Sunday, December 15, 2019 -
Print Edition

Rabbi Refoel Levitt, the go-to guy for Orthodox conversion

Rabbi Refoel LevittIN more than a decade as the go-to guy for those seeking conversion to Orthodox Judaism in Denver, Rabbi Refoel Levitt has become quite adept at spotting “the spark.”

The spark, the rabbi explains in his clear, slightly edgy, way, is an elusive yet powerful quintessence, a certain something that suggests that someone is Jewish, no matter the exterior appearance. The old Yiddish phrase for it is Pintele Yid — literally, the “Jewish spark.”

As a teacher who guides Gentiles into the world and lifestyle of observant Judaism, Rabbi Levitt sees the spark in all sorts of people:

In both men and women, and sometimes even in children, from all age groups;

In those who are white, black, brown and yellow, and various shades in between;

In those who were once the most ardent of unbelievers;

In those who were once the most ardent of Christians, even pastors of congregatons;

In those who descended from Jews but whose familial connection to Judaism has been lost or hidden for decades, even centuries.

The latter group is particularly fascinating to Rabbi Levitt, who finds in such people particularly striking evidence of the Pintele Yid — the element so often present in those who feel the drive to become Jewish.

“They didn’t know they were Jewish but they had feelings that they were Jewish,” he says. “It’s a common theme that not only do people have this feeling, but the family won’t speak of it. It’s like a skeleton hidden in the closet. It’s like G-d revealed a hidden spark inside their soul.”

Virtually everyone who comes to him seeking conversion, regardless of background, the rabbi says, feels something similar.

“There is an inner drive in all people to try to feel complete and fulfilled,” he says. “In that striving, they taste different things. Many of the people who come to us say that the taste that they found in Judaism — intellectually and emotionally — tasted true. It was the music of truth.”

RABBI Levitt, who teaches third and fifth grade classes at the Denver Jewish Day School and occasionally serves as an assistant community chaplain for the Jewish Family Service, has been teaching an Orthodox conversion class in Denver for 11 years.

Through a set of circumstances he met a non-Jewish man, a janitor, who had adopted the dress and much of the lifestyle of an Orthodox Jew, even though he knew very little about Judaism. The janitor asked the rabbi if he could help him make the transition to a Jewish lifestyle, firmly convinced that this was his true identity.

As traditional rabbis traditionally do, Rabbi Levitt tried to discourage the man, telling him that he needn’t be Jewish to go to heaven, so long as he lived a righteous life and observed the “Seven Noahide Laws,” seen by Orthodox Jews as indicators of basic righteousness.

The man wasn’t satisfied with that answer, Rabbi Levitt says, so he consulted with various rabbinical bodies, one of which — the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, a rabbinical court in New York — agreed to assist him with a conversion curriculum and personal supervision of any converts whom the rabbi taught.

The rabbi successfully converted the janitor, as well as the rest of his immediate family. When Rabbi Mordecai Twerski, who had been a local activist in Orthodox conversions, left Denver for New York in 2000, much of the responsibility eventually fell on Rabbi Levitt’s shoulders.

“There were people left hanging,” Rabbi Levitt says, “so it just so happened that it made a shidduch, a match. There was a vacuum to be filled.”

Thus began a freelance conversion career that has, as of late August this year, resulted in 64 conversions under Rabbi Levitt’s tutelage, many of them members of families who have gone through the conversion process together.

That number reflects roughly 60% of the students who began taking the rabbi’s two-hour weekly conversion classes, since some 40% of those who begin opt out before reaching actual conversion.

Rabbi Levitt’s current class consists of 17 students, which indicates that the number of those seeking to convert to Orthodoxy, at least in Denver, is on the rise.

“It began with three or four people and then it averaged at 10. And then it moved up.”

He’s not sure whether his own figures are reflective of the national level, where finding reliable numbers can be difficult.

“I don’t know if it’s a function of more people getting to know who I am, or the fact that more people want to convert,” Rabbi Levitt says. “But I do have more students now than before.”

He’s pretty sure that this is exactly the sort of work he’s supposed to be doing.

“I look at it like Hashem created me and I have a purpose in life,” Rabbi Levitt says. “The opportunity came to me to perform conversions, so I became a teacher. It is another responsibility Hashem is asking me to do, not through words but through opportunities that He’s placing before me.

“So I don’t look at numbers, whether they’re high or low. I just try to do the best I can. These people come to my class and I feel that so many of them are so sincere. All they want to do is what G-d wants them to do, to fulfill their purpose in life.”

RABBI Levitt’s conversion class is based on a year-and-a-half curriculum, although many students need two years to complete the process.

“In a year and a half you can’t cover everything, but we cover the main stuff that they have to know,” he says. “And they know that they always have to continue learning.”

Students are given a rigorous course in basic Judaism — the laws of Shabbos, the holidays, Jewish lifecycle events, family purity laws, principles governing such practices as leshon hara (avoiding gossip and not speaking badly of others), personal modesty,  the seven Noahide laws, 13 principles of faith, the 10 Commandments, laws governing blessings, basic kashrus, the Jewish calendar and more.

