It seems there’s nothing a person can’t do online these days — including converting to Judaism.
PunkTorah, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization and online community, is investigating the possibility of launching a digital distance learning conversion to Judaism program. It claims that the conversions will be valid and that anyone who says otherwise would be ignoring halacha, or Jewish law.
“People have been begging us to do this,” says Rabbi Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier, PunkTorah’s founder and director and rosh yeshiva of its associated Darshan Yeshiva, an online Jewish spiritual leadership school.
Beaulier, 30, is also the spiritual leader of OneShul, the online pluralistic synagogue that is an outgrowth of PunkTorah. He reports 250,000 individuals interact in varying ways and degrees with the organization’s network every year.
“Our community is for people who have fallen through the cracks of Jewish life,” Beaulier explains. “A large portion of those who use our resources are Jews-by-choice or are interested in converting.”
Those seeking conversion tell Beaulier they either don’t have a synagogue or Jewish community where they live, or they don’t want to go outside the PunkTorah community to go through the process.
As an initial investigation in to whether an online conversion program would be feasible, PunkTorah linked a survey to its website. The survey asks questions about motivations for converting to Judaism, what they are seeking from an online conversion program, and their level of commitment to going through the steps of conversion and living a Jewish life afterwards.
Those polled can also register to receive more information about the conversion program as it becomes available.
“In just the first three days since the webpage went up, we’ve had 65 sign-ups of people wanting to be part of a conversion program,” Beaulier reports.
He is cautious about making any commitments yet as to whether PunkTorah can deliver the program. He first wants to hear what people are interested in and what exactly they are willing to take on.
“We don’t want to create a program and then try to sell it to people. We really want people to take ownership of it,” says Beaulier.
‘We intend to keep it as halachically watertight as possible’
PunkTorah is upfront on its website that there will be costs associated with the potential program, and that travel to Atlanta for the beit din and mikveh (ritual immersion) would be necessary. The conversion ceremonies would take place in a Conservative synagogue with a mikveh, and the beit din would be comprised of post-denominational rabbis. Male converts would be required to undergo brit milah (ritual circumcision) or a hatafat dam brit (extraction of a drop of blood).
“We intend to keep it as halachically watertight as possible,” says Beaulier.
Although the rabbi claims that the conversions would be in accordance with halacha, potential converts are warned: “The conversions will be valid, but not under Orthodox and/or Israeli religious law. Just as Reform and Conservative conversions are not taken as valid by Orthodox Israeli rabbis, our post-denominational conversion would not be either.”
Beaulier, who received rabbinical ordination through Rabbinical Seminary International, a distance learning program, believes it is imperative to reach out to people interested in joining the Jewish people.
“Everyone is talking about the Pew report and how we are so desperate to get people to get involved Jewishly. Here’s a sincere group of people who we should not push away. We need to show them they are loved and wanted,” he says. “They will be tremendous allies to the Jewish people. God help us if we don’t help them.”
Beaulier strongly identifies with the people turning to him asking for conversion. He himself is a Jew-by-choice, having converted through the Reconstructionist movement.
“My decision to become a Jew was about ethical monotheism. God demands of us a righteous life,” he explains.
“What has kept me Jewish is a sense of belonging. The Jewish people are a family.”