A Fork in the Road?
About a year into my exploration of observant Judaism, I started to feel like something was amiss. I couldn’t figure out where this feeling was coming from, so I automatically assumed that it had to do with my personality or the stage I was at in my growth. I experienced a repeated awkwardness in my conversations with others, a shifting of eyes, a decrease in invitations to classes, and a general feeling that I wasn’t as welcome as I had once been.
Now I’m sure that many people can relate to the feeling of wondering if you’ve done something wrong and offended others without knowing. It’s a common instinct when someone forgets to call, to worry that you’ve done something to cause this person to back away from you. I automatically assumed that maybe my mentors didn’t think I was ready to grow in this way, or that people just simply didn’t like me, or maybe I was just being overly paranoid. I let this feeling sit for what felt to be an excruciatingly long time (about two weeks) until I realized that it needed to be confronted.
I had recently made a promise to myself to be brave and face the things that blocked me from the connection I now knew was possible in this world. It’s one thing to confront yourself, but for me it was much harder to confront someone that I admired and ask her why people had started treating me differently. I was also at a major crossroads in my life where I thought that it simply wasn’t possible to exist as an observant Jew and also continue my life as a musician (hello Friday night concerts!) I needed to figure out why Gd had given me these amazing gifts if it wasn’t going to be possible to reconcile them. I also needed to know why the amazing people that had been helping me along my journey suddenly seemed distant, leaving me to connect to my creator alone.
Perhaps I forced the issue, and given a chance to do it over again, I probably would have approached it more gently and not let it fester until the point of desperation. In short, I strongly requested that a trusted mentor tell me what the deal was, and why I was being treated like I didn’t belong, after being welcomed with such warmth and love. At this point, I had absolutely no clue what the reason could be! I had never heard of someone thinking she was Jewish when she actually wasn’t. I had never heard of invalid conversions or anything of the sort. In my mind, I was born Jewish, and I had made a conscious choice all my life to not have anything to do with that part of myself. In my mind, I was now finding connection in the one part of my soul that I had always been denying. It never occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t a religion or ”family” that I belonged to.
So you can guess what happened next. As it turns out, I was told my mother’s conversion wasn’t considered to be valid by orthodox Jews. It didn’t matter that my father was a Levi, that my mother’s father was an orthodox Jew until the holocaust caused him to hide it from his family, or that my mother studied for a long time before converting and had kept mitzvot at the beginning of her marriage. Since she had a “conservative” conversion (or so I thought at the time), I was now being told that I wasn’t Jewish.
Of course, looking back on this situation as a now observant Jew, it makes complete sense. However, you can probably imagine my reaction to this news. I can’t recall any sort of pain that matches it, except maybe my mother’s death. Even that experience doesn’t really compare, because I’ve always felt my mother’s liveliness within myself, even though she isn’t physically here. This was a different sort of pain. Imagine that for the first time in your life, you have found true connection, happiness, unconditional love, and purpose. Imagine making the decision to devote your life to fulfilling that purpose, no matter what the cost to your other life “plans”. Imagine the feeling of things clicking, of life finally making sense, of all the disparate parts of your soul falling into place one by one. Imagine the deep happiness that can only come from knowing that finally, you are not alone, because now you have roots that extend beyond time. Imagine all that, and then being told that it’s a lie. That this truth, this beauty, this connection that you’ve been searching for your whole life, is not yours to have. That it doesn’t matter what you’ve found, because it’s not yours to keep.
I remember staring at the wall of my apartment late into the night, not even able to cry. Only later when a friend expressed excitement about going to Jerusalem to learn did I break down and cry for my loss. I remember being nauseated with jealousy. I can’t even describe the aching need that I felt because I wanted that same carefree journey. I had been kicked off the path, my roots torn off and cast aside, and now I had to watch all my friends continue on without me. And I couldn’t even tell them because I was so ashamed. Nothing made sense. However, deep down I knew that what I had been exploring was real. I knew that it was what I needed to do, yet now I couldn’t fathom how Judaism fit into my life.
