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.
A very inspiring story! I was just curious – you said (to paraphrase) that a frum lifestyle couldn’t work because the gifts God had given you (which presumably conflicted with a frum lifestyle) were manifestations of your life’s purpose.
I’m just curious as to the kinds of gifts you mean that aren’t compatible with a frum lifestyle. The reason I ask is that I know (especially here in Israel) lots of frum Jews who are artists, musicians, athletes, writers, scientists, professionals in every category, etc. But maybe there are gifts in other categories that I’m not thinking of – again, just curious.
Harold, that’s an excellent question. The particular “gifts” that I possess involve being extremely athletic (ie mountain biking, climbing, running, etc), having a wide circle of male friends (and less so female), and the fact that both of my businesses neccesitate operating on Shabbat on occasion (whether I participate or not). It was made very clear to me that there would be no way to maintain tzniut standards with my sports and the company of men without a chaperone, and that I would have to change a career that has benefited thousands and thousands of people (I am executive director of a non-profit and run events for non-profits). I was asked to give everything up of positive value in my life or give up my quest to be a Jew. I was told in a very belittling way that my interests and the good work that I do were immature compared to my quest to fit into Judaism.
In the end, I was told by one rabbi that didn’t I think that reform Jews were heretics for not obeying the 613? And I said, no, how many things had been developed by non-frum Jews that benefited the world and him that could not have been developed if they had been required to fit a specific mold. I believe God gives us gifts to spread goodness and tools to help get there. Gifts are not challenges, they are gifts.
Thanks for responding. I’m always fascinated by the differences between Jews in America and here in Israel (I made aliyah two years ago). There are many frum female athletes here (I see them running around my community all the time), and the thing about male vs. female friends – well I think it depends which Orthodox circles we’re talking about – it’s not quite such an issue in all Orthodox circles. And there’s many frum people here in Israel running all kinds of organizations. I think, in general, because it’s a Jewish society, you find Orthodox Jews doing a the full range of things in the society, whereas that’s not as much the case in the U.S.
There’s also definitely a range of interpretation of what one can and can’t do within acceptable bounds of observance – and I have heard that the RCC is one of the more strict and unyielding Beit Dins – other perfectly acceptable Orthodox Beit Dins act, shall we say, differently (which doesn’t help you, because the RCC is what exists where you are).
It’s interesting as far as the non-profit work – I’ve been an Excecutive Director of 2 organizations, one Jewish and one in the arts. When I became observant, I applied to run an arts schools – they were very willing to accomodate me in ways that made sense for everyone (and there are ways to be at events or conferences on a Shabbat, and act within certain bounds so it doesn’t violate Shabbat – I know many Orthodox Jews who do this with approval from their Rabbis – there are just certain things they will and won’t do – but they are present) – however, I also know that not every non-profit is going to be so accomodating in every situation..
You’re right that there are ways to make it work (though a long skirt to climb or mountain bike is not really an option), but the real problem was the RCC, as you noted. Where I was once open to “making it work” the more political and such it got, the more I pushed against it.
I went from “Orthodox is the only true way,” even when things I was learning rankled me when I knew they were false, to “clear it is not the only true way” and I do not believe I’ll ever swing back the other way after my experience. It forced me to really look at ideologies and concessions made and egos being saved.
I stayed the path because I know this is bigger than people (who are trying to do a good thing), but while I admire you for your observancy, I’ve come to see it as a punishment for not being born a Jew. I was willing to “skirt up” all the time until it became not a choice but an obligation – that if I chose not to “skirt up” for a bike ride, I could have my Judaism revoked? And if I did “skirt up,” I would be potentially putting myself in danger. So, essentially, “give it up” was the choice I had.
It’s a sad system, and I believe it will change, but I have definitely found a home in the ideology of Conservative Judaism while being a little wary of labels in general. I know of a few Orthodox converts who have not had it so rough, but this is my story and it’s shaped who I am.
Thank you for sharing your story; I’m just starting the conversion process myself, so I look forward to reading about rael experiences.
I can understand where you are coming from. I am becoming a Reform Jew not because I don’t believe in the divine origin of the Torah, but because I need flexibility in how I live my life. For instance, I live 33.6 miles from my synagogue (which is the closest of any to me). Obviously, if I want to get to services on Shabbat, I have to drive myself (public transporation has not yet been invented in Tennessee!). As I look at it, it’s more important that I go to Torah study and worship God in a community setting on a weekly basis than it is that I don’t drive. Although Judaism does actually support the idea that doing a positive mitzvah is more important than not breaking a neagtive commandment–which is why you can put out a house fire on the Sabbath.
