Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Can You Feel It?

It’s Thursday night, and I’m sitting in a bar with a friend. Earlier that day, we had said farewell to our graduating rabbis and cantors, and now we’re thinking about our far-off and yet not-so-far-away graduations. I tell her that while I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year, I just don’t feel like a cantor yet. I don’t know if I ever will or when that will happen. Ordination? Interning? A few years after being in the field? It’s easy to get bogged down in verb conjugations and musical modes and Talmudic debate in your first year of school and forget that there is a world beyond our beit midrash, let alone feel prepared for it.

Friday night, nearly 24 hours later, I’m sitting across a table from the same friend, and I smile and tell her that tonight was a good reminder of why I do what I do. I’ve just finished leading my first service for residents in a senior center, and I couldn’t have imagined a warmer and more fulfilling experience. Their love for the music and my love of the prayers and their affection kept me smiling the whole time. Though my mind raced every second of the way, being able to look at the circle of people surrounding me with their small cups of wine or grape juice in hand as I led them in Kiddush reminded me why I do what I do. Why we, the Jewish leaders, do what we do in service of our communities.

Being a clergy member means acting as a focal point. I hesitate to say this, because I don’t really like to be the center of attention. Like, ever. I have colleagues who thrive in the spotlight, and I often think, nope, that’s not me.  But I will admit that people look to the cantor for guidance and leadership, and that is something I love.

I like to think of the cantor as the concertmaster of an orchestra. She is on the same level as everyone else because she is just one player in the midst of many, but she is the one cuing and leading people. In a symphony where there is no conductor, the concertmaster is the one who makes the musical decisions. Together, the whole group creates the music. Together, the entire congregation sends their prayers to God. The cantor is just the one guiding them through the experience. At the end of the day, the congregation could function without the cantor, but the entire process goes more smoothly when there is someone to look to for cues, melodies, and consistency. Not only that, but our Jewish leaders are the ones who can take a bunch of skilled musicians and transform them into a fantastic, cohesive orchestra. We are the community builders.

For this service in particular, I built community through memory and connection. As much as the world needs us to be innovators, we are also preservers of a tradition. A tradition so powerful that connects people not just with their childhood from 70, 80 years ago, but also to their parents and their parents’ tradition and their parents’ tradition. There is something sacred in preservation, which I particularly felt when leading this service. The tunes I used were familiar ones, not just because they garnered the most participation, but because they were the appropriate channel at this place and time for a spiritual experience. They allowed us to form a connection among ourselves and to the congregations of years past that used these same tunes.

Walking into an already established Jewish community, I felt that I was both able to build it up and join it as I led the congregants through the service. The fact that everyone appreciated my services and I enjoyed the people there was a huge plus. I have finally felt what it means to embody the work that I wish to do.

Now it’s Saturday morning, and as I clip my kippah to my head before heading out to lead my weekly kids’ service, I smile at myself in the mirror.

“Looking good, Cantor Jenn Boyle.”

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Fun Fact!

I was looking up my Jewish birthday out of curiosity, and you’ll never guess what I discovered.

June 2, 1994 = the 23rd of Sivan

June 11, 2015 (the date of my conversion) = the 24th of Sivan

What a crazy coincidence! The Jewish date for my conversion was one day after the Jewish date of my birth. It feels very fitting.

I’m looking forward to my Jewish birthday weekend, which is going to fall on June 17th and 18th this year. I’ll have to think of something fun to do to celebrate the birth of my Jewish self, or as I call it, my Jewniversary.

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Reflection Is Its Own Teacher

Four years ago today, I graduated high school. Though this revelation was prompted by a friend’s Facebook post, I pondered this milestone after sitting through Hebrew College’s graduation and ordination ceremonies. In three years, I too will be graduating for the third time, and my years in college have taught me that time does not wait for anyone. It passes you by faster than you can ever imagine.

I heard something at Hebrew College’s commencement that really stuck with me: we do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience. Before I embark on my next great adventure tomorrow, I want to learn, and so I turn to reflection.

In January, I spent ten life-changing days in Israel. I mean truly touching and transformative in every way. Going on birthright changed me as a Jew, literally in the sense that I became a bat mitzvah but also in ways more subtle. Through birthright, I fell in love with a nation that I never had really called my own until that point. Seeing the land of Israel allowed me to physically conceptualize an otherwise intangible concept. Wandering the land of Israel allowed me to wander home. I’m going back someday; there’s not a doubt in my mind.

