Our stories are individual, like ourselves. We've gathered some stories to tell on these pages, how we made our individual journey, how we became Jewish. (For more stories, go to our Becoming Jewish blog.)
My journey towards Judaism began around my early teenage years if not somewhat earlier. There was something about Judaism that attracted me but I just could not know what it was, it came and went as I got older but didn’t pay attention too much at the beginning.
When I was sixteen years old that is when my life change, I felt empty and not complete, so I decided to try the religion I was born with or at least what I was told what I was. I began to be more involved with the religion of my parents, roman catholicism, I even went to other denominations and religions. While I was still in high school and in my late teenage years Judaism was still visiting my mind so up until I was around 20 years old I started to take action and fully study and read about Judaism. There was always a spark of interest of Judaism in me like I’ve stated before but just didn't do anything about it.
Once I became into searching synagogues around my area and Jewish resources on the internet I wanted to learn even more. It was a very very strong overwhelming feeling that I started to have while learning about Judaism, it was an all day all night type of thing so I did not want to ignore it. Studying as much as I can was key, the more I learned the more I wanted to know and I wanted to know why I was feeling this way.
Once I started to attend and go to a synagogue the first time I immediately felt comfortable even though I didn’t knew anyone but I knew inside of me that this was going to be good and something I want in my life. When I studied parsha and got myself ahold of a chumash my eyes opened and I came to understand Torah and it got me thinking that Torah is everlasting and that there will be no other Torah. As I was learning more and learned about mitzvot I’ve felt a lot more closer to God more than ever before, it was such a great feeling. The nature of the Almighty is what fascinates me of God being one, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, creator of everything and that God exists and loves us all like crazy. And no matter what obstacles and hardships I may go through in life I am still devoted to God. God is one and unique and can forgive my sins and give me joy.
I study Judaism as much as I can when I have free time and as best as I can. I still have a lot to learn. I want to take action to live the way God wants us to live by being committed to mitzvot and have Judaism in our lives. Lighting shabbos candles and remembering and observing shabbos is just an awesome feeling that can’t be beaten, It’s such a calm and rejuvenating feeling that I never had before. Learning basic Hebrew so far has been amazing even though I barely have the letter sounds and vowels, obviously I will continue and has been moving forward by attending services and following along.
A recent discovery that may strengthen my Jewish identity is that my maternal hablogroup has the sephardic signature from the Iberian peninsula according to the ancestry DNA company ‘23AndMe’ and an expert specializing in sephardic Jewish diaspora;all because I spat in a testing tube and my DNA was examined.
I feel joyful and excited to further my process of studying as much as I can. Living a Jewish life can give me spiritual fulfillment and happiness one of those examples is performing tikkun olam. Being able to find a community and structure in life and the great feeling that there are other Jews across the world with common history, goals and being a light to other nations brings me comfort. I am excited about my future and the people that I have met and the new people that Hashem will bring to my life. It is best for me and the family that I hope to have. I’ve found a spiritual home and I want it in my life. Knowing what I now know, how can I set Judaism aside, I do not want to ignore my neshama.
Why have I chosen to become Jewish?
This is a question that I have gotten many times over the past five years of my conversion process. As I attempt to answer this question, I would like to share some of my story with you. I see my journey to the mikvah as a series of small (but ever growing) guideposts…popping up in early and unexpected places as I have walked through my life. In To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking Rabbi Harold Kusher discusses how Jewish mystics have spoken about “Jewish souls being born into gentile’s bodies.” I believe I am one of these souls. However, this does not mean that I have not wrestled with this decision. The Torah tells us that Jacob wrestled with God in the form of an angel and when he survived, Jacob was renamed Israel. At the heart of Judaism is the notion of wrestling with and struggling with God. Since beginning the formal conversion process, I have wrestled with things I am sure most converts wrestle with. How will my mother feel about this? Will I ever ‘feel’ Jewish given that a significant portion of the American Jewish experience is rooted in a cultural history that is not my ancestor’s history? Am I willing to become the subject of anti-Semitism – and worse, expose my son to this type of hate? I am happy to say that my mother is supportive of my journey. I know that hatred is a part of the world. I also know that it is our responsibility as Jews to fight hatred and injustice wherever it appears. As for cultural identity, I have met so many different types of Jews that I now realize that a shared cultural heritage is not the only story. Rabbi Staci Friedman talked about this in her Rosh Hashanah sermon last year – that all of our journeys led us to that service on that day. I am no different – and in many ways, I do have a shared cultural experience. My family were poor immigrants who escaped famine and persecution in Ireland. As they made their way to America, they often faced discrimination due to their ethnicity and religion. There are many Jewish experiences and identities, and each of them enrich the broader community. So, while we each walk our own path, I have come to understand that even though I started somewhere else, I am walking that same path that started with Abraham and Sarah so long ago.
