A Reminder At The Beginning Of A New School Year

Studying religion academically can sometimes be challenging as a person that identifies religiously. I have seen it cause people to loss their faith or cause severe frustration. You spend so much time reading religious text asking questions of historical context, literary structure and other scholarly inquires that it is easy to loss sight of where you, G-d and your community fit into the picture. It is too easy to get caught up in study guide and exam questions and stop asking how the text is speaking to you and what connection you have to the text.

As I begin a new program where I will be asked to read Jewish text from a critical, academic perspective,  I want to remind myself that I can learn something deeper and spiritual from all of these text and that should be just as much of a priority. A quote I have adapted from a friend is what I repeat when I begin to loss sight of this:

“Dear Elisheva,

Stop reading Buber* to just learn about Buber. Read Buber* to learn about G-d, yourself and the world we live in.

Sincerely,

Elisheva”

*Martin Buber is a 20th century Jewish Theologian. You can substitute his name in the quote for any religious thinker or text and it still rings true. This is the perspective I want to strive for as I begin this new school year and the New Year.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, but what a shame to ignore it in texts that traditionally and fiercely address these topics just because they are assigned readings. That would truly be a disservice to my spiritual self.

Forgiving

Rosh Hashanah is only about a week away, and the approaching High Holy Days bring about responsibility to reflect on actions and emotions of the past year in order to ask those around us for forgiveness. It is only through reaching out to those around us that we can go before Hashem and ask for mercy and forgiveness. With so much concentration on the act of asking for forgiveness it is easy to forget the other half of our job- forgiving.

Right now, I am angry, hurt and bitter. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, and I have just been informed of the third death in the past month of someone I loved. As I just began to feel some stability within me, I now feel surrounded by death.

It is hard to try and make sense of the loss and hurt, especially while being overwhelmed by many other stresses and blessings in my life. With Rosh Hashanah so close, I feel that there is a lesson here for me. I need to forgive. I should not only forgiving those family members and friends who have hurt me but also Hashem. I feel anger towards Hashem, mostly because I am frustrated by my lack of understanding. At the same time I am aware that just as I want to stand before those in my life and Hashem and be forgiven, I need to forgive those who have hurt me, including Hashem.

I have no time between now and the Holy Days to go through stages of grief and/or reasonably come to a state of forgiveness, yet I must forgive sincerely. It is hard because I want to be angry. I remind myself that there is a reason that the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer not referring to death but Hashem’s sovereignty, is said after a death. It reminds us that despite death, despite hurt, anger, loss and fear Hashem is in the world and in control. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the same thing. I am thankful for this helpful reminder in the liturgical year, especially so close to such significant personal loss.

My Beit Din

The 4th of Sivan, right before Shabbat and Shavuot, I had my Beit Din. I am an anxious person by nature, so the day was one filled with so much anxiety and stress. I cried. I laughed. I threw up.

I arrived at the shul about 10 minutes early. I had spent the morning eating breakfast with a friend and then praying at a local park. The time with a friend and in reflection really helped me calm down, but I still had butterflies in my stomach. The stress related to the Beit Din was mostly about being in a situation where you have to be completely open and sincere to a group of men asking personal questions. I also knew that I had wanted this step to come for so long, but when I first got the news that the Beit Din was scheduled I panicked. I questioned more than ever if I was ready and making the right decision. I think this is similar to preparing for a wedding. You look forward to the day and spend months in preparation, but when the day gets close you remember that the decision is more than about that day, it is about a lifelong commitment. Luckily, I had some friends who calmed me down and reminded me that the whole point of the Beit Din is to make you prove you are ready and sincere. Honestly, that was one of the most amazing things to come out of the process. I proved to myself as much as I did to the Beit Din that I was ready.

In the room, I was asked to begin by telling my story of how I got to the point that I was sitting in front of the Beit Din. Based on my rather short description of my journey, they begin to ask me many more questions. I was asked about my relation to Israel, the Jewish people, the Shoah, my Christian family, holidays, kashrut and many other things. It never really felt like a conversation, but they were very nice the whole time and never made me feel overly uncomfortable. I did have trouble answering some questions, but for the most part they only asked things I have considered at least at some point throughout my journey. The questioning was tiring, and the hardest part was being open to being so vulnerable. I felt overly exposed as my personal journey was picked and probed in order to be judged.

When they finished asking me questions, I step out of the room. I began thinking of all the “right” and eloquent answers I should have given. I am thankful that the Rabbi’s assistant was in the waiting room also and talked to me casually to keep my mind from going crazy as I waited for them to call me back into the room. It was only a few minutes, and then I sat back down in front of them and received their “mazal tov”s. My rabbi said that he only wished I wasn’t moving so I could continue studying here. That was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. All I could say was “thank you.” There are no words to describe the way my body, mind and soul felt in that moment. They asked me a series of questions along the lines of agreeing to raise my children as Jews and tying my destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people. I answered the first question “yes” and the rest “ken” (Hebrew for “yes”). It was probably just silly to them, but it was meaningful to me. I was so overcome by the joy of the moment. I really didn’t expect to feel that incredibly happy. I have never in my life felt so amazing. As I walked out of the room, I felt as if I could not speak, think, see or hear correctly. All my senses faded away as I floated off.

