The first Empowering Ruth course for women who have converted into Judaism was piloted in 2004-5 in New York City by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) through a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York. The course was free for participants and occurred twice a month for ten months. There were three rationales behind its creation:
- While almost all Jews-by-choice have received some kind of formal Jewish education, conversion classes tend to be didactic rather that tactile, in other words, “book learning” rather than “hands-on.” JOI heard from many Jews-by-choice that they knew why they were supposed to do certain things, but not exactly how. So the Empowering Ruth course offered practical, hands-on learning in Jewish living (cooking, home observance and holidays) and group work in family dynamics. The course began before the High Holidays, so participants could experience the Jewish holiday cycle in full.
- JOI had also heard that after conversion, many Jews-by-choice feel kind of “dumped into” the community. In other words, now that they’re officially Jewish, they weren't seen as needing any more support, and in fact, Jews aren’t even supposed to mention that Jews-by-choice had not been Jewish at one time. JOI wanted to create a network that could address that occasional sense of isolation some Jews-by-choice said they felt from this abrupt change in status. The course brought in some well-known guest speakers who were enthusiastic to meet the women and show the community’s support for their choices.
- JOI believed that opening the course just to women would create a safe environment that would allow for more frank and open discussion and a wider ranger of topics. JOI has had success with gender-based programming through The Mothers Circle program, for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children (www.TheMothersCircle.org). JOI is also developing men’s programs, recognizing that, in general, men relate and communicate differently than women.
The Empowering Ruth pilot course confirmed the need for such a support and education experience, so JOI is currently working to update and fully develop the curriculum so that the course can be offered again and expanded into other communities. The Empowering Ruth listserve was launched in March 2007 to provide a safe “virtual” space for graduates of the course and for all women who have chosen Judaism (or are in the process of converting) to share ideas, experiences and challenges with others across the country, and even across the globe.
For more information about the original Empowering Ruth course and the revised curriculum, or any questions at all—please email JOI program officer Sarah Sechan at SSechan@JOI.org.