Ruth is surely the most famous convert, and it is impossible not to be moved by her declaration of love to Naomi and her people. So, why like Ruth, am I becoming part of the Jewish people? I am becoming a Jew because Judaism is a religion deeply rooted in family and community. When I light candles on Shabbat or bake my own challah, I feel both deeply connected to those around me who are saying the blessings with me – and to all who have come before me. I love the fact that while Judaism accounts for private moments of prayer, it also mandates community in times when people need it most – such as requiring a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. I am becoming a Jew because Judaism is less about dogma and more about action. What we do in this world matters. We are commanded to repair the world – tikkun olam – and to offer tzedakah as a form of social justice and not just charity. I am becoming a Jew because Judaism is a religion of learning (and debating, and wrestling with) and not just blind belief. We are commanded to study Torah – to wrestle with its contents. Learning in all forms is a blessing, and we must commit our lives to its pursuit. I am becoming a Jew because I have become a lover of Israel. I have learned that I can disagree with its politics (as I often disagree with America’s politics) but I can love what Israel stands for just as I love what America stands for. I am becoming a Jew because of Judaism’s commitment to finding the holy in the ordinary – to sanctifying our lives with meaning every day. I love Shabbat and the Jewish holidays and the lessons they give us. Shabbat gives us a palace in time each week; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur demand that we reckon with the year behind us and the one in front of us; Pesach reminds us of the blessings and responsibilities that freedom brings; Purim reminds us to laugh and Hanukkah brings light and hope to the darkest days. I am becoming a Jew because I want to give this gift to my son Noah – the brightest light in my life – so that he too becomes a descendant of Abraham and Sarah – a people with a history both ancient and modern. I want to give him the gift of mitzvot as a path to find meaning in life and to know that he is connected to something much bigger and much more enduring that himself.
I went to the mikvah for all of these reasons – and because of guideposts large and small that brought me there. I emerged from the mikvah as Sarah. I chose this name to honor my heritage, as Sarah is my mother’s name and my great-grandmother’s name and her grandmother’s name before her. Sarah was also the first Jewish woman and so a convert herself who accepted the covenant with God. I am also excited that Noah entered the mikvah as well. He has become Noah Asher. Asher means blessing and happiness, and Noah has been such a deep blessing to us, bringing us happiness since the day he was born. He is so filled with light – one of the kindest souls I have ever known. The symbol of Asher is the olive tree, and Noah’s given middle name is Oliver, so this feels like the perfect Hebrew name. Like Sarah and Ruth and so many others before me, I am excited to make the Jewish people my people – to walk the path with Abraham and Sarah, to join the tribe of a people who have been instrumental in shaping our world. In the words of Rabbi Noah Kushner…Blessed is the Holy One to whom I entrust the transformation of my soul.Blessed is the Holy One Who has chosen me for the people of Israel.Blessed am I who chooses the people Israel, through the water.
As my children were attending the Peninsula Temple Sholom preschool, I became very curious about Judaism and how to build a Jewish life for my family. My husband clearly identifies as a Jew, but had not been raised in a strong religious tradition. I had been raised as an Episcopalian. Through the preschool and adult education courses, we started to feel a part of the community, and believed that making a commitment to raise our children in the Jewish tradition would enrich all of our lives.
I approached Rabbi Dan Feder about studying with him. He was very warm and welcoming. We had numerous (almost monthly) meetings over the course of a couple years. (Generally the process takes about a year, but I had extended it.) Rabbi Dan would suggest that I read one or two books a month and do a brief write-up, which helped to focus my thoughts. He carefully and thoughtfully addressed all of my questions. I was also able to take a few adult education courses with Rabbi Dan. He teaches with humor and an engaging style. As a prior religion major, I particularly loved the readings and delving into discussions with Rabbi Dan. His guidance has helped to shape my Jewish identity and frame the questions that I have as I continue this journey.
A fundamental part of my family’s Jewish experience has involved creating roots in the Jewish community. Both Rabbi Dan and Rabbi Rebekah Stern have been helpful in our quest to create community at Peninsula Temple Sholom. We have developed sustaining friendships and community through the activities at the preschool, events at the religious school, and through classes and services. I am very grateful to Rabbi Dan for his patience and guidance during the past few years of my studies.
I grew up in a devout Catholic family, so, as a child, religion was a very big part of my life. I went to church every Sunday, attended a Catholic school, and even volunteered as an altar boy. My home life was often chaotic, so I took comfort in a faith that had all the answers, a faith that promised a reward for one’s earthly suffering.
Despite my strong convictions, I was also a curious child, and always wanted to know why we believed the things that we believed. I was never happy with the answers. When I got to college, I was suddenly exposed to people of different religions, ethnicities, and social backgrounds. I started to question all of the things I had been taught as a child and struggled to decide if my beliefs made sense any more.
After I came out of the closet, I knew that the Catholic Church was no longer a welcome place for me. I felt angry and hurt by all the years I’d wasted feeling sinful and unworthy. I was so disillusioned that I decided religion didn’t have a place in my life any more.
For most of my adult life, I said that I was “spiritual, but not religious.” Basically, that meant I didn’t really do anything at all. Left to my own devices, I never thought much about spirituality or where it fit into my life. Most of my friends and family also felt
alienated from the churches they had grown up in, so no one challenged me to think about my faith.