I don’t even disagree that people ought to follow all the mitzvot, but I recognize that people have to work up to doing all of them (especially people who weren’t raised to it). How do you do 613 mitzvot? You pick one and do it; when you have it mastered, pick another one and do it. That’s my philosophy. Everyone–born Jew or not–is somewhere in the process of learning mitzvot, and you can’t judge others (or yourself) because they are further ahead or behind you on the learning scale. They say in heaven that you will be alone (except for your spouse/bashert), because you are not compared to anyone else. So I think that should be applicable here too; you are where you are. What’s important is that you always strive to take yourself just one step further.
I also feel that people have the right to decide things for themselves, such as whether they feel that driving to service on Shabbat outweighs the commandment not to. I think if you study the situation, make an informed decision (and can back it up with logical arguments), that’s all that’s necessary for you to hold your position. To me, that’s what being a Jew is all about.
One thing you said resonated with me – about people ought to have the choice . . . when my mother found out she was half-Jewish, and she contacted our family, they asked the rabbi what to do. He said “have nothing to do with her, she is not a Jew, and she cannot possibly bring good into your Jewish life.”
My mom, finding out that her father was not her father, was utterly destroyed as a person at this point. Had my frum family not made the choice to disobey the advice of their Rav, she probably still would be. She calls up my family and talks to them for hours – family is very important to her. She helped counsel her half-brother who was pretty destroyed by her biological father thanks to some mental abuse, she has assisted my elderly great aunt and uncle deal with getting older, and my cousin came to live near us and shared so much life with us and we she, that I cannot help but think that God comes to you through YOU, not through the decree of (again, otherwise well meaning) rabbis.
Now is not the time to cut off parts of my life that bring me joy, but neither was it time to cut off another part of me that brings me wholeness. I’m on the board of my synagogue, definitely a member of the community, and working hard to help my mate find joy in his religion (which he finds oppressive). The mitzvot that don’t assist me now can wait. Perhaps they will in the future. The Orthodox want me to “wait” until I am ready for all of them. That means giving up the chance at a Jewish family and it means not helping the Jewish community now. I don’t see how those things are outweighed by laws that are meant to guide us to being good and obedient to God and the people of Israel and the world.
Well said, Tara…and very admirable!
As your beit din predicted, you’ll instill in the coming generation a more positive, proactive approach to Judaism, you’ll be instrumental in your community.
Loved reading your story! Such a nice coincidence that I, too, did my immersion at the same place (I’d recognize that entrance anywhere), and that it’s also Debbie’s Jewish home turf (so to speak).
Yes, I know that mikveh well. Also, two of the three rabbis in the Tara’s photo were present as guests at my son’s bar mitzvah because they are the rabbi and rabbi emeritus of the shul where we held the weekday Shacharit service and brunch in the social hall. There were actually a total of nine rabbis in attendance at the bar mitzvah that morning, including my own sponsoring rabbi, whose presence meant a lot to me (especially since I know that he had to find someone to cover for him up at his own shul) and another rabbi who had been on the beit din for my conversion and is a member of my primary lay-led minyan.
“Whole” is also the way a JBC minyan friend said I would feel if and when I converted. And of course, he was absolutely right. I think it is a common feeling of converts. Upon exiting the mikveh, I remember feeling so “right” about being Jewish, that I no longer dreaded telling my parents. I felt like I was who I was supposed to be and that my parents would have to accept it because it was simply TRUE.
What a remarkable story, Tara! Thank you! I’m friends with a few people who are going through very difficult stages of Orthodox conversion and would be lost without the support of people in their communities who err on the side of love, so to speak. So happy for you and the boyfriend. Shabbat shalom!
Tara: Thank you for your inspiring story. Your ability to remain true to where your heart and your nephesh is a blessing. As a Reform JBC, your story was very different from my conversion experience….but we’ve ended up in the same place: shalom.
About six months R. Ginsburg recommended I contact you with any questions about distance conversion.(remember me…???) At the time, you had suggested that if there was any way we could find a local congregation to convert with, that would make things like aliyah infinitely easier. Suffice it to say that my wife and I are finally on the same page, and we have found a local Conservative congregation. We approached the rabbi about a month ago and , thankfully, he has agreed to start us on the conversion process. In fact, we meet with him this week to establish a game plan.
Just wanted to fill you in and thank you for your advice back last fall.
Awesome! I’m glad you guys did that!