The moments after were filled with such relief. I had been incredibly nervous for the days leading up to the Beit Din, and now all of the stress dripped away. For a few moments, everything in my life felt shalom (whole) and b’seder (in order). It was only an instant, but it was reality. Then I began to feel joy and happiness and accomplishment. I really felt my heart “dance” inside of me. As I came back to earth, I remained in a state of joy and peace, but suddenly realized I was exhausted. I got home and immediately went to sleep in an unnatural state of security, love and joy. And when I woke up, it was time for my last Shabbat as a non-Jew and then Shavuot and my mikvah day quickly followed.

The whole day was amazing and like a dream. It was one of the best days of my life and the greatest I have ever felt. And yet, the memories and feelings are already so vague.

I am a Jew.

*Deep Breath*

Today was the day. Today, I became a Jew.

The past few days have been a whirlwind. I am going to write out the experiences in order, but wanted to start with a short thought on today, right now.

“I, Elisheva Sima, am a Jew.”

These words are still unbelievable, but the feeling of truth and joy makes me want to let the whole world know. I pray that from this day forward my actions will scream it, my words will represent it, and my soul will forever whisper it.

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

 

 

Pesach Seder, Day 1.

Emotions are competing inside of me, and I am having trouble putting any of them into words. I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family from my congregation for the first seder of Passover 5772. The family was absolutely wonderful. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to sit at their table and learn, eat, and enjoy wonderful company. In so many ways, this was the perfect seder for me, and in so many other ways, the seder left me feeling frustrated or empty. Either way, I KNOW that Hashem led me to that table and was with me throughout the roller coaster of emotions I felt in each moment.

First, let me begin with what was so perfect about the seder. My host family was wonderful. They were very welcoming, and conversation was easy because I felt I had a lot in common with just about everyone at the table. Two women at the seder both converted to Judaism. Another guest was about to convert (in a week). My host’s oldest children were around my age.  Another guest was deeply fascinated with religion and studies comparative religion as a hobby.  Also, the youngest children at the seder, made up of both  Jews and non-Jews, gave me such a great view into family life and community. I can not speak enough to the amazing, instant feeling of community I felt with my host and her family and friends. It was something I had never really felt in this Jewish community.

The main (challenging) thought that kept entering my head throughout the night was whether or not this is already my story. I would be so moved by passages of the Haggadah expressing ideas of freedom and soon begin to feel isolated because of the language used in the Haggadah. The Haggadah, and the story of the exodus from Egypt in general, creates a clear sense of division between an “us” and a “them.” In multiple parts of the seder I would ask myself, “which side am I on?” I can definitely relate to Abraham’s story of leaving the religious beliefs of his father in order to follow Hashem, but does that make me part of Israel? I can feel as though I too am preparing for my flight from Egypt, but does that make me an Israelite?

I struggled with a feeling of otherness at times during Pesach. Pesach is so focused on community and even welcoming in the stranger, but it was just that– I was a stranger. The hagadda says the word “our” so many times and I kept struggling with whether or not I was part of that. It is weird, because I had not felt this so strongly before, even when I say the Aleinu or any other liturgy. But during Pesach there is such a strong sense of “us”- Israel and “them”-Egyptians/other. I have celebrated Pesach before, but this year, when I was more in the community than any year before, I felt most removed from the community. I still told myself I too was being led out of Egypt, but I don’t know if i really believe it. Now, as we approach Shavuot, every night counting the Omer I am reminded that I have not yet been commanded to count the Omer. In other blessings, I have never minded the “who has commanded us..” but since the Omer is an extension of Pesach, linking us to Shavuot, my feeling of being an outsider is still present. I have debated whether or not to even count the Omer then, but decided that I still want to even if I am not commanded and even if it does not really led to me receiving Torah on Shavuot. This may all sound really depressing, but I really do not feel too sad about it. It is not like I did not know I was not Jewish before. It is just that as the time is getting closer to me becoming Jewish, I realize even more strongly that I am not yet. No matter how badly I want the words to be about me, telling my story, they aren’t yet. But hopefully soon.

Conclusion: Even if this isn’t my story yet, I feel in every inch of my being that I want more than anything to join the narrative. I am already excited for next year’s seder (whether or not it is in Jerusalem). And more than anything, I am anxiously awaiting the day I have my own seder where I can help create an open environment of creativity, learning and growth for family, friends and strangers.