In the Decarie Boulevard offices of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, quiet transformations take place. Here, prospective converts attend the weekly classes of the JCC’s Montreal Jewish Conversion program to learn what it means to be a Torah Jew.
The French and English speaking teachers educate their students about Jewish law (halacha) and Jewish thought (hashkafa), but “the conversion program is much larger than a classroom experience” stresses Mrs. Esther Hochstadter, senior teacher at the program. Rather, “it’s experiential.”
The curriculum requires each prospective convert to have “sponsoring families” who host them regularly for Shabbos meals and festivals (chagim) throughout the Jewish calendar. Indeed, many converts point back to these Shabbat table experiences as the single most powerful factor that propelled them on their journeys to Judaism.
Yearly Shabbatons in the Laurentian mountains, Chanuka parties, and Purim meals (seudot) at teachers’ homes are opportunities for the prospective converts to meet successful “graduates” of the program and hear details about their integration into Orthodox Jewish communities.
The program’s holistic approach to conversion includes a mental health aspect as well. The Jewish Community Council partnered with noted California psychologist Rabbi Dr. David Fox who formulated a conversion readiness assessment to ensure that prospective converts are emotionally stable and are approaching Judaism with a solid motivation.
The program’s three dayanim meet the students every few months throughout the program to ascertain their level of knowledge and sincerity to convert.
Sincerity is difficult to ascertain. Mrs. Hochstadter challenges her students with this question: “you have seven Noaachide laws- your ticket to heaven. Why would you want 613 commandments?” A class of fifteen prospective converts can whittle down over two plus years of education, but the aim in an authentic conversion program is quality, not quantity.
Indeed, the nachas that these geirei tzedek give to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the teachers who invested so much effort into them, and their sponsoring families are immense. “My students become family,” says Hochstadter. “When I go to Israel, I visit my former students regularly and remain connected to them throughout the year via WhatsApp. We remain connected through Torah, which was our original bond, via classes which I give over Zoom. I marvel at the homes they’re building and the ways in which they’re gainfully contributing to the Jewish community, oftentimes in Israel.” (see sidebar)
While some graduates of the Montreal Conversion Program stay on in Montreal, many others move on to Jewish communities the world over.
In recent years, several graduates of the program have moved from Montreal to the Northern Israeli town of Yavniel. Yavniel has a large community of converts, and two geirei tzedek from Montreal’s program have taken on leadership positions in the community.
Just over a year ago, these converts decided to give much needed chizzuk to local converts and baalei teshuva by organizing a Shabbaton for them. Not knowing how to organize such a Shabbaton, the community turned to their teacher and mentor Mrs. Hochstadter for help.
Mrs. Hochstadter flew to Israel and spoke at the Shabbaton in person. She saw there that the ongoing support that the Montreal program offers its graduates was sorely lacking in the lives of other converts.
As the Shabbaton wound down, a prominent Rabbi in Yavniel turned to Mrs. Hochstadter. “It seems that in Montreal, your efforts towards continuity and integration have been a source of your great success,” he observed. His sentiments were echoed by the many community leaders who have noted that the converts from the Montreal program are the most well-prepared, connected, and contributing converts they have met.
The Shabbaton was a smashing success for its participants, and it did something else too: it gave Mrs. Hochstadter and other Shabbaton organizers the impetus to create an international network in which geirei tzedek could connect and thrive as Jewish community members well past conversion.
One of the outcomes of this initiative is a newsletter which is published in Israel and edited and compiled by Mrs. Tzirel Rus Krieger, author of the well-known book “The Mountain Family.” Hochstadter and Krieger’s dream of connecting geirei tzedek worldwide and offering an umbrella of support to them has begun to materialize. Indeed, Mrs. Hochstadter’s bi-monthly Zoom classes now reach geirei tzedek as far as Singapore and France.
Says Hochstadter, “the program transforms others, but it has added a most inspirational dimension to my life. Geirus has become a huge focus in my life. It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s also a tremendous privilege (zchut).”
The mission of the Jewish Community Council is to facilitate the maintenance of Jewish traditional life in Montreal . The Montreal Jewish Conversion program fulfills that mission by ensuring that new members of the Jewish faith are authentic and well- prepared to live a life of Torah and mitzvot as contributing members of their respective Jewish communities.
A Montreal Convert’s Testimony
I grew up in Montreal. My family was secular Sephardic and was almost entirely detached from Judaism. We were so detached, in fact, that my father is Jewish, but my mother was not. Growing up, I had no idea what being Jewish meant, but I always felt so different from my peers in the Christian school I attended. As I got older, I felt more and more distant from my friends.
As my distress grew, circumstances united me with a traditional Sephardic family in our neighborhood. They introduced me to kashrut and Shabbat, things I had never heard about before. I was intrigued, and I was determined to learn more. The more I learned about Judaism, the more I was convinced that it was the only path for me.
So, together with my mother, (who had also always wanted to convert, since her father was also Jewish), we started the conversion process. We attended classes and I drank up every word of Torah that I heard. I met extraordinary Jews. I never dreamt that such greatness could exist! Little by little, I took the mitzvot upon myself. I was delighted to learn of the treasures that the Torah offers.
I completed my conversion process at Montreal Jewish Conversion, the official orthodox Beit Din. My experience was positive. I had a great relationship with my teachers, who taught me both the basics of Judaism and its deeper realms. I still keep in touch with many of these teachers to this day. The program had comprehensive classes which included weekly parsha, halachot for kashrut, Shabbat, holidays, fast days, as well as chasidut. Montreal Jewish Conversion also required us to spend Shabbat and chagim at different families across the city. These families, whether they are aware of it or not, have significantly impacted me. They showed me Jewish middot. They shaped my Jewish identity. The MJC also organized Shabbatons and evenings to celebrate different holidays. These created in us a sense of belonging to the program and helped us bond with fellow converts.
Of course, the process itself was not always rosy. My paternal family, for whom this whole process was a shock, strongly opposed my becoming religious. Religious Judaism to them was a fearsome unknown. My teachers and peers were also entirely unsupportive.
Nevertheless, at the age of 18, I completed my conversion process, which ended with my immersion in a mikveh, a day I will never forget. It was as if I had Har Sinai on my head! On that day, Hashem was asking me to accept his Torah!
The day of my conversion was both an end and a beginning. It was the end of my life as a non-Jew, and the end of my conversion process. At the same time, it was the beginning of my new life as a bat Yisrael who strives at all costs to serve Hashem and to absorb His precious Torah.
Two years after my conversion, I traveled to study at a seminary in Israel. My time in Israel was magical and I decided to stay on and make aliyah. My Judaism grew stronger and I became much safer in my practice.
I would like to remind you, who were born Jewish, of the incredible present that Hashem has given you. Being Jewish is not easy, I admit that. But nothing precious is acquired easily. All that is sustainable, healthy, and worthy requires great effort. Enjoy the unimaginable gift that Hashem has given you. Embrace it and cherish it, because it is more precious than pearls…