“Zionist” isn’t a dirty word.

Being raised Catholic in South Texas means that Israel was never on my radar. My family didn’t, and honestly still doesn’t, have any strong opinions or stakes in the questions of the Middle East. Even when I began studying Judaism in high school, Israel still never really crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I was in college at a liberal arts school, that has the goal of getting students to “think globally” in the mission statement, that I began to learn about Israel. Most of my classes revolved around ancient Israel and it wasn’t until  I became interesting in visiting Israel that I pushed myself to learn about the modern state of Israel and the Middle East.

Even though I knew little to nothing about modern Israel, the negative side of the State was the majority of the information I learned. I quickly learned numerous reasons for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. With these thoughts in the background, which are voices I still hear on a fairly regular basis, I felt supporting Israel meant being judged as someone who was against human rights, uneducated and noncritical.

“Zionist” became a dirty word. It was a word associated with the extreme political right, and a word I dreaded being associated with. I distinctly remember a conversation during my first trip to Israel, studying abroad in the Summer of 2011, where I became apologetic for thinking about moving to Israel for school or work in the future. I had to explain that I was drawn to the land, culture and history but NOT a Zionist. I didn’t want to be mistaken for having the ideals  traditionally, and negatively, associated with Zionist ideals. I knew I wanted to dwell in the Land, but didn’t want to keep others from also making this Land there home. I wanted to live freely as a Jew in Israel, but not if that meant others couldn’t live freely in the same Israel. I wanted to gain every opportunity the Land had for me, the hopes and dreams of the past 4,000 years, but never at the expense of another human being.

These are all things I still want, and even though there are caveats to  each, I have realized that this doesn’t mean I am not a Zionist. Zionism doesn’t have to been colonialist or racist. It doesn’t have to deny other people rights or support dispossession. At it’s best, Zionism does none of these things and still promotes a Jewish (Democratic) State in the Land that has become defined as Israel.

This doesn’t mean I can’t be critical. It doesn’t mean I can’t hold the same values I did before, i.e. justice, equality. It does mean that I encourage a Jewish State that at it best holds true to the Jewish value of dignity of the human person.

I am reaching a stage where I am not ashamed to say, “My name is Elisheva, and I am a Zionist.”

The dreams that were never meant to be

Life in Israel has been filled with unexpected ups and downs, but even on the most frustrating days, I am still amazed that I am here. I am freshly out of undergrad and in my early 20s. There are various points throughout one’s life that reflection on where one has been and questioning what is ahead is practically built in, and this point in my life is one of them. It is a moment of great transition, which is fragile but full of possibility.

At this moment, I look at where I am and can’t help but be kind of baffled about how I got here. Ten years ago, I would have thought that a Christian girl who converted to Judaism moved to Israel and had a BA in Religious Studies was just not possible, not just for me but for anyone! I was unaware that Judaism was a religion. I didn’t know that people live across the world from their family. I had no clue that someone could have a degree in something that wasn’t a job (e.g. teacher, doctor, lawyer, and engineer).

I love my life now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This is the life I was created to live. And yet, I think of the life I dreamed of growing up and living when I was young(er).

There are so many dreams that changed. One of the first things I mourned the loss of when I knew Christianity was no longer mine was the wedding day I always thought I would have. I think I first planned my wedding when I was six. I had colors for bridesmaid dresses, drew pictures of what my dress would look like and had a church picked out. I now know how different my wedding will look from the one I imagined when I was six and from the one my parents, sister and rest of my family had and imagined for me. Now, even when I try really hard, I can’t imagine myself walking down a church aisle. It is almost like my dreams were just that, fuzzy dreams in the middle of the night that were just a distant, fragmented memory by morning. Now, I couldn’t be happier to dream of my Jewish wedding.

I have had time to adjust to the dramatic changes in my dreams, and they were a slow evolution for me. I slowly gained clarity on who I was and the next baby step in my life after each move. My parents (and the rest of my family) didn’t have that benefit. They just had the image of their daughter’s baptismal gown, which they kept safely tucked away, being passed on to her children for their Baptisms. In what felt like overnight, that dream was gone, and the image is getting fuzzy.  It is hard for them. I know that and pray for our patience.

