Updated: Jul 31, 2022
I’ve been asked on several occasions why I decided to convert to Judaism and I have often given the quick answer of, “for community”. To anyone who has been privy to the experiences of my husband and I over this journey, however, that response probably has seemed more like a joke. I don’t necessarily blame them for thinking so. In fact, I have laughed at that dark joke myself more than once. To those who are unfamiliar, let me explain that our relationship — though more mine than my husband’s — with the Jewish community has more often been strained and discouraging, than it has been relaxed and uplifting.
I won’t go into every detail — and more of the story can be found in the Neshot HaMayim website — but in the interest of clarity right now, we approached one of these Jewish micro-communities with complete vulnerability and received only cold rejection and judgment. When we had to relocate and our financial situation was grave, we reached out to certain members of leadership asking for guidance in how to continue our conversion. We would not even be heard, not even given the opportunity to meet, as long as we were unable to move within the Jewish community boundary (the “eruv,” which were extremely expensive neighborhoods in these particular cities).
Heartbroken, confused, and frankly, infuriated, we decided to pivot. We found a not-Orthodox, conservative synagogue, led by a former Orthodox rabbi. The moment we walked in the doors, we were welcomed with smiles. Smiles. For the first time in the entire conversion journey, I felt like I was being given permission to exist as a fellow human, that I was worthy of warmth and welcome. That simple difference in approach from this particular community was healing and much needed. It was from there, we left for Montana, and have lived near our tiny Jewish community here. Yet, that feeling of being “other” has slithered its way into my consciousness once more.
“Why do I want to be a part of ‘them’,” I have been asked, “Why, when ‘they’ won’t ever accept you, fully? You aren’t one of ‘them’.”
Because… they're my family. They are my people. I am one of them, whether they like it or not.
I have realized something, admittedly only very recently. I have realized that I have given so much power to the rabbis and to all of the Jewish women I’ve ever encountered. I have wanted them to accept me, to approve of me, to welcome me into their home and be friends of mine. To value my input and my presence. To come into my home and feel comfortable with eating my food. To look at my children and feel pride over the next generation of Israel. — And I would be so grateful if that were to ever happen. — But I have wanted it so badly, that I have often considered sacrificing everything, Divine calling included, to get it.
Some might nod in approval at this suggestion. "A convert should be willing to give absolutely everything up for the sake of joining the people of Israel." But that’s not, really, what’s being discussed here, is it? I’m not arguing against the notion of being totally open to transformation during the conversion process. I think if someone wants pursue a Divinely blessed life, then why not offer everything up for consideration?
The difference here is that in one situation, you have an individual who is seeking to live according to Hashem’s call. In the other, you have an individual who is desperate for the approval of other humans. For the former, let the holy fire burn. For the latter, let the dance end.
I love my people. I have loved the people of Israel since I was a little girl dreaming about listening to the patriarch Abraham as he spoke to a crowd, and of thousands of voices singing together in a valley, men, women, and children — all praising the Divine Creator. I have loved them through this harrowing journey of wading through prejudice and misunderstanding. I have loved them and I will continue to love them fiercely, because they are my family, my mishpacha.
I implore my family now, though — if any of you are reading this — to reflect on the many times in Torah when Hashem instructs His people not to treat a stranger poorly. Hashem reminds us that we, too, were once strangers and therefore we know what it feels like to be “outsiders.” More than that, I want to leave my people with this quote from Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:34: “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God.”
I am honestly terrified of sharing these thoughts and so openly baring my soul for anyone to peer into. Just as I had finished this writing, I considered not publishing it at all. I then realized that I had written “Leviticus” for that last quote and I wanted to write the Hebrew name for the book, which was slipping my mind. So I looked it up and found that it was, of course “Vayikra,” meaning “Adonai called,” and it refers to how the book begins: Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. A profoundly powerful moment, then, and I don’t think this reminder was an accident. May I be like Moses, now, and answer the Divine call.