In February, I received the news that I had been waiting my entire undergraduate career to hear: I had been accepted into cantorial school. When I got my acceptance letter, I could still remember the day when I first decided I wanted to be a cantor, and the overwhelming doubt and exhilaration that filled my mind as I began to comprehend both becoming Jewish and becoming a leader of the Jewish people. It felt incredibly fulfilling to know that all of my hard work had not only paid off for myself, but made me a desirable candidate at a wonderful institution.

At the end of the month, my luck changed. The woman who had been a grandmother to me passed away, which was preceded by the deaths of immediate family members of two of my friends. They say that death comes in threes; I think we would prefer that death didn’t come at all. Being a comforter and then a mourner myself taught me a lot about human empathy and strength. Additionally, I had always felt that my knowledge surrounding Jewish funeral rites was lacking. I can now say that I’ve had more than my fill and wish that this learning experience hadn’t been so raw and personal.

April saw the end of my five-year relationship with my boyfriend. I don’t really have the words yet to make sense of it, but it still shakes me to my core on a daily basis. I am in the process of reshaping who I will be after it.

In May, I graduated Hofstra, completing my undergraduate degree and marking the end of four years of truly amazing growth. By the time I left Hofstra, I had made unbreakable friendships, deepened my knowledge of music theory, history, and practice, led a Jewish a cappella group, served as Vice President and President of my Jewish organization, and advised a Jewish high school youth group. The list goes on. There was never a dull moment, and it was a four years well spent.

Tomorrow, I begin cantorial school. If I’ve learned anything from these past six months, it’s that the next chapter of my life is going to transform me in unexpected ways. It’s going to come with unbelievable highs and accomplishments. It’s going to give me first hand experience, both positive and negative. It’s going to leave me broken and hurting in unexpected ways. And it’s going to fill me with an unknowable, inexplicable joy the day that I receive my Master’s in Jewish Education and certificate of cantorial ordination.

May the coming years be not only a blessing, but years of learning.

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Different Hats

It’s getting cold outside, and that means sweaters and hot chocolate and HATS. I’m really in love with and especially particular about my hats. They have to fit just so. And if it doesn’t frame my face just right, I won’t buy it. Please don’t ever try and buy one for me. I own a grand total of 5 hats, and no, you can not try them on. MINE.

I’ve considered wearing a lot of hats throughout the years. The jobs I’ve thought about settling on my head are as varied as any hat fanatic’s collection. Astronaut. English teacher. Lawyer. Scientist. Violist in a Broadway orchestra. Nature center worker. Cantor. When I finally get to try one on, I’ll know for sure if I’ve found the perfect match or not.

There are also a lot of different “Jewish” hats out there: types of Judaism that people practice, the main ones being reform, conservative, and orthodox. I’d argue each Jew wears a hat unique to himself, an interesting blend of upbringing, family history, and synagogue influence. Someone asked me today how I decided I wanted to convert to conservative Judaism. Different hats. It has to fit just right, I tell them. It’s a lifestyle, a culture, and a community. While I quite enjoy attending the services at reform temples and meeting Jewish people from all backgrounds, I settle most comfortably into the conservative mold. It frames my soul just right. The melodies of the prayers, the feeling of being bound to the law, the traditional community… It all makes a lot of sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried on the reform and orthodox hats as well. Even the reconstructionist hat with its colorful wool edges and bouncing pom pom took a trial run atop my head for a weekend. And I don’t dislike the spiritual reflection I see in the mirror as I try each one. I stand there scrutinizing my soul, striking different poses, looking at each hat from different angles. I’m just happy to have found one that fits better than all the rest. And who knows? I’ll probably be making some alterations as I go.

This past month, I’ve been trying to get my life under control. As a writing tutor, office assistant, musical director, and undergraduate student, I’ve been juggling a lot of hats. I’m so bundled that you can barely see my face. You’ll catch a glimpse of my conservative kippah under all those hats, if you look closely.

So, I tip my hat(s) to you and wish you all a lovely day. It’s good to be back.

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My First Class

One class down, many more to go!