I know that my life and future are radically different from where I thought they would be, but I know that I couldn’t possibly live it differently.  At each step, it was hard to leave the path that was already beaten and had been imagined, but each time there came a point where staying on the path, untrue to who I was, become a more painful thought than the fear of stepping onto my own, destined path.

Those dreams from my childhood were also of a great life but were not meant to be live out, not by me. I don’t know what is next, but I know that this other, unexpected path is my path.

Letter to My Rabbi

Over the past four months, I have gone through different options about how to approach the letter I wrote to my Rabbi about wanting to convert on this blog. I considered posting the entire letter, unedited with no commentary,writing a summary of the details of the letter, detailing my feelings regarding the letter or not acknowledging the letter at all. After starting many drafts to this post, I have finally decided that I would like to post the entire, unedited letter with brief commentary. I feel this is the best way to document my experience for myself and others.

First, some background: I have know my Rabbi for about 2 and a half years, first as my professor and later as I started attending his congregation. He is phenomenal, and I simply cannot properly explain what an amazing resource he has been for me with both my academic and personal journey with Judaism. Although I have come to know him fairly well over the past couple of years, I still have difficulties talking with him at times. The only reason I can think of to explain my fear is that I do admire and respect his opinion, and as my professor and the rabbi in charge of my conversion, he has authority and some power to evaluate me.  For whatever reason, it is hard for me to start conversations with him, but when I do, they are always fruitful.

This letter was written about six months after the first time I told my Rabbi I wanted to convert to Judaism and about four months after beginning conversion classes at our shul. He knew I was interested in Judaism and eventually converting, but I had not explicitly made my desire to convert in our community clear. When the topic of converting at our shul was raised in passing, I became too nervous to share that I wanted to convert through our community before I leave in the Fall. I felt that he received the wrong impression from my nervousness, and this letter was my response.

Writing this letter to my Rabbi signified a huge shift in my relationship to Judaism and the process of conversion. Our conversation after he read the letter resulted in the combined effort to work towards me converting before I move. After that conversation, the thoughts and feelings I had about becoming Jewish became more concrete. With each passing day, reality continues to set in, and I realize this is really going to happen. It brings a slew of emotions but mostly excitement.

I can’t attest to the experience of others, but I know that writing and sending this letter was one of the hardest things I have had to do in the process to convert. It is hard to put words to very intimate feelings and then send those words off to be judged. At the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, to wrestle with finding the words, and resulted in one of the most amazing outcomes, a plan for my conversion.

The letter:

“Dear Rabbi,

Let me start off by apologizing for emailing you. You are so busy and have so many emails to read that it is unfair of me to take up your time. With that said, I am going to do it anyway.

I have a mind that dwells, usually on the insignificant things. Since our conversation Wednesday evening I have not been able to get over the feeling that I gave you the wrong impression of how I feel about converting to Judaism. It is very hard for me to share my personal feelings, but I feel I must no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process. I will attempt to write openly and honestly,  בע”ה.

The first time I ever said the words, “I want to be Jewish,” I was 15 years old. It obviously seemed like a long shot since I lived in a small town, near no synagogues, knew no Jews, and didn’t even know what it meant to be Jewish. A few years later, I began seriously considering converting when I realized that it would actually be possible “one day.” I knew I had several steps before me, but I still knew the words, “I want to be Jewish” were true. It has been scary making the leap from serious contemplation over converting to the realization that this is going to happen because I cannot imagine my life otherwise.

That makes it sound like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t and rightfully so. A decision as important as religion, the thing that shapes you and your life, should be difficult. I knew what I believed and knew how I wanted to live my life and it was clearly Jewish (at least in its simplest forms, more complicated theology is something that I will continuously learn and wrestle with). At the same time, I asked myself daily for about a year “Why do you want to do this? It is hard to be a Jew.” This is still a question I sometimes ask. I ask why I would take 613 mitzvot over 7 commandments. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. Why give up something I can (more) easily follow for mitzvot that often leave me scratching my head? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but my heart fell in love with mitzvot before I knew anything else about Judaism. Each day I asked the question, and even now, I can confidently answer that regardless of the gentile status I have now, I know that my soul was commanded to follow mitzvot along with all other Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai. Although I have not yet formally been commanded, I know that I was created in order to be commanded along with the rest of Israel. No matter how difficult it is to live with mitzvot, I know that I will be fulfilling my purpose when I do. Will I be able to be “perfect”? Probably not, but I know I want to live my life trying.