While working as an intern in Washington DC, I got a job working the reception desk at the DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC). I was surrounded by new words, concepts, and holidays that I wasn’t familiar with. When things were slow at the front desk, I grabbed children’s books from the library and learned as much as I could. I also made a lot of Jewish friends who welcomed me into their lives. For the first time, in a long time, I got to see people my own age with a strong religious identity.
As time went on, I got more and more wrapped up in my career. A lot of my self-worth and self-identity came from the size of my paycheck, the prestige of my job title, and the list of my work accomplishments. I sacrificed a lot for, what I perceived to be, my job success. Over time, my job became less and less fulfilling and, five years ago, I decided to change careers. After so many years of choosing my job over family and friends, I suddenly found myself with no one to turn to, no support.
I knew that I needed to make some major changes in my life; tearing it all down to built it up again better and stronger. I had to accept that my new job wasn’t as impressive or exciting as my old career, but I also accepted that my self-worth didn’t have anything to do with my job title. As part of this “stem to stern” reevaluation of my life, I felt like something was missing. As much as I wanted to believe that I was “spiritual, but not religious”, I realized that I really was religious. I also realized that I had been missing a strong spiritual community of like-minded people, where I felt welcome.
While exploring different faith traditions in the Bay Area, of which there are many, I kept thinking back to my time at the DCJCC. There were so many things about Judaism that matched my own personal beliefs. I started to read about Judaism and the conversion process, learning as much as I could. My first time at Temple Sinai was for an “Out and About” Shabbat dinner. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraged me to join them for the Mizmor Shir service. I was hooked. Through my classes with Rabbi Adar and my meetings with Rabbi Mates-Muchin, I began to see how Judaism could fit into my every day life and make it better.
In my family, we have a birthday tradition of asking, “What did you learn in the past year that you didn’t know before.” Looking back over the last 12 months, I’ve learned so much about Judaism; the history, traditions, holidays, and theology. But through this process of conversion, I’ve learned even more about myself, growing as a person of faith and a member of the Jewish community.
I once attended an informal talk by David Mamet. He mentioned a movie he watched a long time ago but couldn’t remember the name of it. There was a funny scene where a group of plane hijacker busted onboard with machine guns, asking “who is a Jew?” A meek guy in the back of the plane raised his hand responded “now, that is an interesting question.” With a laugh, we all commented that sounded like a stereotype Jewish response.
Indeed, what is a Jew? This is one of the questions I had to find out for my conversion. Armed with Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If not now, when…” and Rabbi Akiva’s opinion on studying leads to doing – Straight away, I started off by reading books, going to classes and studying with Rabbi Ezray. I was expecting to find answer in some books, or some famous person’s speech. Jewish is a race? A religion? A culture? No, it’s a People, so I read. Interesting…next I needed to define the “people.” I spent months learning about Jewish culture, holidays, life cycle, history, etc. On the spiritual side, Rabbi Ezray guided me to define my own personal God, studied some Torah, Talmud, and prayer. Our late Ruth Shapiro guided me on ritual, prayers, traditional point-of-views, listened to my non-sense and getting on my back from time to time like a good Jewish mom. I am blessed to have Rabbi Ezray, Ruth, and other people both from within and outside of Congregation Beth Jacob (Redwood City) community helping me along the way.
I was raised in a Daoist family in Hong Kong and my family sent me to a Catholic school there. Back then, most Catholic schools in Hong Kong have a good reputation of academic excellence and education in virtue. To help me ease the religious pressure from the Catholic school, my parents had always suggested me to view the religious study as a part of social studies. They also encourage me to learn about different religions to broaden my mind and knowledge. “Amy, no need to hurry into any decision – It’s a life-long quest,” as aba would say. Strange, huh? I have always called my father aba as far back as I can remember. How it started, I don’t know. Aba doesn’t remember neither. Perhaps it was a sign? Ruth was sure it was a sign! During the quest, I found the Jewish values and beliefs reaffirming the Daoist theory most of the time. If I come across any differences, the beliefs are usually complementary to each other. Gradually, I started integrating the Jewish values and beliefs to fill in the shortcoming of Dao and vice-versa. For example, in Daoist theory, the ideology of God was never emphasized. The Jewish belief of one and the only God helped me to answered some of the questions I had since my childhood. The Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism gave me a different insight into the Daoist mysticism.
Out of the Jewish values and beliefs I studied to-date, I found Tikkun Olam to be most appealing and persuasive. In a certain way, it resonates with the Daoist’s belief in karma. What is better than being proactive in repairing the world and leaving it a better place?