Tuesday night, I had my first Introduction to Judaism class at East Meadow Jewish Center with Rabbi Art Vernon, who is quite the lively individual. Between his 20+ years of teaching and his five grown children, he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to share with us. Obviously, he doesn’t know me very well yet, but I’m hoping as the weeks progress we can form some kind of teacher/student relationship.

Even more interesting than the rabbi are the students. Jews from Syria and Turkey and Florida accompany their equally diverse partners. There’s about 10 of us total. Some of my classmates have been keeping a kosher home and raising their children “Jewish” for the past ten years and are now deciding to make it official. Others just want to see what this Jewish stuff is all about. Regardless of background, everyone has been touched by Judaism in some way and is now taking a definite and firm step to make it a part of their lives. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.

We didn’t learn much the first day- mostly intros, getting the syllabus and materials, and starting to talk about Rosh Hashanah. I learned that the most important holiday, agriculturally speaking, in Judaism is Pesach, or Passover. The high holidays only became important after Christianity- we needed something to compete with Lent, Christmas, and Easter. Who knew?

So, the night was full of little tidbits of information like that. I now have a really nifty calendar that tells me what day it is in the Jewish year, all the holidays, and the candle lighting times. I’m also the only single, childless, young(er) person there, but that’s okay. You find Judaism at whatever part in your life makes the most sense, and I don’t think age is a determining factor.

Mostly, I’m just excited to get to know everyone better and learn more. Day one = success.

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Back to the Grind

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I last blogged. Let me catch you up on the excitement that’s happening now that I’m back in NY:

-I start my official conversion classes IN TWO DAYS! Can’t wait. I spent all of last fall searching the surrounding area for a class that best fits my needs, and the one at East Meadow Jewish center seems like the best way to go. Wish me luck as I continue my learning.

-I had an incredibly restful, amazing Shabbat. Separate blog post on that later.

-My a cappella group is holding auditions this week, and we had our first performance of the semester at Hillel’s Shabbat dinner. I’m excited to see the group grow and make beautiful music together.

-I’ve met some wonderful first-year students and have already formed some great friendships.

-I am partaking in the #sukkahchallenge set up by Rabbi Lyle, our director of Jewish Life on campus. It’s a 5 in 5 challenge: five chapters of the Mishnah Sukkah in five weeks. We read, study with a chevruta (partner), and then get together for a group discussion.

I am really, really looking forward to the holidays. I hope that the revitalized energy I feel at the start of this new school year is a harbinger for all the goods things to come in the new year.

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Robin Williams

I’m sorry to post something so sad after my last post about Tisha B’Av, but it’s necessary. These are mixed times that we live in, full of both heartbreak and joy. Right now, a little heartbreak.

When I first heard about Robin Williams’ death, I felt shock. Disbelief. A man whom I associated with joking, laughter, and priceless voice imitations lost his battle with depression. It’s like finding out a friend has stage IV cancer after he’s died. I didn’t know. But how could I?

I felt angry. Why would God, who spared my life two years ago by sending me someone to talk me out of suicide, not send a person, a voice, a hand for this man who was a light in the world? Why me, small, insignificant and struggling, and not him?

Just as my perspective is only one among many Jewish ones, so is my voice only one representation of those who are depressed. I don’t like to talk about my depression because I don’t want people to see me as different or sick and treat me as thus. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with Seasonal Afffective Disorder (SAD), which is slightly different in itself. But still the same struggles, the same battle every winter that many face every day.

Robin Williams has always been an actor I’ve admired. From The Dead Poet’s Society to Good Morning Vietnam to Aladdin, there was such a spark that he brought to the screen that made me fall in love with not just his acting but the entire feature. When people ask me what my favorite Disney movie is, I say Aladdin. Then they assume because I like Jasmine, or the story, but it’s always the big blue Genie (and later the voice behind him) that draws me to the screen and that particular VHS tape time and time again.

I don’t want to talk about how he died. But I do want to tell you that my surprise over his death taught me an important lesson, one worth sharing. People who are sick ARE normal people. We picture a depressed person as the one sitting in the corner by himself- moping, sad, and alone. But depressed people make jokes. They feel good some days. They put up a freaking good fight just so we don’t have to see them when they fall. They hide behind funny faces because they’re afraid that the one true face, their own, is too miserable to share with those around them.

Sure, some people are more susceptible to depression than others, but don’t be fooled by stereotypes. And though I’ve just spent an entire blog post on it, don’t remember Robin Williams by his depression. There is so much more in his life that is worth sharing and remembering, so much more that I hope far exceeds his life.