I love mitzvot already, but right now I am not commanded to fulfill them. Right now, every commandment that I follow is for my own benefit and is really only about bringing me closer to Hashem. While this is beautiful in its own way and necessary at times, it does not carry the same weight of being commanded. I can pray, keep kosher, observe Shabbat, ect. but until I am a Jew, it is really only for me. I am excited for the day when I do all these things for Hashem. One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism, to me, is the fact that a Jew is commanded to live for Hashem in all aspects of life, every moment of everyday. It is one thing for me to wake up to pray for myself and another to be tired, want to press snooze and get up anyway, out of obligation, for Hashem.

This is just one example of many aspects of Judaism that I continue to be passionate about and inspired by. I feel this way about just about everything in Judaism and that is one of the reasons I know I want to begin living as a Jew as soon as I can.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to feel like I don’t yet fit in anywhere. I dread being asked what religion I am. I cannot simply say I am not religious, because that is a lie. I cannot say I am Christian, because that is not what I believe or what I follow. I cannot say I am Jewish, because no matter how badly I wish I were, I am not, yet. This has been a horrible state to live in, and I constantly feel like I am lying to myself and others by not identifying as the religion that I practice and believe.

I do not want to continue to lie. I don’t want to continue to live mitzvot only for myself. I know I will only be shalom when my beliefs are an extension of my practices and my practices are an extension of my tribe and my tribe is an extension of my identity and my identity is an extension of my relationship with Adonai. This will only happen when I am a Jew, part of Israel, living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

The hesitation you may have felt on Wednesday was not by any means hesitation over if I want to convert to Judaism. I do with all my heart, soul and might.

Also, if it is possible, I would love to convert in this community and will do anything I can to make that happen. I have been scared to tell you that, because I don’t know what to expect as a response. I expressed my concern about leaving the community, because I was hoping it may prompt you to say something that could give me a more clear idea if conversion here would be possible. Also, it is a real concern. I am sad that I will be leaving the community, but I know it will always be my home. I am sad to be leaving you, but I know you will always be (my) Rabbi.

I hope I did not ramble too much. I tried to be concise, but as much as I am uncomfortable talking about myself, once I start it is hard to stop. I left so much unsaid, but I hope my desire is more clear than it may have been before.

Have a peaceful end of the week. May you have a smooth transition into the transcendent. See you on the other side.

“אלישבע

 

 

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

I was not lost, but I certainly found.

The famous author of The Lord of the Rings series, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote the words, “not all those who wander are lost.” This line has become a well-known quote because so many people can relate to the idea of wandering. Throughout our lives, we encounter many moments of wandering. We move from school to school, city to city, and job to job. Throughout the numerous processes of wandering, many of us are fortunate enough to stay rooted by family and friends. No matter how many times we move to a new city, we always have our “hometown.” In these instances, it is clear it see that those wandering are not necessarily lost and retain their roots.

On a deeper level, we wander in our minds, hearts, and souls as we explore ideas of why we are put on this earth and what direction our lives are headed. It seems like the deeper types of wandering happen when you don’t have a clear direction. Even if you are not lost, you are lacking clarity in a meaningful way. Some of us begin to learn more about different religious traditions as we wander through profound questions that either were previously unanswered or not sufficiently answered. With the majority of conversion stories I have encountered, from a variety of religious traditions, the converts describe their experiences as going from being lost to being home. They often begin in a state of little to no religious conviction and make a total transformation when they find their religious tradition and realize life now makes (more) sense. I can definitely relate to the end result feeling. I understand what it feels like to have this new found religion as the home you never knew existed but where you most certainly belong. But the first part, the experience of being lost or without a “home,” I have never felt.