The thought of walking away wasn’t even an option at this point. I had already made the decision at the beginning of my exploration that I wasn’t going to walk away, no matter what I had to face. I went to my mother’s grave repeatedly and wrote in a way that seems almost prophetic in retrospect. “I don’t know how, but I know that this skirt is right. The cello is right. It doesn’t matter that they don’t make sense. I have no idea how, but it can work.”
My decision to convert came quickly. Even though I felt kicked and cast out by those who I thought were my family, I wasn’t going to let this stand in the way of seeking out that which I knew was true to me. And even though I wasn’t a fully observant Jew yet, I knew that I could never make my children go through the sort of pain that I was going through. I knew that as a woman, I had the responsibility of passing a Jewish soul down to my children, and therefore converting was what I needed to do. Within a week, I had also decided that I needed to do this for myself as well, and that I would commit to being a fully observant Jew. There were little details about orthodox Judaism that I hadn’t yet learned about (hey, there still are!), but at this time all the big pieces made sense to me, both logically and spiritually. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this was wrong, and I already was Jewish, but it didn’t matter. If I needed to do a conversion in order to live the life I needed, the life that the infinite gave me the opportunity to fulfill, so be it.
What followed was a year of intensive study at the amazing She’arim in Jerusalem and also in Toronto. I had originally decided to go to Boston to do my master’s degree in music, but decided against it. A lot happened during this year that I will mention briefly here before describing what it was like to actually convert. I found out pretty quickly that I was going to be a “Ger l’Chumra”, meaning that it wasn’t certain whether or not I actually needed to do the conversion, but of course I did it just to be sure. Apparently my mom’s conversion had happened at a time when the conservative conversions in Toronto were very similar to orthodox ones. The moment I found this out was hilarious in retrospect, because it was Thursday night, so of course the question of whether or not I should keep Shabbat fully was imminent. After many Rabbis were called I received my answer a few hours before candle lighting and was told not to break Shabbat. I learned halacha (Jewish law) like I never would have otherwise, and for this I am forever grateful because I am much too philosophical to have actually taken the time to really explore halacha in all of its depth. I am so so happy that my conversion helped me discover my passion for living and learning halacha (yes, I am still called the “halacha monster” by those who know me well). I had numerous meetings with the Toronto Beit Din, known to be one of the “scariest” Beit Din’s in the world, and one of the most challenging conversions. They were wonderful to me, and I am so grateful that I prayed to be able to show them my genuine soul, because this obviously helped me in the process. I wanted pristine paperwork at the end, so no one would ever question my commitment. I wrote a 12-hour test (some people say it’s 20 hours, I honestly don’t remember), on all aspects of Judaism. The satisfaction I felt when putting the test in the envelope to fly back with me from Jerusalem and having it sealed by the proctor was sublime. I put so much of myself into that test, and because of this, I now know so much more about Torah than I ever would have at this point in my life.
“What was it like to convert?” people ask me. I have discovered a great analogy for the conversion process, and I’m sure that I’m not the first one to describe it in this way; Converting to Judaism is like committing to marriage. I remember when writing the conversion test that I was suddenly struck by how fair it all was. I realized that I had no business committing to observant Judaism unless I actually knew all of this stuff! And in the end, I would know, REALLY know, that I was Jewish. This test, and all the meetings with questions being fired at me from the Beit Din were so… fair. Nobody was trying to trick me. This was real. It wasn’t a contest, and I wasn’t going to get any sort of grade at the end. No, this was a litmus test of finding out for myself whether or not I was ready for this commitment. And now I was.
