Jews and Jewish tradition were always a positive part of my life. I went to school in an area where many Jews lived. This demographic reality was celebrated, and I spun dreidels as part of my secular second grade curriculum. When I was 12 or so, my mom discovered that the man her mother had married was not her biological father. Mom was half Jewish, and this revelation ushered in a new world of boisterous, opinionated Orthodox Jewish cousins, aunts, and half-brothers who sounded and acted just like my mom. They made so much more sense in our family context than the small, quiet, fresh-off-the-boat Lithuanian family we thought that we were a part of. In college, my friends were Bergers and Cohens and I loved attending weekly Hillel events with them. Eventually, I managed to make the one Orthodox Jew in town my best friend and business partner. It was hard for him to find someone who got him, but I did. We ran our business out of the Talmud on tricky calls (I don’t understand this; do you mean you provided answers to Talmudic questions for money? It’s unclear; rework.); I’d celebrate Purim and, on Shavuout, read Torah all night with him.
At 20, I had enough of pretending: I never got the whole ”Jesus” concept, so I quit Christianity. I love that both my parents had a strong connection to their respective cultures, but I didn’t inherit it. I loved Jewish weddings and Buddhist intention, I read wisdom traditions, I looked into Sufism and new age stuff; every time I brought up an idea, my best friend would say the belief I liked so much had a home in Judaism, too. Finally, when a Muslim woman I met on a plane said I knew too much to meet my maker without choosing to follow one of God’s many paths, I secretly decided to look seriously into converting to Judaism.
Shortly after I made this decision, my best friend and I realized we were in love with each other. On the second day of our romantic relationship, he said, ”But I don’t know what to do about the marriage thing.” And I told him quite confidently, ”Don’t worry about that right now.” He had no idea I’d already taken steps on my own that could only benefit our relationship’s future. How wrong my assumption was!
Eventually, my boyfriend found out about the distance classes that I was taking when he found some Hebrew cards in my room. I was waking up at 4 am, five days a week, to listen to the parsimonious details of food blessing halacha and ritual liturgy, broadcast over Skype from Jerusalem. I also heard a healthy dose of rhetoric reminding me that “if you don’t do it this way…you bring destruction into the world.” I started to tell my boyfriend what I learned each day, and he often said that some things I was learning “didn’t seem right.” He feared I was being brainwashed. A Chabad rabbi moved to town and my boyfriend invited me along to events and Shabbat services/dinners. I ended up going every single weekend, and quickly learned the rituals, customs, and songs. My distance instructor disapproved strongly of this exposure. (Why did he disapprove?)
When my instructor refused to give me a concrete idea of what I would need to do to convert, I knew I had to start looking for a better fit; the learning was good, but it sucked out the kavanah that started me on this path. I submited an application to the Rabbinical Council of California to assemble a conversion plan together. My application was accepted and I was invited to come down for an interview, but instructed to bring the boyfriend along with me.
When we arrived at the Rabbinical Council, my boyfriend was whisked away for an hour-long interview about his childhood and lifestyle while I took a 15-page personality test. The rabbi looked at my answers, then told me I would be accepted into the program if, and only if, my boyfriend and I give up our lives and move to LA. Now, I understand why they ask this; RCC conversion demands frum Judaism of its converts. The life of a frum Jew is challenging, and one needs the support of a community in order to stave off influences that might make you stray. I told the rabbi about my classes and he advised me to stop taking them if I felt that way about it. So there we were.
I was in stasis about what to do. There were many tears and much pain and stress. Even though we’d been friends for years, my boyfriend’s parents rejected me when he finally told them he was dating me. He has many issues with Judaism himself and our relationship forced him to confront them. It was so hard to separate my desire to join the tribe from the drama going on in our own lives. I tried many times to break up with him, to find my own path so that I could be absolutely sure I was sincere and not doing this ”for him.” Of course, how could I? His parents were going to reject me unless I became something he didn’t want – and though many people probably still believe I converted for him, no matter what choice I made, my conversion would not make either of our lives easier.
Likewise, I stood before my Chabad rabbi on Pesach and cried as he matter-of-factly said, despite seeing that I had a Jewish neshama, that if I didn’t convert Orthodox I shouldn’t be with my boyfriend. However, he offered that maybe he could find me a rabbi who would only require me to move away temporarily. But my life, love, and business was here! Early on, I thought I could make the frum lifestyle work for me, but it was getting more and more clear I couldn’t. In my heart, I knew all these gifts God had given me that I loved so much were not temptations but manifestation of my purpose here on earth, and this incredible desire to join His people never wavered through any of the obstacles put in front of me – these two things could not possibly be at odds.
So I went out and found a book on Conservative Judaism. I had been groomed not to accept any permutation of Judaism but Orthodox but, in the Conservative approach, I found my home. I could feel my kavanah budding again. But how to make this happen? The only Conservative synagogue within a reasonable distance was without a rabbi . . . enter Rabbi Ginsberg of the Esynagogue conversion program. The books he sent, I loved! The videos he had me watch, I loved!
A month in, I anxiously sat my boyfriend down and told him I was in a new program – and he asked to please learn along with me. We hid this decision from the Chabad rabbi, but shortly before my conversion, my boyfriend told him he had decided this conversion was acceptable and that he would be sticking with me.
The night and day before mikveh, I expected to be nervous but instead, I felt an easy, casual calm as if what I was doing was perfectly normal. When I met my beit din, they asked me serious questions about my intent flying halfway across the country, and, when satisfied, then handed me my declaration to read aloud. I stumbled a little as I recognized the Shema in English. When I was finished, the rabbis asked me if I knew it in Hebrew. I closed my eyes and recited it. As I opened my eyes, they all sat there looking at me, giving me the same feeling of warm Jewishness I had long felt amongst Jews and had sorely missed throughout the whole conversion process: a feeling of pride and love in a shared understanding, future, and community. I was back in the arms of those whom I’ve always felt were my people.
Then, it was time to mikveh.
As I entered the mikveh, I did not feel naked. I felt whole.
I entered the warm bath, took a breath, dunked and, as I came up, I closed my eyes, pictured the Western Wall, and sang the blessing — choking halfway through on water that ran into my mouth. ”Curses!” I thought, as my imagined, perfect conversion was spoiled, but no matter. “Kasher!” I dunked again. Again, I sang. Again, I coughed on the water, and then laughed. This is my life; of course it’s not perfect! “Kasher!” And then I dunked again. “Kasher!”
When it was over, the rabbis and my boyfriend sang ”Mazal Tov” to me, and as we left, they told me not only were they glad to have me as one of their own, but based on our short time together that day, they were sure that we were a bright young couple and that I would go on to be instrumental in the Jewish community. I hope to prove them right.