Wait, You WANT to be Jewish?
05/26/11
Special to the Jewish Week
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In my third year of rabbinical school, I began a student pulpit in Florida. One part of my two-year experience there that will always stay with me involved my work with a prospective convert, Tammy. In the middle of my first year, she approached me to discuss the possibility of conversion to Judaism. She had read quite a bit about Judaism already, and she really felt that the Jewish community was her true home.

Besides my general work with Tammy, one particular comment she made led me to a focused study and growing passion for the area of conversion. During a discussion of images of Jews in the media, she said: “Here I am: I know so many of the rituals, I can pray with the congregation on Friday night, I celebrate the holidays, and I am learning Hebrew. But, even with all of those things, I still don’t understand Seinfeld!” She attributed her reaction to her southern upbringing, but it really got me thinking: If Judaism is a religion and a culture, then how and when does a Jew-by-choice truly take on all aspects of Jewish life? A person can learn the rites and rituals of Judaism, but how does someone develop a taste for gefilte fish or kreplach, and how does someone develop a Jewish sense of humor?

It was at this point that I realized that so much goes into the process of choosing Judaism – a change in identity was necessary for the change to truly take place. An exposure to, and a comfort with – all things Jewish (holidays, food, humor, literature, sacred texts, other Jews, stories and folktales, and much more) was necessary for one to feel truly at home in the Jewish community. Thus, I decided, in my final year of rabbinical school, to write my rabbinical thesis on the psychosocial aspects of adopting a Jewish identity.

As you may recall from a memorable episode of “Sex and the City,” the character of Charlotte had decided to become Jewish, and she finds a rabbi to work with. The rabbi proceeds to send her away three times before finally agreeing to work with her. This is in accordance with the most traditional way of dealing with converts – since our ancestors couldn’t imagine that most people would want to be Jewish, they wanted to push the person away three times. If, after that, he or she came back, then the rabbis would ask: “Don’t you know that Jews have been persecuted, punished, and oppressed?” If the person replied, “Yes, even then I am unworthy to join you,” then the rabbis were to welcome the prospective convert with open arms.

Despite our national inferiority complex, we were in awe of those who chose to join us.

The sage, Resh Lakish wrote a famous midrash: “The proselyte who converts is dearer to God than Israel when they stood at Mt. Sinai. Why? Because had Israel not seen the thunders and the lightning and the mountains quaking and the sound of the shofars, they would not have accepted Torah. But this convert, who saw none of these things, came, surrendered himself to the Holy One, and accepted upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven. Could any be dearer than he?”

In my seven years as a rabbi, I have personally worked with nearly two dozen students. I have sat on a Beit Din for many, many more. I have heard many a student weep with joy and wonder from the waters of the mikveh. They enter the waters in one state, and they emerge a Jew. Something magical, mystical, and beautiful happens in the water, and he or she is now fully a Jew. They won’t ever have to tell anyone that they have converted if they don’t want to – they can just say that they are Jewish. As my friend, Bill Smith, says of his conversion in 2008, “I didn’t really choose Judaism; it is simply who I am.” A favorite midrash of mine discusses the souls who gathered at Sinai to receive the covenant – the text says that the Torah is given to those who stand there, and those who are not there. One midrash believes that this refers to future converts, meaning they were at Sinai, as well. Thus, when I conclude a conversion ceremony, I do not say, “Welcome to the Jewish people.” Rather, I say, “Welcome Back.”

As we continue to count the Omer and thus approach the festival of Shavuot, on which we commemorate that moment of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we all reaffirm our Judaism. In an important way, we are all Jews-by-Choice. We all choose to be here, to be a part of this special global community and to apply a Jewish lens to our lives. I hope that we all remember to appreciate this precious heritage, so easily taken for granted, and use its teachings to inspire us to live lives of goodness, righteousness, and justice.

Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004

 

 

Last Update:

05/13/2014 - 18:38

Comments

I want to convert frm islam,I m a pakhtoon "one of da tribe of 12 israel,tribs"..I m muslim but only by of my birth..now I feel tht I must b with my own religion nd blood..plz help nd guide me..

First of all, thank you for writing this article! I have spent most of my life attracted to the Jewish faith. This tendency of mine started when I was child, but I assumed that it was just curiosity. Then, as a teenager the attraction only grew stronger. I couldn’t explain to myself why out of nowhere I wanted to be a Jew? There was no logical reason. Years have gone by and this feeling inside of me has only grown stronger. However, I fear rejection from my family and the Jewish community, I don’t know how to explain to them that even though I was born, and raised a Christian, I feel love for Judaism and its people. One night I was searching through the Internet about information on conversion, and I found this article, through your words you gave me the courage to start the journey of conversion to Judaism, I am not sure if down the line I will end up converting, but I am happy and excited to find out! Now I am 21, and thanks to you I am not waiting any longer to find my real path.

