A Warm Welcome into the Jewish People
Each year, literally hundreds of Spanish speakers contact Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum, Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s conversion program for Spanish speakers in Israel.
The program assists at least 50 families each year in fulfilling their dream of joining the Jewish People, Birnbaum relates. “Participants come from countries throughout the Spanish-speaking world, each with his or her own story,” she said. “Some have been raised as Jewish by a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, and seek to finally become halakhically, formally Jewish. Others have come to Israel to volunteer or study in university, fallen in love with an Israeli Jew and seek to become Jewish and make their life in Israel. And still others simply feel drawn to Judaism and yearn to officially become Jewish.”
Chana Rivera is one of them. Born in Spain, Rivera also lived with her family for several years in Panama. Over the years, as they befriended many Jewish families, they became more and more drawn to Judaism. They began learning about the Jewish faith on their own, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. After a number of rabbis recommended that they participate in the OTS program, Rivera and her sister, Devora, moved to Israel, some two years ago.
“We loved the learning in the program,” said the sisters, who successfully completed their conversion process in May. “But even beyond the formal sessions, Rabbanit Birnbaum made sure we had everything we needed to adjust to life in Israel. She gave us tremendous support to ensure a successful conversion process and successful Aliyah,” they said.
“Our program does provide an excellent learning and conversion program, but we are far more than that,” confirms Birnbaum. “We connect participants to adoptive families who can provide a home base and personal support. We assist with their integration into Jewish communities and life in Israel. We help them with all of their needs, to ensure a positive Jewish journey,” she said.
Living a Full Jewish Life
There are thousands of people in the United States, Israel and countries around the world who seek to officially join the Jewish people and OTS has been responding to their call – working with people from Australia to Portugal, from San Salvador to Uganda, in Israel, in the United States and in their home communities. Through a number of programs, OTS is teaching them Judaism, connecting them to Jewish communities, and helping them fulfill their dreams of becoming Jewish and living Jewish lives.
“If not for Ohr Torah Stone’s conversion program, my wife and I would not be married today,” said Jerome Dadon, a graduate of OTS’s US-based Jewish Learning Center, run by Rabbi David Kalb. “As important as it was to build a life together, it was first and foremost important to her that I become Jewish, so that we could build a Jewish home. Thanks to Ohr Torah Stone, today we are living a full, observant Jewish life.”
Originally launched as a New York-based program, the Jewish Learning Center recently expanded to include a group in Philadelphia, offering conversion classes – now held mostly online – that combine study sessions about Jewish holidays, ritual and philosophy with connection to communities and practical Jewish experiences. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the program has seen its highest attendance, with over 50 participants in the two programs.
Proud to Teach Them
There are also countless stories across the globe of entire communities beginning their own journeys towards Judaism. In some cases, the leader of a Christian community might discover Judaism, learning independently and eventually teaching Judaism to his congregants. Lacking local Jewish resources, these leaders often begin to research on their own, and begin to follow Jewish laws and tradition to the best of their ability without concrete educational resources and guides.
Over the years, OTS has connected with many such communities via its vast network of rabbinical and educational shlichim all over the world, as well as through personal visits from OTS founder and rosh yeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, as well as through Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs.
After first helping these communities deepen their Jewish education and practice, OTS has converted entire communities in Uganda and Kenya, San Salvador and various locations throughout South America. OTS has enabled community leaders to learn shechita (kosher slaughter) and helped them build their first mikvah (ritual bath), thus developing the infrastructure they need to live a full Jewish life.
In San Salvador alone, OTS has helped over 500 people convert to Judaism and build a thriving community that now includes a synagogue, mikvah and Jewish schools for the children. The community is served by Straus-Amiel shaliach Rabbi Netanel Hansani, who arrived in San Salvador in August 2019 in order to guide them spiritually and help them learn and celebrate Jewish life.
“In emerging Jewish communities around the world, people are discovering Judaism and seeking to become part of the Jewish people,” remarked Rabbi Birnbaum. “We are proud to help teach them, wherever they may be, and through our emissaries who are based in or near many of their communities, to continue to strengthen their Jewish identity and help them build strong, vibrant Jewish life.”