Specific study in Torah is not delved into at this stage.

“It’s not a Torah class,” Rabbi Levitt says. “They’re not Jewish yet, so I’m not here to give them lessons in Torah. It is more lessons in Jewish law — how to act as a Jew. They’re like a JIT — a Jew in Training.

“Part of my class is inspirational stories that will illustrate what we’re learning and inspire.”

It needn’t be a very expensive process for converts, he adds. He charges $20 per student per week, and the largest expenses are the mikveh at the end of the process ($180) and, if needed, a bris from a mohel (about $75).

Students are also expected to share in the expenses of bringing to Denver every six months Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, a conversion expert from (and former head of) the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, who interviews every student twice a year.

Rabbi Steinberg’s participation in the process guarantees that Rabbi Levitt’s students are not only keeping pace with their studies, but that their conversions will ultimately receive an unassailable imprimatur of acceptance.

“Rabbi Steinberg comes every six months to interview the potential converts,” Rabbi Levitt says. “He evaluates what level they’re on and tells them what things they have accomplished and what their goals should be.”

It is only with the final approval of Rabbis Levitt and Steinberg, and the rabbi who initially sponsored the student, that students eventually achieve conversion.

“What the rabbinical court likes to see is a really fine track record of keeping the mitzvahs, going to shul, keeping kosher, practicing family purity laws.”

Conversion students are required to keep a personal calendar detailing their transition from their former lifestyle into an observant one.

“We look to see what they look like and how they’re acting,” Rabbi Levitt says. “We take a look at their calendars and see what kinds of questions they’re asking and who they’re asking these questions of.

“We don’t have to see 100% fulfillment. What we want to see are signs of a really strong and sincere desire, and that they’re moving in the right direction.”

Once they have successfully completed the class, students go through the rituals and are ultimately rewarded with a conversion under the authority of the Vaad Harabonim.

That authority is crucial, Rabbi Levitt says, since many bodies which issue conversion certificates — even some Orthodox ones — are not considered acceptable by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate which has, with considerable controversy, severely tightened their standards of defining who is a Jewish convert.

Since Rabbi Steinberg personally supervises each student in Rabbi Levitt’s class, his conversions are considered acceptable even by the strictest Israeli authorities. None of his converts has had any problems being recognized as fully Jewish by Israel or any other authority.

“So far, thank G-d, even in Israel, we’ve had a perfect record,” the rabbi says.

TWO Denver rabbis who refer potential converts to Rabbi Levitt for education speak very highly of his effectiveness and warmth as a teacher.

Rabbi Yaakov Meyer of Aish Denver, who has referred several students to him, says Rabbi Levitt is “a very pleasant and kind man.

“I believe that he is a good person, personality-wise, to be working with potential converts. He’s honest and very straightforward.”

Although Rabbi Meyer has yet to see Rabbi Levitt in action in his conversion class, he says he has repeatedly been impressed with how Rabbi Levitt interacts with his students, and later converts, in social settings.

Rabbi Daniel Alter, spiritual leader of the DAT Minyan, is in total agreement.

 


“When I think of Rabbi Levitt, it’s usually in terms of his personality,” Rabbi Alter says. “He’s a genuine, incredibly caring personality. I think his love of Torah is contagious.”

 

Rabbi Alter adds that Rabbi Levitt’s conversion class is an integral part of a system informally devised by Denver’s Orthodox rabbinate to perform conversions in a way that are universally acceptable by rabbinic authorities on an international level, including those in Israel.

It’s part of a nationwide effort, led by the Rabbinical Council of America, to devise a standardized conversion system to avoid the “incredibly complicated” Orthodox conversion system of today, Rabbi Alter says.

“We just felt that having a nationally and internationally recognized beit din — in this case the Queens beit din — that officially does the conversion is really critical. If three rabbis from Denver just got into it without that authority, their conversions might be challenged in a few years.”

Rabbi Levitt cares a great deal about the acceptability of the conversions he helps facilitate, Rabbi Alter adds, as well as being genuinely interested in how his students fare as they move forward in their lives as Jews.

“I know he cares very much about all the converts, even years after they’ve been through the program. I think he feels a great deal of responsibility toward them.”

THE Orthodox community is hypersensitive to the word “outreach” when it is applied to non-Jews.

It may not be strictly prohibited by Halachah, but the observant community — very unlike the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements — considers it strictly taboo to actively seek Gentiles to convert.

Only in rare and unusual cases — such as an intermarriage where the non-Jewish spouse has expressed considerable personal interest in Judaism — will Orthodox rabbis even consider bringing the subject of conversion up.

Thus, Orthodox rabbis traditionally try, at least initially, to discourage potential converts from making the switch to Judaism.