I had a conversation with the Rabbi at the Reform Synagogue that I am a member of, it was similar to what is spoken about here. Is Judaism a religion, a culture, or both? He said it was both.

But when I searched deeper within myself, I realized that no matter what, I would NEVER be culturally Jewish. I do not know what it means to be "culturally" Jewish. Religiously, I understand it, and it's comfortable, but I realized that that doesn't mean I need to convert, or at least, maybe I shouldn't. I do not want to pretend that by converting, I am now a Jew (culturally) when that will never be so.

The Rabbi and I drifted apart.

That is true about about most Southern Italians about 35% are of Jewish descent i have heard estimates of even a larger % from Italian None Jews as well as Italian Jews

I smile at the observation that you must somehow 'get' Seinfeld to be truly Jewish. Seinfeld represents a popularized image of Jewishness but really, we are a much more diverse group than that, and Jewishness is an ever evolving thing. Converts will bring to Judaism new perspectives on old ways, and in so doing will shape what Judaism becomes. This is not only a good thing. It is essential.

What a beautiful article. When I became a Jew I felt like I was coming home. There have been positive and negative comments made about my conversion. I've always been open about my background because it made me who I am today. And this openness has allowed me to help others who are going through the conversion process or have gone through it - along with the Reform Movement's training as an Outreach Fellow!

I always chuckle when I see the tag "We're all Jews by Choice", I silently add "just some of us were a little more choosey".

Rabbi - I would LOVE to read your thesis.

This is a very precious article to me, having completed my conversion process this spring. It took me seven years to make my way through the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual transition, so I can completely relate to the comments in your article, Rabbi Bellows. Discovering that I am a Jew, for me, was reminiscent of the children's story, The Ugly Duckling, about a swan that couldn't figure out why it was so different than all the other creatures. I was always different in a way I couldn't understand and it took me a long, long time to see who I am instead of who I am not. That is an important if subtle distinction that cannot completely be understood by people who know they are Jewish at birth. I would love to read your thesis, Rabbi!

I am in the process of converting to Judaism and relate to Tammy in some ways. I feel whole heartedly Jewish but, especially as a person of color, a black American grasping areas of "Jewish Culture" is hard because my culture is already hardwired into my identity as a black woman.

The beauty of converts is what we bring to Judaism, as well as what we take from it, combined history. The beauty of Judaism and what drew me to Judaism was tradition, ritual, mitzvot, prayer, ideas of G-d, etc. Those things I can wrap my head around, the cultural part I may never "get" all of the time...for me, personally, I'm drawn to more Sephardic foods, music, etc. but again-that is the beautiful part of making this choice. I didn't get to chose my race-I was born black. I didn't get to chose to be a woman, and I didn't chose to be gay-I did, however, get to chose to become Jewish and it's the best choice I've made.

Rabbi Bellows once again hits the nail on the head. Let me share a snippet of my own story as a Jew-by-choice (since 1995). I converted after joining a synagogue with my wife and children. Exposure to synagogue life enabled me to experience first hand Jewish communal life, a sort-of "try before you buy" scenario. Once I chose my path, the community was extremely accepting, loving, and nurturing and, as I matured as a Jew, they seemed to forgot about my "goyishe" past. I joined the board, eventually rising to the presidency, and steered a course of change for the synagogue that was considered (at the time) radical, risky, and desperately needed. Full membership in the tribe has been wonderful. I am a Jew, through and through - proud of my adopted heritage, fiercely protective of Israel, and enriched daily by exposure to wonderful ideas, ideals and people.

One thing with which I disagree with the Rabbi - she states: "They (gerim/converts) won’t ever have to tell anyone that they have converted if they don’t want to – they can just say that they are Jewish." While this is true, and it is based on the idea that all Jews are important and equal to one another, it also implies an inherent sense of shame about our backgrounds, which is generally not the case. The gerim that I know are as proud and open about their past lives as they are about their current. They are the sum total of all their experiences, and their being part of the Jewish community strengthens it by adding diversity, depth and color. Shabbat Shalom.

Ray,

I do not think that the Rabbi is saying that Jews-by-choice should hide their past, but they do have that option. For me, I am very open about my conversion, and have had almost entirely positive comments from those I speak to. I don't start the conversation with it, but if it becomes necessary to shine light on my background, I do so gladly. It makes it easier when I say that I have a cousin who is having communion in a church, or that my mother is stressed about buying a Christmas tree. I also find that people listen to my thoughts on observance and Jewish life a little differently, maybe a little more closely, because they know I took it on willingly.

Had my background been different, if my family had been upset by my conversion for instance, I may not be as open about my conversion, but I am blessed to have the people around me be as open and accepting as they are. I am Jewish through and through, but I have experiences that others may be able to benefit from, so I don't hide them...by choice.

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