I remember when I first started studying with Rabbi Ezray, I would check with him from time to time on my progress worrying I was progressing slower than normal. After a while, I noticed I haven’t been paying attention to the timeline any more. “It’s a life-long quest,” as aba said. The timeline has no significance in such quest. What a relief I don’t have to bring Einstein and his theory of relativity into this mix! One day, I was invited to a bible study group by my Christian friend. The group was studying The Book of Genesis so I thought it would be interesting to see the Book from Christian’s perspective. Unbeknownst to both of us, the study group was hosted by a Christian fundamentalist group. While we were studying the story of Noah’s Ark, one lady in the group commented that she felt the Jews historically faced a lot of disasters and adversities because they don’t believe in Jesus. She further concluded if Jews had accepted and believes in Jesus, a lot of the disasters would not have happened. Given it the benefit of the doubt, I would like to believe that was an opinion of just one person and not a reflection of the whole group. Nevertheless I was devastated, I felt she was condemning me directly and I needed to speak up. I politely corrected her that the story stated all people died. It didn’t segregated Jews as the only group that fell victim to the flood, and I wept for all that died. Needless to say, I stopped going to that study group after that incident. I was upset by the comment, but that was also the moment I realized I have already taken up the Jewish identity.
Moving forward, there is still a lot to do and study. It is a life-long quest. Besides, I am a firm believer in continuous learning until the day I die. The Jewish study would certainly be part of my growing path. The conversion is just the beginning of my life journey.
I have chosen Binah Ruth as my Hebrew name – On the fortieth year of my birth, God blessed me with insight! Ruth has been a good friend and good mentor during my journey. I am choosing it as my Hebrew name in memory of our beloved Ruth Shapiro.
And lastly, thank you Leslie Weinstein for helping me to identify the movie mentioned above – It was Delta Force with Chuck Norris.
I gave serious consideration to becoming Jewish on the very day that I learned such a personal, psychological passage was possible. At the time, I attributed my desire to be Jewish to three factors: a terrific, loving relationship with a Jewish woman; a philo-Semitic that developed in childhood; and, more mystically, a Jewish neshamah, inherited from my Jewish great-grandfather (via the gilgul neshamot). But do 1/8 Jewish genetic makeup (whatever that really means!), a general affection for Jewry, and a profound love for a wonderful Jewish woman warrant conversion? As I see it, neither the genetic factor nor my philo-Semitism warrant such a profound identity transformation and I generally take issue with pro forma conversions motivated only by the desire to elude the intermarriage boogeyman. In combination, however, the three motivations may be deemed legitimate impetus, but my decision to convert was above all impelled by the sense that I was already Jewish, that giyur would be a homecoming. Nonetheless, even after I made up my mind to convert in late 2008, it wasn't until I began to adopt Jewish practices that I realized how very "right" the identity felt. Intellectually and emotionally, Jewish thought and life strengthen and sustained me, both before and after my official conversion, in 2011. This sense of identity, irrational though it may be, is shaped by forces outside of my purview. The mystic in me is perfectly content to call that G-d's will even as the rationalist winks away the metaphor.
I am an artist and a writer, but I also work in the sciences; on the whole, neither the arts nor the sciences are particularly accommodating of faith practice, and many of my Jewish friends are deeply skeptical of anything "spiritual" and especially anything "religious." Typically, these friends find my more practical or 'rational' reason for converting (i.e., marrying a Jewish woman) to be the more acceptable. By contrast, Jewish professionals and many of the older Jews I know, through shul, family, and other connections, are more inspired by my 'irrational' reasons; me, too.
Over time, my enthusiasm for Judaism and Jewish practice has rubbed off on some of those close to me. My wife, for example, has remarked that my Jewish identity and knowledge base has allowed her to reconnect with Judaism and to reexamine her Jewish identity; she now feels more Jewishly connected, she says, than she did when we met. Likewise, some of my Jewish friends who were initially skeptical or disinterested in Judaism (and who found my conversion bemusing) are now more open to participating in Shabbat dinners or even joining me at shul. As you observed, too many Jewish kids cross the bar or bat mitzvah finish line and flee the field/tribe. Sometimes, a sincere and dedicated ger can introduce them to an adult engagement with Judaism, one they might even be attracted to.
I do see converts who have a lackadaisical approach to their Jewish identity; typically, these converts converted for marriage. I used to resent them, feeling that their sense of Jewish identity was literally nominal, a piece of paper they stored in a fireproof safe and nothing more. In a time when being an interfaith couple is quite possible in the Jewish community, it doesn't make sense to me to convert solely as the result of familial pressure. I feel strongly that one should convert because they are compelled to through and through. Yet I no longer resent the lackadaisical gerim. Sure, they frustrate me at times, but rather than criticize them, I see them as just another disconnected Jew; that is, a Jew who might one day find value in wrestling with the complexities of Jewish identity.
This is the story she wrote to her rabbi, the essay required to show why she wanted to convert to Judaism.
In the midst of my Jewish studies, my friend Pam asked me a serious question. She said, "All of a sudden, you're religious. I've never seen you religious before. I think we're usually honest with each other about what's happening in our lives. But I don't understand this. What brought this on?" I smiled, and internally told myself she wouldn't understand. I didn't answer.
Three months later, she again posed the same question. The answer lay in emotions I had trouble expressing. I wasn't ready then, the first or second time she asked. But I'm ready now. This is my answer.