I didn’t know what to expect while doing my preparations to go to the mikveh. I felt so full of truth and hope as I made my way to my last meeting with the Beit Din in which I was to finally emerge as a fully committed Jew. I remember that for the first time in my life, I felt like the infinite was walking within me, instead of my usual feeling of having my hand held, being beckoned, or pushed. The actual process of getting into the mikveh is fuzzy in my mind, but suddenly, while standing in the water, everything became very clear. I remember the Beit Din questioning me before I took the plunge. These were no longer practical questions, but questions about commitment, about my hopes and dreams as a Jew. Was I committed to being a Jew in every aspect of my life? Was I going to always feel a yearning for unity, for connecting the separate parts of the world and my soul? Was I committed to always living a life of honesty and truth, and to be brave and growing until the end of my days? And did I truly understand my unique place in the world, and was I going to spend every minute of my life from there on, fulfilling my purpose as a Jewish woman? Did I understand that this commitment could and would be at times painful, and was I willing to take on not only my own pain, but the pain of the entire world? There were many questions, some more practical, others more intense, that I can’t recall, and I obviously can’t remember any of them word for word. I do remember considering these questions carefully, not because I had doubts, nor because I was scared. I realized with the first question that this moment was real in a way that no moment in my life had been real before. With my answers, I was not only going to change my own world, but the entire world around me. I remember each “Yes” coming from a part of me that had not ever spoken, and when I stepped out of that mikveh, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and started crying, because now, the separate parts of my soul were finally one.
There are so many questions when it comes to the subject of conversion, and I recognize how important it is for me share my story and reflections. There are countless people including myself who have gone through similar processes, and have had to face firsthand how many “unknowns” there are about the Jewish soul. You would be surprised at the amount of people have had to go through a conversion to Judaism in the way that I had to, because of gaps in knowledge of their Jewish identity! Many people don’t like to talk about it, as I didn’t until now (I actually still don’t like it, but other forces in my life have encouraged me to write this), so be sensitive to the reality that the person you are talking to might be going through or have completed a conversion.
I know that many readers of this site come from different sects of Judaism and might be interested in why it was necessary for me to convert in the first place. I have friends who they themselves have gone through or had relatives go through different kinds of conversions and am aware that there are different views on this subject, all of them with perspectives containing a lot of research and validity. However, for myself, and Orthodox Jews as a whole, Judiasm isn’t a “religion” in the way that most people define the word. Judaism is not a religion, nor a belief, nor heritage. Well, it is all of those things, but it is so much more. It is our whole life, from day one until our death, from dawn til dusk and dusk til dawn. I am not only Jewish on my bat mitzvah, or when holidays come around, or just when I go to synagogue, or when it’s time for Friday night dinner, or on the day of my marriage, or only when I feel like it. I am Jewish the moment I wake up, with every step that I take, with every piece of nourishment that I put into my mouth, with every word, every thought. I am Jewish when I go to the bathroom, when I change a diaper, and even when I’m craving chocolate. I am Jewish when I am stuck in traffic, when I hear a piece of beautiful music and when my friend needs my support. It is a complete commitment to the purpose of your soul. As I said before, being Jewish is like a marriage. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s easy or difficult for you at the moment. It is life itself.
Saying “Yes” in the mikveh was like saying “I do” to a soulmate when getting married. When a person gets married, he/she is committing to a lifetime of giving to his/her partner. In the same way that commitment in a marriage is not “just when I feel like it”, neither is a conversion. A commitment of the soul must be a full commitment, with nothing holding you back. The only way to truly be one with another is to give all of yourself to it. And of course, those who are overseeing the conversion must feel the same way about what is taking place. The reason why my mother’s conversion was questionable was because we couldn’t be sure what she had actually committed to when she went through with it. Unfortunately, she had passed away a long time ago, and so had the Rabbis that did her conversion. We only had one piece of paper evidence that anything actually took place, and the synagogue that was in charge of the conversion had no records of what had actually happened. No one knew. So with this, I knew that the commitment wasn’t going to come from my birthright, but from a conscious choice of my own.
There were various friends and mentors who I spoke to during the process of conversion. Surprisingly enough, an issue that came up for them was jealousy. Many of the people I spoke to didn’t grow up as observant Jews, and had taken the 613 mitzvot upon themselves later in life. They often lamented to me the feeling that their bar/bat mitzvahs had been in vain… that they actually hadn’t committed to anything. They also wanted to have some sort of rite of passage, some sort of test and moment in their lives where they could say they had truly committed. Even those that had grown up in observant homes expressed this same feeling to me. I also have experienced this feeling, because this past year, when accompanying a good friend of mine to her conversion, I felt the same sort of jealousy. I wanted to commit again, and say “I do” once more. I wanted to tell the infinite once more how much I loved and wanted to live my life as a Jew, and re-give myself to that purpose. Surely the infinite had given us an outlet for this need to commit again and again?
