Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

The Journey’s Not Over

Hey friends!

I know it’s been a while. I stopped writing regularly because I completed my conversion and I figured, well, that’s it. I’ve done this process, I’ve gone over all the oys and joys of this converting business, and now we can move on.

Not quite.

We, the Jews by choice, never really stop choosing Judaism. We choose it in little daily acts, and we choose it in big life choices that we make as well.

I’ve realized that there are still struggles unique to a Jew by choice that continue after we have dipped and recited our brakhot and been members of our community for what feels like a long time.

I was talking with a Jewish man whom I considered a friend, and he let me know that he could never date, let alone marry, a woman who had converted to Judaism because he needs to be with a “naturally born Jewish woman.” Only a born Jew and her family could provide a true Jewish family and culture. The conversion “would never be enough.”

To all Jews who continue to see us as second class Jews, I offer the following response:

Take it from a Jew who has fought long and hard to be who she is: we are more than enough. Do you know the work I had to do to get to this place? Do you know the things I’ve sacrificed and the beautiful things that I’ve gained? We are every bit a Jew as you, and we are valid, worthy, contributing members of communities. You and your opinions are the reason I am still hesitant to answer when people ask what temple I went to growing up or how my family raised me. Because you and others like you make me feel less than. You remind us of our different past and use it against us like it is some sort of weakness rather than seeing and accepting us as full Jews.

You want a Jew who was naturally born. For me, there was nothing more natural than coming home to Judaism, and I continue to thrive in Jewish environments. Have you been in the kahal when I lead a Friday night service? Have you drunk from the cup over which I have made kiddush? Have you held my hand as we swayed and said havdalah or have you davened beside me during the days of awe? You will see that in all of these things, there is no distinction between convert and non convert. We are all Jews. We are all born with this Jewish soul that we come to realize at different points in our lives. And we are all equal.

I hope someday when I have a congregation and a Jewish family of my own and I’m changing the world for the better, you see how wrong you are about me and all converts. Though we do not need to prove ourselves to others, you will seem time and again converts who are creating lasting impacts in their Jewish communities. And it’s a beautiful thing.

To all converts who are struggling and feeling like they are made to feel unworthy, I offer the words from Joe Buchanan’s song Unbroken: “I chose a brand new path- it was waiting for years. And there was plenty of room under that tree for the whole wide world, even you and me.”

His whole song, which I had the pleasure of listening to him play recently, reassures us that, yes, indeed, it is a beautiful thing to choose to be chosen. Don’t let anyone have you believe otherwise.

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Jewish Ethnicity

Today, I was told by a room full of Jews that I could never be a Jew.

Which is fine, really. I only spent years studying and underwent numerous trials and tribulations to be who I am.

No one minds if I belong to the Jewish community. No one minds if I take part in Jewish life. Heck, no one even minds if I call myself Jewish.

The problem lies in being a Jew, which some people define as an ethnicity. You can’t choose your ethnicity, they argue. Just look at Rachel Dolezal and everything she said this summer. You are either born with it (or in this case, born from a woman who was born with it), or you’re not it. Plain and simple.

I try and retaliate and say that a Jew is not defined by a Jewish mother but by the affiliation he has with his religion, the ties she makes to her community. And the argument takes a sharp turn. You can never know what we went through because your family never went through it. You can never understand the Holocaust because your family didn’t die. Your past will always be a part of you and your past is not our past. You can’t tell our jokes or have our babies because you don’t have Jewish blood in your veins.

I think before I attempt to tackle this problem, we have to agree on what ethnicity means. I present you with the dictionary definition of ethnicity.

An ethnic group or ethnicity is a socially defined category of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience.

Ancestry.

If you want to go all the way back, I could begin my argument with Adam and Eve, we all have the same ancestors, that sort of thing. I know that’s not going to work for the majority of you. It’s true- my family is not Jewish. I am not denying that fact. However, if being Jewish to you is nothing more than a pedigree, you have a pretty narrow scope of what it means to be one of the tribe. I share in your Biblical history and relate to the same forefathers that we all aspire to be like. Our roots are the same. You know your Biblical ancestors just as well as I do because we all look at them through the same window- our sacred texts.

Okay, but what about our recent ancestors, our family history? Over the years, I’ve adopted various Jewish families as a sort of foster for the holidays, special occasions, and just general Jewish living. I’m not denying the impact of my own family. I love them, and they will always be my family. But family is more than blood. Family are those who have shaped us into the people we are. Sometimes, that’s not our blood relatives, and I must tell you frankly that my parents did not teach me how to be a good Jew. You might define a family by lineage and genealogy, but I define them by something more meaningful and less tangible.

I think of the adopted family members I have in my life. The happiness that spreads across bubbe’s face when she smiles and exclaims, “You are family!” as she squeezes my hand. My sitting at the head of my friend’s table at Pesach as he holds the matzah high above us. A relative calling, “kinderlach!” as she shuffles down the hallway. The sadness in bubbe’s eyes as she recounts each relative perished in the Shoah and the corresponding ache and heaviness in my heart mixed with anger and a sort of determined pride.

