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Group completes conversion together


Beth Lipoff, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, May 22, 2009

Photo by Beth Lipoff: Jessica Hall (right), says a blessing over the Torah as Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (from left) and Araceli and Romeo Bagunu watch.

For 12 people, Monday marked the start of their new lives as Jews. The group, led by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, Rabbi Linda Steigman and Cantor Paul Silbersher, completed the conversion process with a dip in the mikvah at Kehilath Israel Synagogue.

Eleven members of the group have worked closely with Rabbi Cukierkorn throughout the process of Jewish learning that comes before a conversion. The other person worked with Cantor Silbersher.

Rabbi Cukierkorn, a native of Brazil who is known for helping would-be converts and other outreach efforts in South and Central America, wants people to know he's here to help the Kansas City community, too.

"People think, 'Rabbi Cukierkorn does conversions all around the world; what about here in town?" Here you go," he said.

A personal journey
It's been a long road for Romeo Bagunu, his wife, Araceli, and their three children, Yeremeya, 10, Yonatan, 9, and Annaliza, 6. Both Romeo and his wife were born in the Philippines and raised in the United States.

"The whole process has taken many years for us, from study, trying to work out our faith," said Romeo Bagunu.

He estimates they've been studying Judaism on their own for 11 years. Research into their ancestry sparked a curiosity about Judaism. Both Romeo and Araceli found that their heritage was Spanish and that their ancestors had settled in the Philippines after the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition expelled Spain's Jews and forced those who remained to convert to Christianity.

"During the Inquisition, a lot of the Jews settled in the Philippines. In learning that, we became more interested that our family had a lot of Spanish-Jewish culture they kept," Bagunu said.

In exploring their faith, "we went from a very charismatic Christian background to a Messianic congregation, then to an Orthodox congregation and finally settled last year with Rabbi Cukierkorn's New Reform Temple... Moving from the Christian faith to this, we wanted to know where the paths were alike and different," he said.

They had heard about Rabbi Cukierkorn's studies of the dispersion of Sephardic Jews and his work with their descendants.

"(Rabbi Cukierkorn) understood why we wanted to return to Judaism; he understood we were trying to come back to our ancestral root," Bagunu said. "Both Araceli and I found we had family last names of Sephardic origin going back four, five, six generations."

Bagunu said two trips to Israel in 1987 really launched his interest in Judaism.

"In going back over there, I began to be in love with the land, the people and the culture - since then, I have been on a rocket, full-throttle flying to learn (about Judaism)," he said.

The Bagunus home-school their children, and the two older ones study Torah on a daily basis.

Group conversion
While Monday's group was the biggest he has helped to formalize their conversion in the Kansas City area, Rabbi Cukierkorn said he once helped 40 to 50 people go through the mikvah in a single day in another city.

But don't get the wrong idea about the sheer size of the group.

"This is not a factory, but, rather, just for practicality. Everyone gets their private time for the mikvah, but it's done in an expeditious way," Rabbi Cukierkorn said.

Many people who convert locally have taken the year-long Conversion to Judaism Course approved and organized by the Rabbinical Association. All the congregational rabbis and some non-pulpit rabbis here taught different sessions this year, said Linda Cohen, the course coordinator.

The course, now in its sixth year, is funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Foundation. This year, 35 people registered for the two-hour, weekly class.

Since 2003-2004, 96 adults and 47 children have converted after completing the course.

While that specific course is not required for conversion, many rabbis steer people interested in converting there.

"The community class exposes them to all of the branches of Judaism, so they're not just getting one perspective," Cohen said.

Rabbi Scott White is the current Rabbinical Association liaison for the course. He has five candidates for conversion that he is personally mentoring.

"Going through this with 35 people, as opposed to five, gives you a broader context of peers," Rabbi White said.

There are no grades or tests in this class, but "we look for commitment to being active in the congregation while you're a candidate for conversion, and being active in personal life," Rabbi White said

Each rabbinic adviser may impose additional requirements on prospective converts, depending on his or her philosophy. That might include reading some additional books or writing a paper about the learning experience. Rabbi White said he expects his candidates to start to keep kosher and live a more Jewish lifestyle.

Rabbi Cukierkorn, of course, does not require the observance of kashrut.

"They have been through private consultations with me ... (and) they answer an exam of 50 questions," Rabbi Cukierkorn said.

Questions on Rabbi Cukierkorn's exam included "What do you feel are the important characteristics and actions of being a good Jew?" and "How does Judaism define God?"

Completing the process
A bet din (traditional religious court), which consists of three rabbis, asks the people about their motivations for converting and questions them about their studies before the people enter the mikvah.

"The bet din tries to be supportive," Rabbi Cukierkorn said. "It's checking the person, but not checking in a negative way, like if they're worthy ... (but more) 'How can we help you find your place in the Jewish community?' "

The bet din this week consisted of Rabbi Cukierkorn, Rabbi Steigman and Cantor Silbersher.

The final steps are circumcision and/or immersion. Different movements of Judaism follow these steps to different degrees. For the Orthodox and Conservative movements, a male must be circumcised; if he is already circumcised, a drop of blood is drawn as a symbolic circumcision.

"I make those things optional," said Rabbi Cukierkorn, who practices classical Reform Judaism.

Also, unlike the Orthodox and Conservative movements, he does not require people who are converting to immerse themselves in the mikvah, a pool for ritual purification. However, he estimates that 98 percent of people use the mikvah anyway.

Annaliza Bagunu said she thought the mikvah was fun but didn't like dunking her head under water three times, which is part of the ceremony.

Monday evening, all 11 of the participants who worked with Rabbi Cukierkorn met at the New Reform Temple for a special service. Each held the Torah and said a blessing. They all told the group their chosen Hebrew names and signed their certificates of conversion. Copies of the certificates will be stored at the American Jewish Archives, which preserves documents of the Reform movement.

In speaking to the group Monday night, Rabbi Cukierkorn welcomed them to Judaism, saying, "You are now one with us."