I have to go back a few years and relate what has happened to me chronologically. My answer isn't a simple one, but blocks building upon each other.
I have to start with work. My job was as a federal law enforcement officer for the past three decades. I was very happy in my work for the longest time. I approached it with such a ferocity, a fire that usually burned itself out as I approached home every night, exhausted, but stoked the next morning as I went back to the work site. I worked 60- to 80-hour workweeks, standing on my feet for many of those hours, facing angry and sometimes dangerous people, trying to complete a mission that I truly believed in. I knew that I was contributing positively to the world; putting drug smugglers away was a good thing even if doing it was becoming painful.
The last 21 years of my career I was a first-line supervisor. Not only did I face angry people as I interrupted their lives trying to find the bad ones among them, but I dealt with employees on a minute-to-minute basis. Employees who often did not want to be there. Employees who were sometimes ill-suited for their jobs. I also had a nice share of devoted and superbly competent employees who had the same fire I did, a desire to the job and do it right.
Each of these employees, good and bad, took a piece of me from myself. The physical nature of the job, the two-hour commute in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and the politics within a government job, left me with flat feet, a bad back, daily headaches and raw emotions. And those were the good days.
The bad days started in 2002, when I began having severe stomach cramps. I continued to work during those days, as I didn't want to leave my chief, who is still a dear friend, without help, and because it seemed that I would rather be miserable at work achieving something than miserable at home doing nothing and feeling guilty for missing work.
After several months of extreme pain, taking pain pills and breaking up meals into about 10 a day so that my stomach could cope, my doctor figured out what was going on and sent me for the right tests. The biopsy during the colonoscopy she ordered came back positive. I had colon cancer. Type 2B cancer, where the tumor exceeded the colon wall. They operated on me within two weeks. My best friend stopped her studies in Israel and flew out to California for two days to see me as I came out of the operation, not sure I'd live through it. I did. In fact, I recovered quickly enough that I could visit her in November that year and spend Thanksgiving with her fellow HUC students in Jerusalem.
I was convinced at that point that, while work may not have caused the cancer, the toll it had taken had surely exacerbated my condition. The stress was eating me alive. I became eligible for retirement a year later, and, stumbling through a labored 12 months to get to that goal (thanks to my friend, the Chief), I finally reached it and put away the badge and gun for good.
As I walked away from the job, I was both sad and exhilarated. I was cancer-free (at least for now), sure that I had escaped the bullet, however short-lived that may be.
But all of a sudden I had no plan. No way to fill an empty life. My work had acted as my work life, my social life, almost my religion -- it was certainly something I believed in and had no problem giving my all to it. Now what did I have?
I took a full year to decompress and look around to see what I might do. I might write a book. I might do some volunteer work. All of a sudden I looked around and realized it had been three years since I retired, and I still had this big hole in my life.
I suddenly fell in love again. When you're faced with death and you don't know how many years you've got left, it's easier to find your courage and express your feelings. Around the same time I started to note that several of my friends were Jewish. Susan, who has almost discovered a new way of loving Judaism in recent years. Dawn, who has such enthusiasm for All Things Jewish that she speaks in exclamation points! And others. I was able to find inspiration in them and their stories. I started to learn.
What I discovered in the last year of studying with the rabbi and taking classes is that Judaism is the complete world. It sounds trite to say that, perhaps, but it's true. I have found that I love learning: the history of the Jewish people, how Torah fills our lives, songs that sound so familiar when I first hear them and which won't go away in my mind when I'm trying to sleep. The Jewish world is all about doing rather than just thinking about it, a brilliant idea, which fits in with how I want to live my life
I find that I'm always looking to see what my synagogue is up to these days. What are the services this week? Shall I go to Torah study, Shabbat services, learn how to build a sukkah or create a Passover dinner. It's learning and being and doing.
But even more than all of that, it's about using the years I have left for good, in a good structure full of good people. Using these repressed emotions I never wanted to feel by giving them a creative outlet.
So, you see, Pam, I wanted to do good things, learn interesting things with people who share my value system. In a structure of year-long events that I can follow and share with my new friends. And I want to cry shamelessly when I hear those wonderful songs, happy that I'm in this community and happy that I'm still alive to experience this wholeness.
Hineni. It's a word I learned this Yom Kippur from my rabbis, my second high holy days but the first I really understood. A word that instantly brought tears streaming down my face as I recognized myself in the sound of the word. Here I am. Send me. I'm ready.
For most of my life I was not a religious person. My father was agnostic and my mother was Catholic. When I was growing up, my mother wanted to give me a religious education because it was the "right thing to do," according to her. As a child, I attended the services at the church and I went to catechism. My father used to tease my mother by saying that she was trying to "brainwash me" with outdated concepts. In grade school, most of my teachers were anticlerical and said that religious beliefs were simply superstition.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that my father and my teachers were probably right. At the same time, I was asking myself questions: The idea that God sent his only son to be killed to save us did not make any sense. Was the world a better place after Jesus was killed and resurrected? If there was a God, why did God, who was so loving, allow all the injustice to happen in the world? Why did people commit massacre in the name of religion? Was not a religion as good as another religion? When I asked these questions, my mother and the priest would respond with, "Don’t question, just have faith." As a result I stopped going to church when I was in my teens. I did see not the point in going to a place of worship if I did not agree on the religious beliefs and practices.
