(Grateful acknowledgment to RJ.org, the official blog of the Union for Reform Judaism, for cross-publishing this essay here.)
Four months ago my rabbi said to me, “Unless you’re the greatest faker ever–and I don’t think you are–how will you know when you’re ready?” It was a segue into asking me whether I felt the time was right to take the next step in my Jewish journey and write my conversion essay–an essay to answer the question, “What does Judaism mean to me and why do I want it in my life?”
It was three months after beginning that journey, and while in my heart I had an inexplicable sense of knowing the Jewishness at the core of who I am, in my head I knew that my growing Jewish identity needed more time to settle down from the breathless exuberance of finally realizing who I am.
Now, more than a season later, inside, things have changed. My heart and my head are in agreement. Yet, after weeks of writing and rewriting this essay in my head, I realize now that I’ve been trying to answer the question the wrong way. What does Judaism mean to me and why do I want it in my life? My answer makes sense in the reverse. I want Judaism in my life because of what it means to me. Which, as it turns out, is everything.
What Judaism means to me is practical, not just spiritual. It is meaning I’ve discovered bit by bit in moments of “doing Jewish to learn Jewish”–moments which have led to other moments and others still, teaching me the truth that one mitzvah does, in fact, lead to another and another.
I want Judaism in my life because of the way I’ve found that Judaism intersects who I am so closely, and because of the way that that intersection makes me feel whole in a way I’ve never felt in my life. Judaism means to me:
~A spiritual vocabulary that helps and guides me to express what I feel about God, justice, and fairness, and to make ethical decisions, as if my life suddenly, finally has a spiritual user’s guide or road map.
~A body of prayer that helps me feel grounded and rooted in ancient tradition, yet allows me to express myself at the same time.
~The permission to actively engage with God and with my faith, to doubt and to question without guilt or fear, which has deepened my faith and enriched my spiritual life immensely.
~A body of contemporary liturgical music that helps worship services feel more meaningful to me.
~Blessings and ritual practices that add a sense of holiness and help me remember and maintain my faith, humility, and hope throughout my day.
~A rich calendar of holidays that allows me to remember and express my faith throughout the year, especially in my home.
~Specific rituals that help me honor and remember loved ones who have passed on.
~A community of like-minded individuals that welcomes me, gives me a sense of belonging, and encourages my Jewish learning.
~Weekly Shabbat services and Shabbat rituals and observance that give me a sense of stability, community, and spiritual grounding.
~An unexpected, deep sense of familiarity, as if Judaism is something I’ve always known–as if I’ve always been Jewish, and my life’s journey has been to figure that out.
~A sense of finding out who I really am and how I relate to God, after many years of searching.
~The joy of religious study and learning as a regular part of my life.
~The joy of learning, using, and hearing Hebrew.
~An abiding sense of love, compassion, hope, and joy that seems to flow from my Jewish experience that remains with me throughout my day, and that I can call upon when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
~A deep love of Judaism and the Jewish people.
~New friends, who understand and support all of this.
Four months later, there’s a certainty in me. There’s no way to turn back, nor could I possibly do so. I know without a doubt that to give up my Judaism would be to give up who I am and what I stand for. Judaism is in me and I am in Judaism. To say now I don’t want it in my life would be like saying I don’t want my life.
How could I? Judaism helped me find my life–a spiritually centered life I always yearned for but never thought I’d find, one rooted in ancient tradition and inclusive of a God who loves me unconditionally but doesn’t want me simply to go on blind faith. I want Judaism in my life because, for me, Judaism is life.
And that’s the best I can express it. How many different ways are there to write that you’ve fallen in love with something that you never knew that you’ve always been? I have a lot of time to make up for. I’ve missed out on half a life to live Jewishly. I intend to live the rest of my life as a Jew.
As who I am.