My Jewish family is scattered and diverse and loving and above all, mine. My home is where they are .

Society and Culture.

I’m putting these two together. If I didn’t feel a part of the Jewish culture, I wouldn’t be so active in my Jewish community. Culture encompasses everything that we do that makes us different. The foods we eat, the times we pray, the celebrations we have, the way in which we mark our lives. One’s culture is apparent by his ease and participation in it, and I’ve written countless testaments to my embracing of Jewish culture. Enough said.

National Experience.

The Jews have a homeland, and that homeland is Israel. While I’ve never been there myself, I’ll be going for the first time this January. Even so, I stand with Israel. I don’t agree with everything that everyone there says or does, but it’s my home, albeit the one I have yet to lay eyes on.

To those who say I am not a Jew- there is nothing more hurtful. I’m sorry if I do not conform to your typical expectations or definitions, but I am not sorry for who I am or for the choice that I’ve made. I’d do it a thousand times over if I could. And Abraham, your great patriarchal father from whom you all descend? Just remember that he was a pagan worshipper and a convert.

Like me.

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I Am Jewish

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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It’s Time

Well guys, the big day is tomorrow. I have my dress picked out and the blessings learned, instructions printed from mapquest and a council of rabbis waiting for me at the end of a long stretch of highway. I got this.

I’ve been telling nearly everyone I know that I’m heading off to the mikveh to officially convert this Thursday, and I get the same response. Whether they’re old or young, known me for a few months or a few years, they all say, “It’s about time.”

In part, I would agree with that sentiment. I feel like my conversion has been a long time coming. While I feel a little nervous about the bet din itself, I have no nerves or second thoughts about becoming a part of this religious community. I’ve been living this way for a while- time to take the plunge.

I don’t regret waiting. Even though I wanted to immediately convert after completing my six month class back in March, spending some time unpacking the class and planning the ceremony helped me clear my head and figure out what I really want this big change in my life to look like.

I’m scared. I’m excited. I’m ready to see what will happen tomorrow. Rather than saying “it’s about time,” I’m at the point where I can finally say, “it’s time.” Everything has fallen into place, and I’m ready. Wish me luck.

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It’s A Date

As of today, I am officially going before the bet din on June 11th at 3:30PM!!!

The bet din is a council of rabbis, in this case three of them, and they make decisions about legal matters within Judaism. The item up for discussion on June 11th is my conversion. If they decide I am kosher, I get to go to the mikveh- the ritual bath in which I will immerse myself completely- and say the blessing and BAM! New Jew. Official and everything.

Words can not even begin to express how excited I am. I don’t even know where to start. I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for this date and now it’s finally here. It’s such a beautiful and wonderful culmination of years worth of studying and learning and loving.

I wanted to share with you all that it’s finally happening, and as the day gets closer, I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to add and feelings to share. So stay tuned.

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A Layer of Ownership

Recently, I read that going to the mikveh is more of an additive process rather than a subtractive one. I like that idea a lot. Many of my Christian friends equate going to the mikveh for conversion with baptism, which is fine, but if I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again as a born again Christian, I could have just as easily done that. The mikveh doesn’t wash away our past or purify our souls. It takes what we already have and transforms it. If you’ll permit me to use a food analogy, we are all bagels (different flavors and ages and sizes and seasonings) and the water of the mikveh is the shmear or the cream cheese and the lox- you tasted good and now you taste BETTER. An extra layer of tasty goodness.

I’ve been trying to think of layers I can add that will enrich the Jewish identity of post-mikveh Jenn. What kinds of toppings do I want to add to my bagel? When my sponsoring rabbi and I were discussing my upcoming conversion, he asked what I was looking forward to doing as a new Jew. Immediately, an image came to mind of me standing in front of my Jewish community, holding a glass filled with grape juice as the light outside begins to dim, and leading about 50 or so college kids in Kiddish. I know it seems like a small dream, but it’s something I’ve wanted since it was first denied to me a year or so ago. Soon I will not just be the woman who is really familiar with or passionate about Judaism, but also the woman who is Jewish. I can explain and share my OWN culture.

Once I have that sense of ownership, I can use my other passions to create new traditions within Judaism, keeping it very much alive while making it a part of myself. Last Shabbat when our cantorial intern was leading services, he mentioned that one of his favorite things to do was bring new melodies to the services and share them. I completely understand- you are not only sharing something beautiful, but your presentation and the quality of your voice creates an entirely new prayer experience that is all your own. Whether it’s through music or food or writing or something else entirely, I look forward to making a mark in a tradition that is old and ancient and soon to be mine.

I hope that my conversion will add to this growing sense of belonging that I’ve gathered over the years. More and more I’ve become a part of a tradition that is beautiful, and I feel like a member of a community that lives so vibrantly. I can’t wait to officially call this place and these people mine and for them to do the same for me.