I went through life caring very little about God and religion. However, deep down I believed that there was supernatural force, a Master of the Universe. Science did not give me a satisfactory answer on how the world was created. My teachers talked about the Big Bang. Science could not tell what was before the Big Bang. I believed that the master of the Universe set the Big Bang into motion and the world originated from there.
A major life change happened three years ago. My husband filed for divorce after 21 years of marriage. I almost had a nervous breakdown because I was frightened. I had no marketable job skills, I had never been alone in all those years, and I depended on my husband for my well-being. With the support of my family and friends, I picked myself up, and went back to college to get a master's degree in social work. Two weeks after graduation, I found my first job as a social worker in an agency working with seniors.
My clients at the agency were elderly Russian Jewish immigrants. As a social worker, I wanted to be culturally competent. I needed to know where my clients were coming from to better understand them. I took Russian language classes at City College and I attended a three-day workshop called a "Taste of Judaism." I felt that the workshop on Judaism was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I took another six-week course on "Intro to Judaism." At the same time, I attended the Sabbath and Torah services. I was attracted by Judaism’s emphasis on action, rather than faith and dogma. I also learned that Judaism is not only a religion but a culture.
At the end of the workshop I talked to Lisa (who runs the conversion program at Sherith Israel) about the possibility of conversion. I really appreciated that I could take my time and study Judaism in depth before committing myself. My mentor, Helen, is very supportive and patient. She invited me for Passover and Hanukah. She sat with me at the Torah services and study. I learned more by participating than reading from a book. During the Torah study, I was amazed that the participants asked questions, and they were allowed to have different points of view. In addition, Helen suggested that I volunteer for Hamotzi. I really enjoy preparing meals for the shelters. In order to better understand the prayer book, I have been taking Hebrew classes.
Looking back when I first started attending Intro to Judaism classes and conversion classes, my view of God has changed. He (or she) is not the distant entity living in the sky. I believe that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and animates all beings. Therefore everything that happens, good things as well as bad things, is God’s will. What the prophet Isaiah said makes sense, "I am the Lord, there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and I create woe; I am the Lord of all these things." Now I do not try to control events anymore; I surrender to God. In life we have limited choices. Our apparent free will is conditioned by our environment, genetics, and talent. This, too, is God's will.
With Judaism I have found the values that I searched for. Judaism shows me the way to become a holy person. The way of salvation is by action rather than faith. We are in partnership with God to make the world better. I am looking forward to becoming part of the Jewish community.
I was raised in a Protestant religious tradition, but had "bonded" with Judaism when I was in college through my friendships with many Jewish students.
I had considered conversion for many years after college, but the thought stayed dormant until after September 11, 2001. On that fateful day, a Jewish friend of mine who had worked in the World Trade Center had gotten out of the city safely, and to honor her, I wanted to give my thanks to God in a synagogue. A co-worker recommended Beth Am. I attended a service, and several services after that, but was still afraid to take the first real step toward conversion. I finally emailed Rabbi Janet Marder, Beth Am's senior rabbi, and she warmly invited me to meet with her to discuss the conversion process at Beth Am.
From that first meeting, I knew I had found the right place to begin my Jewish journey. Rabbi Marder explained the conversion process at Beth Am, and cleared up many misconceptions I had about conversion. She helped me understand that conversion was not intended to be a grueling process to "qualify" me to be a Jew, but a deliberate and focused journey of the soul, as well as an opportunity to join, and be embraced by, a sacred covenant that would not require me to abandon my family, friends, or values.
I signed up for a class called Building Blocks of Judaism (taught by a wonderful lay teacher) while meeting with Rabbi Marder about every 6 weeks. The Building Blocks class was a helpful introduction to Jewish history, theology, and practice. My sessions with Rabbi Marder were a safe and uplifting environment in which to explore my questions and fears. She suggested books to read and activities at the synagogue where I could get to know people and learn more. She was sensitive to how frightening this big change was for me, and did not rush me as far as the timing of my conversion. She was a patient and inspiring guide and teacher every step of the way.Rabbi Marder has all of her conversion students write an essay about their Jewish journey, and has us go to the mikvah before our conversion ceremony. She also discusses the conversion ceremony with us beforehand, and provides opportunities for each student to select some of the prayers for their ceremony.
I am grateful to have gone through my conversion at a community that truly welcomes those who want to join the Covenant of Israel, and that shows genuine sensitivity to the needs of each person during their journey. I have been encouraged by the many Jews by Choice at Beth Am who have been so involved in congregational life and who have been inspiring teachers and leaders. Most of all, I am grateful that Rabbi Marder welcomed a stranger one day 7 years ago, and guided her with love and inspiration on that deliberate and focused journey of the soul.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home—and it never resonated with me. Hearing members of my family and church talk about how people (Jews, Buddhists, atheists…) would spend eternity burning in hell if I/we/Christians in general didn’t convince them to “give their lives to Jesus,” terrified me. That seemed a pretty big load to hand to a 5 year old girl who really only went to church without a fuss because she liked singing hymns and listening to the felt board stories.
