Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

I Am Jewish

on June 14, 2015

Before I begin to tell you about the end, allow me to introduce myself: my name is Elisheva Sivan- אלישבע סיון – and I am Jewish.

I’ve been waiting a long time to say those words, and a feeling of pride swells in my chest each time I think them. ME, Jenn, Elisheva- I am Jewish. Finally.

Here’s how it happened.

David and I left York, PA around 9AM for the mikveh in Hewlett, NY. After stopping by Hofstra to visit some friends and driving through some incredibly harrowing traffic, we arrived at a tiny white house with some Hebrew scrawled along the outside, 20 minutes late to my scheduled bet din. I was flustered, to say the least. My sponsoring rabbi answered the door with a smile and an assurance that our tardiness was not an issue and ushered David, a friend, and me upstairs to where the other two rabbis were waiting.

My terrifying vision of a long wooden table and an interrogation spotlight melted away as I stepped into a carpeted living room with comfy armchairs and a rather squishy couch. The rabbi who taught my conversion class was there along with another rabbi whom I had never met.

We all settled in, my sponsoring rabbi next to me and the other two rabbis in chairs across from me. I was asked simply to begin by “telling us a little about yourself.” I’ve never liked that opener- where do I start and how to you expect me to cover the complexities of my past 21 years in 2 minutes? So I stumbled awkwardly through my introduction, giving a vague and rather unhelpful overview of my college experience and my involvement in Hofstra Hillel.

Once the other questions started, I was much more at ease. Some of them included “Why Conservative Judaism? What is the most exciting thing you’ve discovered? The most difficult? How does your family feel about your conversion? How do you personally or spiritually identify with Judaism?” Even though these questions were not exactly the ones I had practiced for, none of them caught me off guard. I breezed through my answers and kept them simple, heartfelt, and honest, often saying the first thing that came to mind.

My sponsoring rabbi and the rabbi who taught my class were convinced, but the other rabbi wanted to “really test me” before he gave the a-okay. He knew that I was going away to Jewish summer camp in a few days, and I am anticipating that it will be an incredibly rewarding and immersive experience. However, he asked what if I don’t like camp? What does that mean for Jenn and her Judaism?

I answered that camp, like any Jewish community, is only one representation of Judaism. If I don’t like camp, I’ll come home and analyze why. Was it the people? Was it the way the laws were taught? Was it the prayer community? Then, I can troubleshoot and learn more about myself and how I live as a Jew. You learn a lot from the experience you enjoy, but sometimes, you learn even more from the ones you don’t like. Not liking camp does not mean I don’t like Judaism- it just means that there was something in the way Judaism was enacted that doesn’t work for me, and I can adapt and grow using that knowledge.

The rabbi who posed the question said I gave a very Jewish answer and he needed no further convincing. I smiled, happy that passing the bet din was as simple as being myself and having a casual conversation. Part of me wishes that it could have gone on longer. I could have talked for hours.

Instead, I went downstairs to the mikveh, which was a lot smaller than I pictured. It was like a mini swimming pool- maybe 8 feet by 8 feet across and 5 feet deep in the shallow end where I stood, once I had walked down a series of steps into the incredibly warm water. The mikveh lady held my robe and instructed me to dunk myself completely.

Annnnnnd… under. The water felt no different from any other water I had been in. It sort of stung my nose and clogged my ears. One of the rabbis on the other side of the door had me repeat the blessing word for word after him. I glanced at the blessings engraved on the wall, my eyes tracing the Hebrew with apprehension. I was hypersensitive of my pronunciation, wanting to make sure that I didn’t miss a single syllable of the prayer.

After saying the Shehecheyanu and dunking for the third time, a series of “mazel tov!”s came from the mikveh lady and everyone outside. The sounds of congratulations washing over my head felt better than the waves of water that had spilled over my head three times.

I have to be honest, I didn’t feel a deep spiritual connection in the mikveh waters. But when I was drying my hair afterwards, I looked in the mirror, my fine hair sticking up like a fuzzy, newborn chick, and thought “Look at that! You’re Jewish. That’s a Jewish face looking back at you.” I felt everything wash over me in the most calm, serene way. I realized that from that point forward, I really am a new person. Transformed in the deepest, happiest, and most profound way.

I walked back upstairs to the living room and was immediately greeted with exclamations and happiness. Smiles. Hugs. The passing around of the words “mazel tov!” like it was a sweet bottle of wine we could all drink from and enjoy. I was asked to complete one more task- the recitation of the Sh’ma, which I did with the same focus and precision as the blessings downstairs.

My sponsoring rabbi and I took care of the paperwork, stating that on this day I cast my lot with the Jewish people. My Hebrew name- Elisheva Sivan- has a double significance. The first name I picked a while ago and it means God is my promise. I find, given the fact that I feel bound to this community and my relationship with G-d, that it is very fitting for the Jew that I’ve become. Elisheva was also Aaron’s wife in the Bible. Sivan is the month in which I converted and a modern Hebrew name that can be either male or female- a more recent addition to my identity and a constant reminder of this oh so special day.

So, I left carrying the documents signifying my Jewishness, a copy of The Conservative Life (a gift from my bet din), and a fire inside my soul that I feel will never die.

More than anything, I felt content. I realized that the conversion of my heart happened a long time before I went to the mikveh. Having my body and soul finally catch up makes me feel very tranquil. I also feel incredibly proud. Not just of what I’ve accomplished, but of my new identity. I am proud to belong to this group, of the history of my people, of where we are today, of our cultural richness, and of the things we stand for.

There is nothing better than achieving something for which you’ve worked so hard, and converting has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I was tested multiple times, I overcame set-backs, I had my fair share of doubts, I was denied, turned away, scorned, and laughed at. I learned and cried and sometimes felt very much alone. Despite everything and thanks to the wonderful supporters I’ve had along the way, I’ve made it. A well-earned victory that I’m more than happy to share with you all.

The euphoria still hasn’t worn off, and I hope to never take my new identity for granted. On Monday, I am leaving for Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and I won’t return until mid-August. So you won’t hear from me for a while, but I do want to keep blogging. Even though the title of this blog- Converting to Judaism- has been fulfilled, I have a feeling I am still going to face a lot of oys and joys when it comes to choosing this Jewish life. I’ll continue to share them with you here.

For now, I am content. I am Jewish.

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7 responses to “I Am Jewish

  1. Sophina says:

    Mazel Tov! I’m so happy and pleased for you (if not slightly envious – I can’t wait to say “I am Jewish” too!) I look forward to future blogs and I hope you have a wonderful time at Camp.

    • Jenn says:

      Thank you! I am sure if that’s where your heart lies, everyone else will see that and you can join me someday in saying “I am Jewish.” Hopefully, I can read about your experiences via blog posts. Wishing you all the best.

  2. Rachell says:

    Congratulations! I really enjoy reading your blog.

  3. Adam says:

    “I realized that the conversion of my heart happened a long time before I went to the mikveh. Having my body and soul finally catch up makes me feel very tranquil.”

    That is a beautiful way to put it. I’ve read other folks’ mikveh blogs and everyone’s a little different. I wonder what will happen to me when I finally go in August.

    Mazel Tov!

  4. Fabio says:

    Congratulations, Jen! I am so happy for you and also proud of your achievement! Take care and I wish you all the best! Fabio

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