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Conversations

Only an hour ago, I sat crouched on my bed, the comforter flooded with direct sunlight, and spilled my heart’s guts over the phone to a complete stranger whom I’ve never met, a man who happens to hold the keys to my future. Pools of sweat were forming between my hand and the cell I clutched to my ear, and I had to keep dumping the excess moisture onto the ground.

This is disgusting, I thought. Why am I so nervous to tell someone a little something about myself? Am I really that unsure of my identity?

Now that the conversation is over, I think about the questions I was asked by the rabbi at one of the cantorial schools I hope to learn more about and possibly attend. What has your Jewish journey been like? How is your family handling it? What connects you to Judaism? I think about the sticky answers I gave- the beautiful unfolding of my very self and soul as I’ve delved further and further into Judaism, the way my mom expressed her unconditional love for me after learning about my decision to convert, the spiritual and emotional bridge I am building between this world and G-d using song. I realize now it’s okay to be a little nervous when baring one’s true self to another person. It doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable, but I recognize my vulnerability when asked to discuss my conversion in conversation.

It’s funny because the words convert and conversation have the same Latin root: vertere, meaning “to turn.” A conversation specifically means to turn together, to turn to one another, or to face one another.

As converts, we turn over new leaves. We turn our faces to the full sunlight of our new lives and let it flood our souls. We turn to a new community and away from some old traditions. We turn ourselves inside out and upside down enough times to make us dizzy. When it’s all said and done, we end up right back where we started. Same soul, same heart, same body and self. Just facing a different direction.

While I’ve shared bits and pieces of my conversion on this blog and with my closest friends, I remain mostly turned inward, learning about myself and the way Judaism impacts me. I’ve never really turned outward, looked someone in the face, and told the whole story of my self. It’s very, very nerve-racking. I did the same thing last Thursday when I visited HUC and encountered students, faculty, and clergy who all wanted to hear “my story.” I almost wish I could write little pamphlets and pass them out so I wouldn’t have to do this face-to-face thing.

But an important aspect of conversion is your story. When it comes time to turn to those who are questioning and itching to hear your words, what do you say? How can you summarize and articulate an ongoing process that’s been happening for years in a matter of minutes?

My very definition of self is changing, and it will continue to change for a while yet. Above all, it’s been a fairly private process up until now. So forgive my stuttering and that darn red face that shows up every time I feel your eyes on me. If you ask, I’ll turn and face you. Because this is a journey that is meant to be shared.

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Dear Mom and Dad

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I sat surrounded by family this Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but ask: Why have a family? Other than the biological impulse to reproduce, it’s an expression of love, fulfillment, and a way to carry on one’s legacy. Every human being is someday going to die, so we need those who will continue to embody our own core values after we are gone. In that way, we live on through our ideals. Descendants are one way to make sure that the goodness we attempted to plant in the world grows and flourishes.

Someday, I hope to continue your legacy so that your love will never die. You have taught me well and impressed on me your most important values, which now guide my life as an adult. Love G-d and seek always to do his will. Offer praise through a life of gratitude. Respect all life for it is sacred. Honor those who are older and wiser. Show goodness and charity and kindness to all that you meet. Make a place for art and beauty in your life. Maybe you never said these things to me, but they were loud and clear in your actions.

Without your love and upbringing, I never would have found myself in Judaism. I know that when you first became parents, you had hoped also to pass down your Catholicism, for it not only embodies your values, but shapes who you are as faith-filled adults. I respect that greatly, and I also hope to pass on my religion to my children and allow it to guide their lives.

The way in which I wish to live my life- a prayerful, impactful, meaningful life full of kindness- calls me to a Jewish life, just as Jeanne is called to be a nun. I have decided to convert to Judaism. The decision I make is not rash, but well-thought out and shaped by the experiences I have had. Judaism allows me to not only live as you taught but to live as I am. I am the woman who chants in Hebrew every Friday night to welcome the day of rest. I am the woman who shares in the rich cultural and historical tradition of a resilient people. I am the woman who stays up late debating the ethics and morality of modern-day issues and conflict in Israel. I am the woman who braids challah, bakes hamantaschen, spreads lox over bagels, and sips matzo ball soup. I am the woman who believes in a G-d who invites me to follow his commandments. I am the woman whose soul dwells here but also in heaven each night as I sleep, whose heart belongs with the Jewish people, and whose mind accepts their teachings. I am the woman who has been shaped by your love and will in turn shape the world lovingly.

I promise to continue your legacy. I can not change my values any more than I can change my blue eyes or my love of potatoes. I can mask both those things behind colored contacts and a starch-free diet, but it’s still me underneath. Likewise, I can not change who I have become. I have found myself and a way to live ethically and lovingly. Your values guided me along, and the love for G-d you instilled in me helped me to search for G-d in everything that I did. I am more than happy to have found him, and I know as the years go on, I will not only turn to my values but to both of you as I struggle to make a career, raise a family, and do good for this world.

I understand this letter is bold and a lot to grasp. Please do not think that I am hiding behind words. You know I am much more articulate in my writing than in my speaking, and I am always open for future discussion. Above all, I love you and appreciate everything that you have done for me. Thank you.

Love Your Daughter,

Jenn

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