I spent most of my adult years disconnected from religion. Without a family of my own, it seemed like a non-issue. As an elementary school teacher, I was aware that the most cohesive families and compassionate, self-assured children that came through my classroom were those that came from families that regularly attended some kind of house of worship. However, I wasn’t at that place in my life, so I just sort of filed it away that when that time came for me, I’d figure it out.
I knew, however, that I would NEVER tell my child that he/she was responsible for saving the souls of other people from an eternity in hell. NEVER.
When I met my (now) husband (thank you, eHarmony!) and discovered that he was Jewish, I was curious about it. Maybe it was just what I was looking for. The two main things that I couldn’t wrap my head around in Christianity (hell and Jesus) were not a part of this religion. We wanted to have children together, but then there were all those traditions that I knew so well… How would it feel to give those up?
I went to an interfaith discussion group that I learned about through Dawn Kepler’s regular email updates. Actually, I went to a few of them. And as I listened to the stories women (and men) were telling about trying to balance two faiths and sets of traditions into one home, I thought it sounded… complicated.
Especially given that I really didn’t believe the basic tenets of Christianity, it seemed crazy for me to put that much effort into maintaining an interfaith home.
By this time I had taken a number of classes all over the Bay Area. I wanted to learn about Judaism, and I seized on multiple opportunities at all kinds of synagogues—Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist—and at each place I found something to learn and appreciate. I was welcomed whole-heartedly at every synagogue (and on occasion had to laugh when conversations would result in someone looking to me and asking, “What do Christians think about…?” as if I were qualified to speak for all Christians.)
I also attended a group called “Jewish Journeys” led by Rabbi Bridget at Jewish Gateways. It was a wonderful group that met regularly to bounce ideas off of each other and to get us self-motivated to discover for ourselves what we wanted to experience in Judaism.
Finding B’Nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek was like finding my home. When I met Rabbi Asher, I told him I was interested in converting to Judaism, and we began to meet regularly to discuss the classes I had taken, the classes I continued to take, as well as other, more general questions I had about Judaism. Converting has just felt like the most natural thing in the world for me. I can see now how my whole life was leading up to it, and I’m thrilled that we are raising our daughter (who we adopted from Vietnam) in the Jewish faith as well.
First, I want to say thank you to my teachers: Rabbi Camille Angel & Paul Cohen (my mentor), to my birth family, to my Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco) family, and to all my friends. Thanks for your support all along this journey because as you know, it’s just the beginning.
As we approach the Jewish Festival of Purim, our very own Mardi Gras where Jews are actually commanded to eat, drink, and be merry (and then drink some more!), we are also reminded that this is the festival of “fate.” It is a holiday of contradictions, of revelry and reflection.
During this festival, we read from the Book of Esther (and no, I don’t mean Madonna). Interestingly, G-d never appears in the book, as if G-d was hiding. Purim teaches us this concept of “hester panim,” which means hidden face of G-d. It is the idea that, although we may think we control our own lives, G-d is actually the architect of our fate—controlling events that are not always apparent. Purim is the holiday that reminds me of “that moment,” and at some point in our lives, we all experience “that moment.”
My moment arrived on a cold and late December night in 1990, as I was driving past Sacramento during finals week at UC Davis. An animal suddenly raced across the road and today, I don’t even remember what kind of animal, but being the anti-war, pro-choice, tree-hugging, whale-loving, animal rights activist that I was (and still am)—I swerved to avoid hitting it.
I lost control of my car, as it spun around twice before flipping over several times down an embankment where I landed upside-down, strapped to my seatbelt, unconscious…
All I remember was how the police told me that if my car had landed just two feet to the left, I would have slammed into an electrical column. That’s when I had my moment.
That night, I was reminded of my own mortality and how lucky I was. That was the moment when I realized, for whatever reason, that I was meant to live—or perhaps more importantly, my life was meant to be lived fully.
Since then, I have always tried to make each experience, each friendship, each day, and each moment count. Maybe that’s why I am a wild-and-crazy kind of guy.
I also believe that I was meant to live so that I could give back.
I have always been dedicated to “tikkum olam,” or repairing the world long, before I learned there was a word for it. Tikkun Olam usually comes in the form of social activism—in order to make our world a better place. Activism is in my blood. So, it’s not surprising that the two Jewish names I have chosen are “Ravid” and “Netzach.”
When I first thought about choosing a name, I wanted a unique, Hebrew name to fit my unusual personality. Ravid is Hebrew for wanderer, and I chose it because I’m the type of person who just can’t sit still. As a child, I was hyper. I had a short attention span and I always had to be doing something. Well, that’s still the case.
“Netzach” means “victory,” and my grandfather’s name was Vicente, which means victory. I chose his name to honor his memory and to honor a life filled with tikkun olam. So now, I carry both of his names because my official middle name is Tolentino, which was his last name.
