reality temple with us wherever we go, and we’ve been doing that since the destruction of Jerusalem,’” he said. “Even though many of us are born into Judaism, in whatever flavor that may be, and many of us who are not embrace it willingly, it’s important to realize that every Jew comes from someone who made a choice to be Jewish. And that’s the million-dollar question. Can you be a contributor to the never- ending story?”
Although she’s not sure why, Lobell said Orthodoxy “really connected” with her, from Jewish law to keeping kosher to the modest clothing she began to wear. After she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, Lobell began studying with a rabbi who helped them travel to Israel to study.
“We got engaged at the Western Wall. That was super cool,” she said. “My conversion took about four years. I didn’t want to convert and not get married right away, so I converted officially the week before my wedding in July 2015.”
Lobell said Judaism has transformed her life in many ways. A writer, she recently launched a website called Jewessmag.com to build an online community especially for Jewish women, offering interviews, stories and podcasts focused on spirituality, food, health and family.
“I definitely have a very deep connection to God, and I’ve actually become a lot more feminine,” Lobell said. “There’s a role that women are supposed to play in Orthodoxy, and I feel a lot more empowered, because it’s our goal to bring spirituality to the home. So I feel very empowered in my community.”
Wilcox began feeling that same kind of connection with all aspects of his life as he began learning more about Judaism and getting involved in the Jewish community. While taking the Introduction to Judaism class during his last year at Columbia, he began attending Reconstructionist and Renewal shuls and events, where he found the community open and accepting. He is in the process of studying for his conversion.
[pullquote]About 17 percent of Jews say they came to Judaism from another religion, with 6 percent raised unaffiliated, 4 percent from major Protestant religions, 3 percent from Catholicism and 2 percent from evangelical or other religions. — Pew Research Center 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans study[/pullquote]
“Eventually, I thought, ‘I love this. I don’t want this practice, this wisdom, this knowledge to leave my life,’” he said.
He moved to Baltimore last summer to take a job with Jews United for Justice and is attending Rabbi Daniel Burg’s Big Jewish Ideas class at the Conservative Beth Am Synagogue. He commutes to New York for monthly meetings with a rabbi.
Wilcox said his new job couldn’t have been a better fit with his newfound love of Judaism and his lifelong interest in social justice. His first a day at JUFJ was spent at a rally in favor of taking down Baltimore’s Confederate monuments.
“If you’re converting, it’s because you found something truly meaningful or beautiful in Judaism,” he said. “My experience has been that Judaism has given me a completely new lens through which to view the world, to view the political work that I do, to do the academic work that I did in college. It’s given me a practice that is super good for me and healthy and enriching. So when I saw the chance to work at a Jewish organization doing the kind of work that I wanted to do, I jumped at it.”
Kurrus didn’t need to go through a formal conversion process because her mother is Jewish. Nevertheless, she pursued Jewish learning on her own through formal classes at Kol HaLev and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She had her mikvah ceremony in August, choosing the Hebrew name Shira Ahava.
“I have been embraced, taught and now wedded into Jewish community,” she said. “In some ways, my experience at Kol HaLev has been like a new beginning. And there has been a unification within myself as well. I am now connected, within and without. I am a Jew among Jews. I am not alone in the world anymore. I have found my way back home.”