Rabbi Levitt follows that guideline. He asks all potential converts why they would want to shoulder the burden of Jewish responsibility when “they can still go to heaven.”

He refers to such responsibilities as the 613, often very demanding, commandments that Orthodox Jews feel themselves obligated to observe.

And the undeniable historical record of the persecution of Jews.

“I also teach my students history, specifically Holocaust history,” Rabbi Levitt says, “to show what happens to people who are Jewish.”

Often, the rabbi adds, potential converts are not only discouraged, but investigated. Those who work in the field of conversion are ever alert for those who might be deceptive, such as Christians who might be willing to undergo the full conversion process only to gain entry into Israel under the Law of Return.

“The road that people take here is sometimes circuitous. They don’t come to us directly. Sometimes they go through other things until they get here and the rabbis have to investigate and discern whether that person’s background shows that they’re missionaries or messianics. People have to admit whatever they did.”

However, just because somebody might have been active in messianic activities does not automatically disqualify them from joining the conversion class.

The rabbis might become convinced that the student’s desire to convert is genuine and that his or her flirtation with messianic Judaism might have been part of a transitional process.

The rabbis never fail to ask the “Jesus question” in all cases involving former Christians. They must be convinced that potential converts are truly free of their faith and emotional attachments to their previous religion.

In the end, however, many such things are impossible to verify absolutely. Rabbi Levitt may have to trust his own senses and instincts, for which he frequently seeks Divine guidance, he says.

“Nothing is ever 100%,” he admits.

“Even medical science knows that there are things they can’t understand. We don’t have an X-ray machine to monitor their heart and emotions. Even if they themselves seem to know where they’re at, a lot of times they don’t. So we sometimes have to pray to Hashem for help to guide us in the right direction.”

There is a point in such cases, Rabbi Levitt says, when his own skepticism has to give way to trust.

“We’re not looking for converts, but if somebody wants to convert, we try not to reject them, and to do the best we can. Just because they happened to have stepped in some mud, doesn’t mean that we can’t clean their feet off. We have to give them a chance.

“There are two things we’re looking for — can you do this stuff and do you feel fulfilled and happy?”

FULFILLMENT and happiness, the rabbi says, are the prime motivators for those who seek to make themselves Jewish.

A big believer in anecdotal education — the use of stories to make his point — Rabbi Levitt says his work in conversion has provided him with any number of interesting tales.

At least three of his students, for example, didn’t actually have to convert because they discovered in the course of the process that they were Jewish anyway.

There was one married couple, both seeking to convert, who told the rabbi at the outset that they had strong suspicions of indirect Jewish descent. He encouraged them to do a little research.

The husband eventually found out that a female ancestor had changed her name decades ago to one that sounded non-Jewish, and subsequently never mentioned to her family any connection to Jewishness.

The wife discovered that her own female ancestor had used a Yiddish name, and Yiddish writing, when filling out the ship’s manifest during her immigration to America.

She also took her Jewish secret to the grave with her.

In both instances, rabbinical authorities found the evidence sufficient to declare the modern couple halachically Jewish — hence, no conversion process was needed.

Then there was the case of the Hispanic woman from southern Colorado who chose to convert in the conviction that she was the descendant of Crypto Jews — Jews expelled from Spain or Mexico during inquisitions who secretly practiced their Judaism in the New World.

This woman’s mother kept a house in which pork was never consumed, in which candles were furtively lit in a closet every Friday night, in which mirrors were covered when the house was in mourning and in which the old Jewish Ladino dialect was spoken.

“At the entrance to their house they had a picture of Jesus and whenever the mother would go in and out of the door she would kiss the bottom of the picture,” Rabbi Levitt says.

“One day, the picture fell off and the daughter took a look. She sees that there’s a pocket behind the picture. And what was in that pocket was a mezuzah. This is how they had to hide for 500 years who they were.”

Since the family tradition of Judaism had long ago been broken and transformed, it was decided that this woman should go through formal conversion, which she gladly did, the rabbi says.

Such stories of the Pintele Yid are inspirational, not only to those who feel it themselves as they seek to convert, but to Rabbi Levitt himself as he goes about guiding them.

He considers it worthy and sacred work and has no worries that bringing people into observant Judaism will somehow diminish or dilute Judaism, or deplete it of some essential ethnic character.

“What is the meaning of ethnicity?” he asks. “Some of the greatest rabbis are converts. Onkelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic was not Jewish. Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the greatest rabbis, was called  Akiva the son of converts.

“I think Judaism is color-blind and ethnic-blind.

“We don’t care whether you’re black or green or yellow. The religion is a universal religion.”

Far from taking away from Jewish life, Rabbi Levitt says, converts bring new energy into Judaism, often resetting the bar for their new coreligionists.

“They’re dedicated. They don’t take things for granted. They daven and put the tefillin and tallis on, they don’t talk during davening, they learn not to speak leshon hara, they go to the rabbi’s classes.

“And they ask questions. Everything is new to them. It’s beautiful.”

Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


Leave a Reply