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The First-Ever Reconstructionist Beit Din in Europe

Rabbi Maurice Harris of Reconstructing Judaism shares his moving story of welcoming new Jews through conversion in the Netherlands.

Tilburg is a Dutch city of a quarter-million people near the border with Belgium. It is also home to the only liberal mikvah in the Netherlands, which is run by a Reform synagogue there, the Liberaal Joodse Gemeente. On Wednesday, March 6, 2019, I had the privilege of serving on a beit din with two other Reconstructionists, Rabbi Hannah Nathans, who serves Klal Israel, the Reconstructionist affiliate in Delft, Netherlands, and Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, who serves an unaffiliated congregation in Malmö, Sweden. Rabbi Hannah had organized the beit din because a group of students with whom she had been working for about two years in Delft had completed their preparations and were now ready to ceremonially “take the plunge” into the mikvah and emerge as Jews. Since the closest available mikvah was in Tilburg, all of us gathered there.

Vaulted synagogue interior with stained glass, two rabbis seated in the center

Rabbi Hannah Nathans and Rabbi Rebecca Lillian in the Tilburg synagogue sanctuary before the beit din.

One by one, the conversion candidates met with us in the sanctuary of the synagogue, and we asked them questions about the journeys each of them described in their personal essays. All of the adult candidates (two were children) also picked a research topic and wrote a substantive annotated paper on it. The personal stories were riveting, and the research papers were thorough and fascinating. Most of the candidates spoke English well enough for us to be able to converse in English, but Rabbi Hannah served as translator as well.

One candidate, Janette G. W. van Doodewaard, wrote her paper on Judaism’s traditions on death and mourning, through the lens of her professional experience as a hospice care provider. Mordechai (Marco) Schouwenaar’s paper presented a historical background on the evolution of kashrut and then explored future directions for it, including eco-kashrut. Nicole van Boven’s 22-page paper was about Jewish imagery in the lyrics of Leonard Cohen.

One of the most moving personal stories came from Alwin Lobato. As a young man, Alwin learned of his Sephardic family ancestry, and he began exploring Judaism at Mikve Israel Emmanuel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean island off the northwest coast of Venezuela. (Yes, there’s really a Reconstructionist congregation there, in a historic building with a floor made of sand!)

Man holding toddler

Alwin Lobato (right)

Years later, Alwin moved to the Netherlands. He described his efforts to continue exploring Judaism there. Unfortunately, he felt like he got the cold shoulder from one of the congregations with which he attempted to become involved. Feeling frustrated, he remembered how warmly welcomed he had felt at the synagogue in Curaçao, and then recalled that it had been affiliated with Reconstructionism. He researched whether there were any Reconstructionist congregations in the Netherlands, and he found Klal Yisrael in Delft. He gave it a try, and found the community and Rabbi Hannah to be welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and supportive of his desire to study Judaism and explore the possibility of conversion.

Klal Yisrael is a vibrant Reconstructionist congregation with a great deal of pride in being part of our movement. Last November, the community sent four people to Philadelphia to take part in our convention. One of them, Ivo Galli, told the beit din that one of the things he loves about Reconstructionism is its way of combining a love of Jewish texts and traditions with open-minded and honest intellectual inquiry. Describing his enthusiasm for our approach to Judaism, he quipped, “I’m not Jewish to turn off my brain,” which brought a smile to all of our faces. In response to another of the beit din’s questions, Ivo thought for a moment and then began, “I would have to say, very Jewishly, yes and no.”

Family of four converting to Judaism, flanked by rabbis

From left to right: Rabbi Hannah Nathans, Channan van Boven, Nicole van Boven, Chava van Boven, Jorrit van Boven, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, and Rabbi Maurice Harris.

As is often the case with conversions, we rabbis all felt moved and inspired by our interview candidates. The candidates themselves were very emotional upon learning of our decisions to approve them and send them on to the mikvah to make it official. Some wept; others couldn’t stop smiling, and the day clearly marked an important milestone for each of them. Eric Bremer, the president of Klal Yisrael, who met with us afterwards, told us, “In this country where the Jews were decimated 70 years ago, you have just grown the Jewish population by nine people.” Two of those new Jews, Chava (age: 10, favorite holiday: Hanukkah) and Channan (age: 12, favorite holiday: Sukkot) were especially inspiring. A bit shy, but confident in what they’d learned along with their parents in the process, they knocked our socks off.

People at Klal Yisrael in Delft are warm and enjoy having visitors, so if travel to the Netherlands is in your future plans, then you might want to consider contacting them first (one way to do that is by messaging them through their Facebook page). Connecting with some of their members has given me a new appreciation of how resilient and creative progressive Judaism in Europe can be. It’s exciting that Reconstructionism is a part of that unfolding new Jewish life.

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