I grew up in a very stable and loving two parent household. My parents, like their parents and their grandparents, created a nurturing, Roman Catholic household.  I had church every Sunday and catechism classes every Wednesday. I participated in many Church activities, like Vacation Bible School, youth days, and Christmas’ pageants. Besides a brief rebellious streak when I hit thirteen, I loved going to church, catechism classes, and all other things Christian. I had a clear religion with clear beliefs in a clear community. I never felt lost. I never had profound moments of doubt or skepticism. I never felt like my needs were not being met. I had the Church and never expected to want anything else.

When I began learning about other religious traditions, in junior high and high school, my study was based on interest of cultural diversity and had little, if anything, to do with theology. I began wandering even though I had a firm conviction in what I believed. I cannot easily relate to the story of other converts who were not spiritually fulfilled before they found their religion, but I can relate to their feeling of finding home, finding more fulfillment then you ever imagined possible, and finding a relationship with God and a community. I have never had a child, but I imagine that my experience is similar to the feeling of a parent. You led a fulfilling life before your child, but then you have your child and realize your life takes on new meaning, experiences, and fulfillment that you never knew you were missing. I never knew I was missing Judaism until I found it, and now I cannot let go. I did not wander because I was lost, but I can not deny that I found significant meaning I never knew I lacked.

Bereishit (“In the beginning…”)

I am on an extraordinary journey, that will never end, but is just beginning.

In the beginning, I was skeptical about beginning a blog that deals with the very personal journey of converting to Judaism. To be honest, I am still nervous about this process, but after many months of consideration I am taking the plunge and beginning to share my thoughts and experiences.

For the past year, I have documenting my thoughts and prayers in a journal. Recently, I began a digital journal on my computer specifically for archiving my experiences with Judaism, recalling my first memories of interacting with Judaism to the present days.  Today, I begin this blog with the intent to extend my writings into a new medium, become more aware of my journey (past, present, future), and just maybe provide interesting reading for someone else.

When I began to seriously seek out information on conversion, I looked for personal accounts and experiences. Unfortunately, I was largely left unsatisfied with the gap of information with personal experiences. I dug deep into books on halacha (Jewish law), Torah, and the logistics of the conversion process. These books were invaluable to my study and decision to convert, but without hearing more stories of converts I was left confused about the practical and emotional issues I was going through. I have a friend who converted to Judaism, but we are coming from such different places in our quest that she left me with more confusion than strength.  I read and heard multiple stories of Jewish converts, but it wasn’t enough. Conversion, and the reason for conversion, is very personal and different for everyone. For every story I read that spoke to me and I related to, I would have twenty more I just did not understand. I began to branch out my search for personal accounts of people converting to any religion. These were some of the most helpful stories, but at the end of the day we were still facing unique issues because of the difference in religion. When thinking about how to tell my parents about wanting to convert, I even consulted stories about gays coming “out” to their parents. There just is not enough personal, anecdotal information out there for those interested in converting to Judaism.

A very good friend is in a very similar place as I am, on the journey to join Israel. He has provided more help than any book or other resource in understanding my journey. He lives in a different country than I do, so the internet is the only way we communicate. Still, the ability to share our experiences with each other has made the world make just a little more sense. We are able to share practical issues, such as how to observe mitzvot (commandments) as a person converting, and emotional issues, such as dealing with family issues related to our conversion. Even though these are very personal issues, I see it as necessary to share my experiences so someone else will have them as a resource, not at all as a guide but as a friend’s story. I can not provide this experience for everyone, but I hope by sharing my story I am doing the little bit I can to fill the gap, provide someone else with some things to think about, and maybe help someone find their own words to describe their journey.

Speaking of words, they often fail, especially when trying to describe religious experiences. Not only will I be unable to find the perfect words to explain my experiences, but I can do nothing more than describe my unique experiences.  I encourage anyone reading to ask questions and comment on their journey with Judaism or their own faith, even if not a convert. We are all on our own journey.

And for that journey, a prayer:

“May it be Your will, Adonai, God of our ancestors, to lead us in peace and guide our steps in safety so that we may arrive at our destination, alive, happy and in peace.”