One of the blessings of my blog for which I’m ever appreciative is having a worldwide readership for the years of my Jewish journey that I’ve shared here. People connect with me often to ask my advice about their own Jewish conversion journeys, and several wonderful, real-life friends have come out of that. (England and Scotland, especially, I’m looking at you both, here!)
Recently, I received the below question as a comment under my 2011 conversion reading list post. I thought it would be of greatest use to respond as a blog post. A lot has changed since then–and continues to change. Judaism is like that…
“Interested to learn, now seven or more years after conversion, how the studying and practice are going. Teaching a conversion class here, and would like to hear your perspective. Todah rabah!”
–Rabbi Saul Oresky (Mishkan Torah, Greenbelt, MD)
Rabbi Oresky, thanks for asking. I’ve covered a lot of it on my blog over the past several years. The short of it is, of course, that I’ve spent a few years with my partner as a member of two separate synagogues here in Chicago. A smaller one where I originally converted, and then later a much larger one where my partner eventually converted. We left both synagogues for personal reasons and for the past year and a half have been unaffiliated by choice. And unexpectedly, it now seems more than likely we will return to our original shul–now that I’ve finally gotten my head out of my ass. More on that below.
But I want to note that being unaffiliated does not necessarily mean being unobservant, even as the Reform Jews we are. We consider our actions and our lives in terms of our Jewish values. We mark and keep the Sabbath–no Friday evening passes in our home without candles, wine, blessings, and dinner together. We mark the holidays at home, occasionally with friends, occasionally just the two of us (when we just don’t want to be den fathers, so to speak.)
I’m less militant now about davvening. When I do, my personal practice and relationship with All That Is guide me now to experience prayer less as supplication or worship and more as an acknowledgment and celebration of a mindful and caring universe and my responsibility to be deliberately mindful and caring within it.
I am also less militant regarding covering my head. After six years, I stopped wearing my kippah full-time, although I often do still wear it. I found wearing it all the time dampened the meaning of it for me. Now when I do wear it, it is a deliberate act, and as a result I feel my connection with All That Is much more resoundingly.
During the time we have been unaffiliated, we have been blessed regularly to have invitations from friends at independent minyanim and other local liberal congregations. But we have never accepted a single one. We really wanted to explore what it means to be more than culturally Jewish but less than attached to a synagogue.
Essentially, we got to that point where Jews-by-choice whose conversions were long behind them often told us in the past we would eventually get to where we realized that Judaism is organic, fluid. Your yiddishkeit grows and wanes and changes, especially if you are thoughtful about your Judaism–as you should be. Our internalization of Jewish values from our personal conversion journeys has led us into conflict with much of status-quo messaging regarding Israel, the treatment of Palestinians, and the way that Jews within and between denominations often try to negate each other’s experiences and Jewish legitimacy. And we know, too, that we are far from alone in finding our Jewish values in conflict with political messaging–now and across the great sweep of Jewish history. No one ever said being Jewish was easy.
None of the above means we have ever reconsidered our Jewish journeys, considered not observing Shabbat and the calendar of Jewish holidays, or taking part in the rituals and practices in which we individually find meaning. And we don’t describe ourselves as cultural Jews, either–we are unaffiliated religious liberal Jews.
And I’ll tell you I think what prepared me most for the living, challenging nature of my Judaism during life after conversion was hearing from JBCs who already had several years under their belts, about their lives and their joys and their challenges during my conversion journey, which ended seven years ago now.
Because those messages helped me understand and internalize that the choices that Ryan and I have made and the lives that we lead are kosher Jewish ones. You don’t have to be a status-quo Jew or a synagogue-affiliated Jew to be a legitimate Jew. You just have to be a self-reflective, thoughtful one. If there’s any message that I would have for your conversion students, it is to always remember that their Jewish legitimacy will rely on no one else–no matter what any other Jew might tell them, and that any choices that they make are legitimate Jewish choices once they are past mikvah. And that they will be challenged to learn, re-learn, defend, and cherish that fact throughout their Jewish lives.
Actually, I have two messages for them. And the second one, borne out of deeply personal and very public experience, is that your synagogue community will never be the be all and end all of Jewish experience you might at first hope–or expect-it to be. That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone, much less on an entire congregation. We aren’t perfect as human beings, and we aren’t meant to be. Otherwise, why would we be here? Give yourself a break. Give your shul a break. If they aren’t everything you need, there are other shuls and other Jewish resources out there.
You can do what I did and leave in anger. You can leave in silence. But if I had it to do over again, I would have never have left our original synagogue in the first place. It took me years to see the love that was always behind our differences. Running away from your shul is just running away from a wonderful–and safe–place to learn lessons about Judaism and, for new converts, your new Jewish lives. Not everyone will be as blessed to be re-embraced as I am being re-embraced right now.
I guess I lied. There’s a thing three I’ve learned along the way. The hard way, but it’s a good thing to learn. The most important thing I can share with your students about Judaism, or anything else:
Love each other.