Kyley McClain (left) becomes a bat mitzvah in Jerusalem.
When, during a winter 2004 Taglit - birthright israel trip, Kyley McClain became a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, she shared the honor with four other University of Rochester students. But unlike them, a few weeks before the trip, McClain emerged from a Rochester mikvah, a Jew-by-choice.
Her journey to Judaism began as a little girl growing up in New Jersey. “Most of my friends growing up were Jewish,” she says.
And while she spent Shabbat dinners with her Jewish friends and sometimes joined them in Hebrew school, she “always felt like an outsider.”
During her freshman year at Rochester she decided to attend Rosh Hashanah services at the Hillel. “And I went from there,” says McClain.
She took Judaism classes at local synagogues, learned to read Hebrew and attended Conservative and Modern Orthodox services.
“My life changed after the mikvah,” says McClain, who today is the program director at the University of Rochester Hillel. “Things have fit into place.”
Converting to Judaism while a student in college, and not, say, for marriage, is becoming increasingly common, observe Hillel rabbis.
“The biggest surprise for me as a Hillel rabbi is the volume of students interested,” says Rabbi Amy Idit Jacques of Ohio State University Hillel. “Just from two years ago to this year, the number of students who approach me about conversion has increased.”
While it is not easy to substantiate why there might be an increase in college students converting to or interested in Judaism, some rabbis believe they seek conversion as a protest against the rise of fundamental Christianity.
However, another reason might be the increasing number of college students, who are raised in intermarried homes, and who are trying to redefine their Jewish identity.
“My mom is a practicing Catholic, but I was raised a Reform Jew,” says Hofstra University junior, Amanda Graber.
Growing up, Graber attended a Reform synagogue, became a bat mitzvah and was president of her Jewish youth group. But when sharing her upbringing with a group of students on a Taglit-birthright israel trip, another student told Graber that according to the laws of the State of Israel, she was not technically Jewish.
“I cried,” says Graber. “I’d never heard that before.”
After a “difficult conversation” with her parents Graber decided to “basically convert to my own religion” and began a path toward an Orthodox conversion.
“It was not easy talking to my parents, I didn’t want to hurt them or make them feel like they didn’t raise me Jewish enough,” says Graber.
But then there are students like Arizona State University senior Benjamin Riccardi, a former altar boy, who grew up Episcopalian. Riccardi’s theological questions started in high school, he says, and he started attended Friday night services at a nearby Reform synagogue. When he arrived at ASU, he became involved with the campus Hillel and started learning with Reform rabbis in town. He completed his conversion during his junior year. After graduation, Riccardi is planning a year of Jewish learning in Jerusalem, before applying to rabbinical school.
However, some Hillel rabbis doubt the developmental readiness of college students to formally proceed with Jewish conversion. Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Stanford University Hillel does not encourage undergraduates to complete the official conversion process before they graduate.
“It’s a lifelong commitment. By its nature college is a period of transition and temporary. And the college community is not permanent,” says Copeland. “There’s no rush to convert. If the students feel there is a rush it’s a red flag.”
And not all Hillel rabbis feel conversion is even within their jurisdiction or job description.
“I see myself as an educator and a counselor,” says Rabbi Avi Orlow of St. Louis Hillel. And he won’t serve on a student’s beit din, a religious court used in the conversion process, where there might be the possibility of judgment.
“My role is to answer questions and to steer potential converts to a congregational rabbi,” agrees Rabbi Aaron Spiegel of Butler University Hillel. “I believe converting through a community is very important.”
When his “lack of being able to identify with Christianity” brought Tony Rodriguez, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to explore Judaism, he began taking Jewish studies classes at the university. Three years later he formally converted at a local Reform congregation in Milwaukee.
Each student who chooses conversion to Judaism has a unique story. But most agree that what attracted them to Judaism was the accepting nature of the Jewish community on their campuses.
And while Riccardi admits to being tripped up by cultural references -- like Yiddish expressions and the meaning of the word “lox” -- most importantly he says, “Now, I’m counted in the minyan.”