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.

Leave a comment »

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.

9 Comments »

Head Over Heart

Scene From Above

I stand before my reflection,

Reflecting that this depiction of my self is incomplete,

contemplating tradition.

Tradition.

The word bounces off the tiled walls and ricochets in my head,

mixed with the notes of a fiddler perched just out of sight.

High above my head You sit

looking down at my fiddling thoughts

uncovered and bare for You too see.

So I cover them gently,

hiding myself from your view

and as I slip from your sight the last part of my being slips into place

and I am whole.

Somehow, in embracing a tradition, I become untraditional.

If you can recall my first blog post, I talked about what it was like when I put a yarmulke (said like yah-mih-kah) on my head for the first time. Now, the new year year is approaching the old one is ending, and I find myself coming full circle as I talk about the same subject once more.

See, ever since I’ve tried on my first yarmulke, I’ve wanted to keep it snugly on my head. But at the time, it wasn’t really an option or a possibility for me. I wore one this past Passover at a friend’s house, but that was different. That was following what everyone was doing, taking what was already placed in my hands and following suit.

I thought maybe at camp I would have an opportunity to wear one, and I did. Oh, did I have countless opportunities. But I convinced myself that by the time I found one that I liked and put it on, people were used to me without it and it was “too late.” So I learned how to pray with a talis (prayer shawl) instead, which was equally fulfilling.

Now it’s Friday, the first real Shabbat services and dinner back at school, and I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror trying to decide what to do. The reasons behind my wearing of one- respect before G-d and as a reminder of who I am and what I do- are clear, but still I find myself wavering.

I catch myself thinking, “I’m going to be the only woman wearing one. People are going to ask.” I try to shut these nagging worries out. But then I realize if I’m thinking these things, I can’t be the only one. Other women in my community might also want to wear one, but no one wants to be different. Someone has to be the first.

With new resolve, I take the black clip in my hand, attach the kippah to my head, and walk out with my head held high. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror- my entire self smiling and new and so Jewish and resolved and content. I’ve never looked more like myself.

The aftermath is almost irrelevant. But it’s too nice not to share. I’ll never forget everyone’s reaction when I walked in the room. I felt like someone who has lost 20 pounds or come back with a stunning new haircut. You look so good! That looks amazing on you! You’re my little Jewish girl! The compliments were unnecessary, but they were affirming. I did get one confused person asking, “Why are you wearing a yarmulke?” And my simple response was “because I can.”

Funny to think that while your head is covered your soul is laid bare. A kippah is more revealing to me than a short dress or a Jewish star around your neck. You know right away- hey, she’s Jewish. And that means something to her.

I’ve made a few other changes to my lifestyle this summer. I hope in this coming year, I can have the courage to continue to change for the better. More than that, I hope my comfortability with my Jewishness and my willingness to share gives others the courage they need to change themselves.

Leave a comment »

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.

7 Comments »

A Sister Of A Different Kind

This weekend, I visited a Catholic order in Ohio called The Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Because my sister wants to be a nun.

She is visiting this order for two weeks to see if she wants to join, and the family decided we were all going to go with her and check it out.

At first, I didn’t want to go. I’ve been tiptoeing around Catholicism (and consequently, my family) since I stopped identifying as Catholic over a year ago. After my parents’ negative reaction to my announcement about wanting to convert, I lived with a fear that all Catholics would not only ridicule my decision but heartlessly lash out. I’ve happily learned that the reactions are as varied as the people themselves. Many of my Catholic friends do not only show surprise when I tell them, but respect and intrigue for taking my faith so seriously.

But nuns, I thought. That’s a different story.

The order is new and very small, consisting of only 6 people total. They devote their lives to contemplative prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and community service. If you want to learn more details, their website does a better job explaining their purpose than my fumbling words can.

I knew my family was planning to participate in Mass with the other members of the order once we got there. I no longer go to church with my family and can not receive communion since I am not living according to the rules of the Catholic church. I figured that these faith-filled adults would view my abstinence from communion (which they believe to literally be the blood and body of Christ) as the most offensive affront.

The night before we left, I explained to my sister that I wanted to see the place where she might live the rest of her life, but I wouldn’t be fully participating in Mass. She told me I didn’t even have to be in attendance I could take a walk around the lake while everyone else prayed.

I wondered, wouldn’t it be odd for her to introduce me as her sister and then walk away?

Not at all, she assured me. They already know you’re Jewish.

Questions tumbled out of my mouth and tripped over each as they each tried to dominate my attention. When did you tell them what did they say won’t they hate me now?

She reassured me that all the members of the order have family who have left the Catholic faith, so they won’t think any less of me. In fact, they’ll appreciate my attempt to grasp and experience a way of life that isn’t my own. In some sort of weird show of gratitude, I began to explain how I felt about Catholicism and how I didn’t want to offend anyone.

She interrupts me, saying, “Jenn, I know. You don’t hate Catholicism, you just love Judaism.”

On the surface, it would seem like my sister and I have very little in common. There are certainly times when it is hard for me to fully grasp her love and devotion to Jesus. Most days though, we understand each other perfectly. She is one of my closest friends, and she not only accepts my decision to embrace Judaism but understands the why behind my choice. Both of us are choosing paths that are little understood by our families and nearly unheard of in society.

When my uncle asked me “Won’t it be weird having Jeanne become a sister?” I joked that she’s been my sister for the past 18 years. Though said half in jest, I meant it in both the religious kind and blood relation. After meeting the nuns, I can see how well she fits into their world, their prayerful lifestyle and demeanor coming naturally to her. No matter how I feel about her faith or what  I believe, I think she is making the right choice for herself. We both accept each other’s paths and we have the same goal: to grow in our passions and do good for this world.

2 Comments »