Back from Hiatus

Six weeks ago, I moved to Israel. In the weeks before that, I lost 3 members of my friends and family that were very close to me. Together, these things have caused major disruption to my normal routine over the past couple of months. On top of those major life adjustments, my computer also broke after being in Israel for one week and it was only yesterday that I was able to buy a new computer.

After several weeks of feeling out of sync, I have finally started work and classes and am beginning to fall back into the rhythms that I find necessary in order to be productive. I have been writing off and on, in a journal, during my inactivity online. I hope to take those and other thoughts that I have been having and begin posting them in the coming days.

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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

 

 

Spiritual Will

I love writing. Writing is truly a cathartic practice for me. I feel the emotions pouring out of my heart and dripping onto the page with each stroke of the pen. I keep multiple journals and usually write about anything that I feel at that moment, but sometimes I find certain exercises help me work creatively through my feelings and uncover ideas I would not have otherwise thought. Today, in one of the many blogs I read, I found a writing exercise that inspired me- writing a spiritual will. The idea is just as it sounds. You write out a will in any form you are comfortable with, for example the author of the blog wrote her will in the form of a letter to her son, and you describe the spiritual, or non-tangible, gifts you want to leave with people who are important to you, such as your family, friends, and community.  I thought this was an amazing idea and had to share it. I cannot wait to start working on my own spiritual will.

For more information on the idea of a spiritual will and an example, check out the blog that inspired me: Velveteen Rabbi. http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2011/11/writing-a-spiritual-will.html

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.”