I have been in the rabbinate for more than four decades but never before have I participated in a group conversion of 30 individuals (24 adults and 6 children, ages 4 to 12) until now. This historic event took place in Barcelona, Spain on June 8 and 9, 2011.
The entire project was coordinated by Rosina Levy of Bet Shalom of Barcelona, a small congregation I have been helping out on and off for the last four years with its programs and services, and which now belongs to the European Region (ER) of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). When word got out that Bet Shalom was ready to present its candidates to the ER’s Beth Din (“rabbinic court”), other liberal Jewish communities around Spain asked that they be allowed to send in their own as well.
A duly authorized progressive Beth Din of three rabbis and a lay secretary came in from London. The European custom is that the local Rabbi (in this case, me) is not an official member of the court. However, I was invited to attend all the sessions and became a full member when one of the rabbis had to return to London for Shabbat services.
The candidates came from many parts of Spain: Barcelona (the majority from Bet Shalom but a few also from Atid), Asturias, Galicia, Seville, Cordoba, and Madrid. They were prepared for this transition by local teachers for a period of a year or more, and the men had to bring a certificate of circumcision as required by Jewish law and the European custom. (In the States, some Reform Rabbis do not require this procedure from adult males). The participants demonstrated proficiency in Jewish history, customs, religious festivals, and life-cycle events; and they were all involved in their own synagogue life.
It is estimated that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 Jews in Spain today, most of them coming from North Africa, France and surrounding countries, but there is a great pool of local people with vivid Jewish memories going back to the times of the Inquisition. Now these people want to reclaim their Jewish identity and wish to become officially part of the people of Israel.
After the exams, we issued two types of certificates: a formal conversion certificate but also, upon request, a certificate of return. We heard incredible stories: their parents, and more often their great or great-grand parents, told them that they carried Jewish blood, that it was the family tradition to cover the mirrors during the period of mourning, that many lit candles on the Sabbath Eve, some knowing exactly what they are doing, others attributing the practice to vague family traditions of ages gone by with no particular knowledge of their significance.
The culminating event took place on Friday, June 9, in the afternoon, when all the candidates (with the Beth Din supervising the procedure) went to the beach for the tevilah, the ritual immersion, with women on one side and men on the other of the pier. It was drizzling that day in the morning but fortunately for us, when we arrived at the beach, the rain stopped and the sun appeared for a short while. There was a mad dash into the tepid waters. After reciting the blessings together, they all came out triumphantly proclaiming their new Jewish identity.
That night, during the Sabbath service, I, as the officiating Rabbi, gave each Jew-by-choice his/her certificate, and the next day during the morning worship I called them up to the Torah for their ever first aliyah. There was joy and celebration in the congregation. They could not thank us enough for confirming what they felt a very long time. And we, at the rabbinic court, were thrilled to make this happen a reality for them. For next year, many are already planning an adult Bar/t Mitzvah.
This conversion program not only propelled Bet Shalom onto the front lines of progressive Judaism in Spain but is now a model for other small congregations, which have learned what can be accomplished with enthusiasm, dedication and the support of the European Region of the WUPJ. This made me really proud.
Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino, Emeritus
Boston College, USA