I thank God often for sending someone to save me that day, and I’m eternally grateful to the human being who saved my life down by the train tracks two years ago. I’ll never understand why some people die and some live, who decides, and why the world is unfair. But I have learned to celebrate life, to be sensitive to others, to reach out when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my own dark thoughts, and to laugh often. I’m sorry, Robin. Sorry you didn’t win this one. Sorry it had to end like this, sorry you didn’t see in yourself what the rest of the world saw in you. I promise to keep smiling, to keep fighting, and to remind others that they might be the person someone needs.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams, DPS

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That Jewish (B)oy

When I talk about myself and my Jewish journey, I never ever like to start by talking about my Jewish boyfriend.

Even though he is at the start, he is not the reason. In the past, I’ve tried to leave him out my conversion story entirely whenever possible. Sorry dear.

The truth is, he is certainly an important person in my life and in my decision to embrace Judaism. But so is my sponsoring  rabbi, the Jewish girl who lived across the hall my freshman year, the man who stayed up late discussing philosophy with me, and my current college room mate who is just as inquisitive as I am when it comes to Judaism. There are lots of people I’ve met who have shaped the woman I am.

But it all starts with a boy, and I’m going to face my fears and do the very thing I’ve avoided doing for so long. Tell where it all started, boy included.

We met in my 10th grade Holocaust studies class. Cheerful, right? The teacher was incredibly positive, making the subject matter bearable. And as the token Jewish kid in our class (by token, I mean the only one), David got to answer all the interesting and not-so-tactful questions from my classmates. I sat next to him, and we became friends. I never thought that we would be dating junior year and then into college.

It was David who took me to my first Purim celebration, David who brought in the dreidels to Science class, David who wrote me little Hebrew notes and passed them to me in Latin class. He was Jewish. I was not. It was simple and sweet and an uncomplicated part of our relationship, just like how his eyes were brown and mine were blue.

In college, things began to change. Since both of us were very religious, we agreed to learn about each other’s religions now that we had entered into a more long-term, serious relationship. He would watch documentaries on Catholicism; I joined Hofstra Hillel. At that point, I enjoyed being both Catholic and Jewish. Shabbat dinner on Friday, Mass on Sunday. It was a fun intellectual pursuit at first and nothing more.

Come winter my freshman year, we separated, for various reasons, religious differences being one of them. After David was gone, my friends expected me to lose interest in Judaism. So when my interest only increased, I began to wonder… If I was not doing this for him, then why am I still doing it after he’s gone? I began to have a more spiritual connection to Judaism, a religious interest that hadn’t been there before when I read books. I attended my first services. Went to a Jewish museum. When he was out of the picture, I began to find myself in Judaism.

It was only a few months later that I began to feel the need to choose: Jewish or Catholic? I knew that as fun as being both was, these religions had contradictory messages, different interpretations of G-d, and too many differences for me to do both (Messianic Judaism never really appealed to me, more on that later). David was back in my life, but it was my decision. Jewish or Catholic?

I wish I had a single moment where G-d yelled “JEWISH!” and I suddenly saw the road to Judaism clearly, strewn with challah and lined with kippah clad men waving Israeli flags. But it was more a gradual indication of my soul, heart, and mind that led me to Judaism. Hebrew classes, Shabbat dinners, gaga tournaments, Torah study, Jewish music… All of it spoke to me and who I am, what I love, and how I want to live. It’s only grown more and more clear.

There was a time at a mass on Palm Sunday two years ago where I was so wholly surrounded by people, physically linked by hands and spiritually linked by the central prayer of the Our Father, and I felt disconnected. Alone. Isolated. I nearly started crying at the loss of something beautiful and at the idea that my soul had become foreign in a once familiar environment. After the next week, I stopped going to mass altogether. For the first time in my life, I became a non-practicing Catholic, and I started to truly feel, do, and become Jewish.

So, it all started with a boy. It will continue with this same boy, I hope for a long time. But it is MY choice for ME and for G-D. I make this choice because it is right for me- it is who I am and who I have become. I am so grateful that I have someone special to share this journey with, someone who puts up with all my naive questions. But I am also glad that I do not make this choice for marriage, for children, or for any other external pressure. This is my choice. And this is my story.

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