The Blood That Flows Through My Veins

The Angel of Death was present what seemed like more often than not in the weeks leading up to my departure for Israel. In the span of three weeks, I lost three people that I loved and cared for very much. Still, months later, not a day passes that I don’t think about them. I think of how much I miss them. I think of how I am a better person because each of them was in my life.

I want to slowly share glimpses into the impact that each of these three men, two my professors and the other my grandfather, had on my life and religiosity. It has taken me time to even begin to be able to write about them, because at first, the pain was just too fresh. My experiences with my professors are related to the way my religious identity has transformed over the past few years. My grandfather, on the other hand, is related to the part of me that has remained consistent. In his life and in his death, he showed me that there is a part of me that remains despite all the changes. It seems appropriate for me to share some of my moments with my grandfather first, because he reminds me that I there is a spark within me that remains unchanged.

My grandfather was the one person in my family who didn’t know that I converted to Judaism or even thought about converting to Judaism. When I went from thinking about conversion to actually being in the process of converting, I talked to my mom about how we should tell my grandfather, her father, that I was no longer a practicing Catholic and was going to be Jewish. My mom felt that he would not be able to understand what it meant for me to be converting. He, like the rest of my family, had never met a Jew. I said that I wouldn’t hide it, but I also would not have a formal, sit-down conversation with him. My religion never came up in the visits I had with him, so it was left unsaid. In the moments following his death, one of the first things I thought to myself was, “Now, he knows.”

The Catholic services that followed his death were something I wasn’t quite ready to face. In the moments leading up to his death, there was no denying the strong Catholic faith that lived within him. In his last few days, his hospital room was filled with prayers and rosaries. I was there as our family priest came to give him the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I helped my cousin prepare the Divine Chaplet that was prayed immediately following his death by his bedside. And in the moments of his lasts breaths, I stood by his bed holding him as he held his rosary. I stared down at his hands gently carrying a crucifix attached to beads that had been rubbed endlessly as he prayed.

Part of me felt the guilt, that I may always carry, about leaving a beautiful tradition that has been with my family and in my culture for generations. How did I walk away from what he held so dear even in his last moments on earth? But the other part of me, the part of me that I knew he would be proud of, realized that there is still continuity among the rapture. It is the faith, commitment and love that he had running through his veins that continues in me. It is the passion and fervor that I saw him living every day for his family, community, and G-d that has been passed down to me, will continue to live within me and will hopefully continue on in my children, their children and their children’s children, with the help of Hashem. I may have gone down another path. I may have a different way of living it out, but it is the same fire within us both.

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My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

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.

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.

A Practical Question: To Wear a Kippah, Tallit and/or Tefillin or not?

With my conversion date approaching so quickly, I am facing practical questions I really hadn’t given much thought before.

Today, the question I have on my mind is trying to decide if I will wear tallit, tefillin and/or a kippah when I convert. Up until this point, I have never worn any of them, other than trying on a friend’s kippah once just to see how it would feel.

I don’t know how comfortable I feel with the idea, but it is also the custom in my Conservative community. I know when I move to Israel I will most likely not have to wear any of them, but I am trying to decide what to do while I still live here. I know I don’t have to do any of them, but I feel that it is something important to consider since it is so important to my community. The majority of women in my shul wear tallit and a kippah at least during Shabbat services and some wear tefillin during weekday services. My community also does require anyone going before the community in the service to wear both tallit and a kippah (or some sort of head covering).

The main thing I want is to be consistent in my practice. I want to believe in what I am doing to the point that I am not just sometimes praying with my tallit or only sometimes covering my head in the synagogue. But I know it will probably take some trial and error before I find out what I is comfortable and meaningful  for me.

I think I wouldn’t mind wearing tallit in private while I pray in the morning, but at this point couldn’t imagine myself doing it in public. Maybe just because I have never worn it. I think my biggest mental barrier is that I see all of these things as clearly masculine and  maybe that is why I don’t feel comfortable with them. If I don’t even wear pants, how can I wear tefillin? Also, a head covering doesn’t seem to give me the same uncomfortable feeling as wearing a kippah itself. A kippah is not a mitzvah, but a minhag (custom) that is traditionally for males. I see it as something that is a male symbol where as I see another head covering, like a scarf, as female. I would like to cover my head for the same reason that men wear a kippah, but then how do I justify only wearing it in the synagogue? And can I really cover my head in another manner, not a kippah? I think wearing a hat or scarf might be as equally uncomfortable because it is a symbol of a married Jewish woman, and I am not married.

At the same time, I do like the fact that tallit and tefillin are strictly Jewish and therefore outwardly represent a change in my identity. A man once converted can begin to wear tallit and tefillin that he was not able to before during prayer. I can’t really think of an equivalent for a female. I wish I had an outward symbol of my Jewishness. Something that is reserved for Jews. I mean, I will wear a Star of David, but that doesn’t feel quite the same.

I will keep thinking over the question of wearing a kippah, tallit and/ or tefillin. I will also try to think of other meaningful mitzvot or minhags that can be added when I become a Jewess.

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