During the past year-and-a-half, I chose Judaism, and in a way, Judaism chose me—as my life’s purpose continues to unfold. So, as we approach Purim with our masks, graggers (noisemakers), and alcohol in hand, I know that I will be reminded of that cold night, and that “moment” which changed everything.
I will also ponder about what brought me to the Jewish people. I will continue to reflect upon why I am here, and I will think about all the work that lies ahead in making this world better place for gays, Asians, Jews, and everyone in between.
I didn’t want to be a Jew. This whole thing started out real simple. My wife and I started talking about raising a family. We talked about sending them to public or private school, would someone stay home or would we do the day care thing, and would we raise them with a religion. She was born Jewish. I was a very happy atheist. My belief then (and now) is that children should be raised in a faith. Something to help them with the big questions in life. Something to rebel against when they’re teenagers.
I figured that if we were going to raise the kids Jewish, I should know a little bit about it. After a quick Google search, we came across the organization Building Jewish Bridges, headed by Dawn Kepler. We found a workshop that was hosted by Netivot Shalom. The lecture focused on inter-faith families, specifically introducing the non-Jew part of the family to Judaism. It was there I met Menachem.
I know I’m not the first person to be floored by (Rabbi) Menachem Creditor. I know I won’t be the last. That night changed my life. For the first time in my short 29 years of existence, I was introduced to a concept of God and religion that I had never known. It all felt right. Everything Menachem was saying felt like home. I wasn't the only one who was touched- my wife had tears streaming down her face. That’s Menachem’s talent.
I didn’t sleep for three days. No, that’s not right- I couldn’t sleep for three days. I couldn’t stop mulling over what Menachem addressed that night. Concepts about a God who needs people, concepts like a God who wants to be a part of my life. No guilt. No shame. Responsibility, yes. A lifetime of learning, and more importantly, doing, yes. But no more shame.
I contacted Dawn Kepler shortly after the lecture. I told her I wanted more information about Judaism. I asked her to recommend a book. She recommended “Basic Judaism”, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg. I didn’t read the text so much as I devoured it. I took notes and made comments in the margins. I wrote down questions. I wanted more.
I emailed Menachem and asked if he would meet me for a coffee sometime, anytime. No response. I emailed him again. No response. Wow, this guy is playing hardball, I thought. My third email got a response. We were to meet at the Tully’s on Shattuck at 11:30 am. We met and it was there that I declared my desire to convert. I wanted to study under him.
For the next five months I read. I read books like “Jewish Literacy” and “Biblical Literacy” by Rabbi Joseph Telushin. I read Abraham Heschel’s “The Prophets” because Menachem suggested it during a lecture after a Sunday morning minyan. I attended Shabbat services almost every Saturday morning. None of that prepared me for what happened at my first Rosh Hashanah.
It was during the third blast of the shofar, the teruah, that I felt the presence of the Divine. I apologize for what follows: I have yet to do an adequate job of describing that moment. Time stopped. Life stopped. All I heard was the sound of the shofar and the feeling of my soul being grabbed by God. It was as if God grabbed me by my head, looked me in the eye, and made Its presence very known. I about collapsed. I was left muttering oh my god this is real oh my god this is real, oh my f***ing god this is so real.
I read more books, attended more Shabbat services. I helped build a sukkah. The more I do, the more I want to know. Once Purim arrives, I will have celebrated every Jewish holiday, even the minor ones like Tu B’shvat. My wife and I keep the Sabbath and welcome It into our lives on Friday evenings.
I have so much more to learn. I’m embarrassed by the amount of ignorance I possess. But I can say without a doubt that nothing will stop me from being the best Jew I can be. I didn’t want this when I started last March. All I wanted was a Cliff Notes understanding of Judaism, just something to get me by until the kids went to college and I could reveal myself as an atheist. Everything has changed. The future is open to more discovery. Thank God.
I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.
After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.
Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.
It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?
The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.
Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?
The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.
“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.
I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:
“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.
I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”
Above: me at age 11. Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15. Right: My father and grandmother Ana.
We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?
I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.
In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.
After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.
By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.
For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.
I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.
I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.
It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.
I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.
During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.
Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.
Part of my conversion essay:
In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.
My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.
I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.
I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.
I aim to reclaim that heritage.
“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”
I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.
Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father. Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.
Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”
I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.
Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“What was it like?”
I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”
Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”
“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.
We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”
There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.
Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”
I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”
“Do you have any questions for us?”
I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”
The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”
Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”
Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”
He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.
Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”
We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”
I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”
The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.
She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.
“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”
After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!
The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.
The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.
The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.
Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.
The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.
Am I really here?Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.
I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.
After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.
I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.
Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.
I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.
An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?
My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?
The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.
Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.
I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.
“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”
I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.
Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”
Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.
She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”
I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.
I had come this far. I was ready.
It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.
I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.
No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.
Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”
I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.
When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.
I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.
“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”
I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.
And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.
And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”
My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”
As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.
I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”
I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.
The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.
Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony. Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift
In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.