COVID-19 forces Jewish conversions to adapt to once-in-a-century challenge
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COVID-19Conversion complications

COVID-19 forces Jewish conversions to adapt to once-in-a-century challenge

Gwyndolyn Riddle's conversion journey has been walked both in person and virtually

“Gwyndolyn Riddle (center) visited Israel with Rabbi Seth Adelson as part of a Honeymoon Israel trip to the country before converting to Judaism. Photo by Matthew Riddle.”
“Gwyndolyn Riddle (center) visited Israel with Rabbi Seth Adelson as part of a Honeymoon Israel trip to the country before converting to Judaism. Photo by Matthew Riddle.”

Gwyndolyn Riddle’s conversion to Judaism, taking place in the midst of once-in-a-century pandemic, has been forcing her to keep socially distant from the community and the religion she is joining.

Her Introduction to Judaism course began in person at Congregation Beth Shalom but moved online in March as COVID-19 forced synagogues and classrooms to close. The South Side resident took her oral Hebrew exam with Rabbi Seth Adelson online and completed her written exam at home.

Despite the challenges, Riddle is excited about her conversion ceremony taking place on July 14, happy to be joining the Jewish community and thrilled with how adept Beth Shalom has been in reacting to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m very excited about it. Such incredible times,” Riddle said. “The beit din is first at 8:30 a.m. and then we go to the mikvah at 9:30.”

Even the experience at the mikvah has been affected by the virus. Typically, before entering the water, a person would take a shower on site and remove any makeup or jewelry. Instead, Riddle is expected to arrive ready to immerse herself in the pool.

“I received very specific instructions,” she said. “It is very strict. They are trusting me to take a very intense and good shower at home. I have to show up with no make up, nothing in my hair and I have to bring my own towel, robe and slippers. I have to do a lot more home prep than I would if I were just showing up to have that ritual bathing experience.”

Riddle’s conversion is actually a return to the Judaism abandoned by her great-great-grandmother who converted to Christian Science in the 1920s. Despite her father’s heritage, Riddle wasn’t raised Jewish nor was she considered Jewish under halacha.

Riddle recounted becoming the black sheep of her family when she pushed away from the Christian Science faith at age 18.

“There were hints and clues of Judaism,” she remembers, “but it was purposely hidden. Like a secret cupboard that I never got a key to.”

It was only after moving to New York and taking a DNA test while in her 20s that the PNC project manager confirmed her Jewish lineage.

“I found out that I was 25% Jewish. It was a perfect time in my life. I was alone and had all this time on my hands and a love of the library. So, I had this incredible time of learning about my ancestors and Judaism,” she said.

After discovering her Jewish heritage, Riddle met her husband, Matthew, who is Jewish, but was secular. The pair eventually decided to explore Judaism together, leading to the 32-year-old’s commitment to convert.

The couple traveled to Israel with Adelson in January as part of Honeymoon Israel, after being married in September in a civil ceremony.

“We had unlimited access to Rabbi Adelson for 10 days and we took advantage of it,” Riddle said.

While the pandemic is preventing Riddle from celebrating with her new community in person, she and her husband are marking the occasion with another type of celebration: a Jewish wedding at Beth Shalom two days after her conversion ceremony, broadcast via Zoom to friends and family, of course.

“Any kind of celebration that we would have had, that kind of takes the cake. To be able to stand next to my husband and be married under the eyes of God will be an incredible celebration,” said Riddle.
That ceremony is also being affected by the pandemic.

“There will only be five of us in a 1,600-seat synagogue, our two witnesses, the rabbi and myself and my husband. Of course, there will be a lot of people on Zoom,” she said.

Riddle has already forged relationships in the Jewish community, through both her experiences at the synagogue and during Honeymoon Israel, although there were programs and speakers she would have liked to attend in person, had she been afforded the opportunity.

As for Jewish holidays, Riddle has found ways to immerse herself in Jewish culture and tradition, organizing her family’s online seder for Passover this year.

Adelson acknowledged that the conversion process had to be altered because of the pandemic but was nonplussed by the changes.

“We’ve been meeting by Zoom,” he said. “In terms of the conclusion of the process, the beit din will occur in person but we’re meeting in the Beth Shalom sanctuary, seated far apart and will all be wearing masks. And then we will go to the mikvah, which doesn’t present as much of a problem because the person goes in alone. We do have to do the conclusion of the process in person, we just have to make sure we’re careful.”

Temple David’s Rabbi Barbara Symons doesn’t view the challenges presented by the virus as a negative, believing a robust learning process can occur through classes, online services and interactions in the digital space, including virtual seders.

The Reform rabbi said that she is working with a conversion student now.

“We meet regularly on Zoom; he meets with someone else for Hebrew lessons on Zoom and he is attending worship and learning sessions online,” said Symons.

Riddle is upbeat about the challenges she has faced, crediting Beth Shalom with ensuring a smooth transition to the virtual classroom. “They didn’t miss a beat. They changed very quickly. I haven’t felt that anything hindered my education. That was not sacrificed in the devastation of COVID-19.”

In fact, Riddle said she was shocked when taking her final exam before her conversion ceremony about how much she had learned.

“I was surprised by how much I knew compared to a year ago,” she said. “The education that I have received over the last year, has been life-changing for me. That is what I’m going to be grateful for 20 years from now.

“I will have a story to tell my children and grandchildren about my conversion and Jewish wedding and add into that it was during a once in a lifetime, once in a 100-year pandemic. I like having unique experiences.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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