To this conundrum, I have two answers. The first is “Lech Lecha” which are the words spoken to Avraham. These words are also meant for us. Every single one of us has to “go away in order to go towards”. This doesn’t mean that we have to go away physically, or in our actions. It means that we have to take it upon ourselves to make a choice. A real, honest and genuine choice, to devote ourselves to fulfilling our purpose as a Jew. To those that are ba’alei teshuva, I would strongly suggest that when you are ready, that you take the time to make this commitment. It can be done on your own, or with others. If you can’t decide on when or how to do it, I have good news for you. We have the opportunity as Jews to say “I do” each and every year. This is the day of Shavuot. On this day, we reaccept upon ourselves the commitment that we made at Sinai, and once again proclaim that we will spend every minute of our lives fulfilling our purpose as Jews. When Shavuot comes upon us next year, you can remember this, renew your vows, and get married again :)
Many have asked me if I feel like I got a new soul once I took the plunge into the mikveh. Others will say yes. My answer is no. I feel like parts of me that were already there were finally more connected. Many things happened to me during my time spent in Jerusalem before the conversion, leading me to be quite certain that I already had a Jewish soul, and didn’t need to spiritually convert, even though physically I did need to. Do I know this for sure? No, I certainly don’t, and that’s why it was absolutely necessary for me to go through with the conversion, no matter what evidence the infinite was presenting to me on the contrary. Was I faced with a lot of hurtful, misinformed comments? Yes, but I’ve heard of others going through much worse. The good news is that most of it didn’t come from a bad place, but simply from not knowing how complicated and multi-layered the process actually is for most people.
Here is some advice I would like to share; Above all, we as human beings must remember to always be humble. Jews especially need to remember this. Yes, we have a unique purpose in this world, but that makes us no more important or better than any other soul. (I know some will disagree with me on this… feel free to message me privately and I would be glad to discuss.) When it comes to souls, there is so little that we cannot ever be sure of. We don’t know if someone “Jewish” actually isn’t Jewish, or if someone who isn’t Jewish, actually is. We must remember that there were once were twelve tribes of Israel, two of which we know of today. Where are the other ten tribes now? Why are we seeing so much conversion, turbulence, and people violently leaving or returning to Judiasm in these times before the new era? Sources tell us that even though everything seems murky and crazy down here, it is all actually falling into place in higher worlds.
I must also mention, that even though finding out that I needed to convert was extremely painful, it was actually handled with a lot of care and grace. There really is no easy way to discuss this subject with someone going through the process, because it is so emotionally ridden. I know others who weren’t as lucky to receive the empathy that I did. My advice is just to be as considerate as possible, ask for help from the infinite (you will get it), and the right words will come. And always, always, make sure that your questions and comments come from a place of love.
My friends, we must remember that if someone goes off the derech, he might come back with more emunah that you have ever imagined. If someone marries a non-Jew, maybe that person actually has a Jewish soul and they will grow towards observance together, or maybe they both aren’t and this is also Hashem’s way of helping things fall into place. Maybe if someone isn’t halachically Jewish, they actually spiritually are, and by treating them with arrogance you might be delaying the coming of Meshiach (whom, according to some sources, will be a convert, or at least from a family of converts, and most likely from the blood line of David haMelech, whose grandmother, Rut, was a convert). Remember Pirkei Avot, which tells us how everything is going to be in its right place eventually, if not in this lifetime, then in the next, or the next… and that any judgment that comes from a place of ego or anger is not one that should be brought into this world. Do what you need to do halachically when dealing with converts, but keep in mind that all of this should be in the service of v’ahavta lere’acha kamocha. Always, always be humble, treat people with respect, realize how much yet how little we truly know about this world.
It is my hope to eventually write down the stories of those I have met that have also gone through the process of conversion. I have met so many that my husband is starting to think that I’m a magnet for it! Obviously this process was part of my tikkun, and perhaps sharing the stories of others is part of it as well. Sending all of you a big “kol tuv”, and wishing everyone much strength, wisdom and clarity during this difficult time of the three weeks.
A Note To Rabbis, Rebbetzins, Chavruitot, Mentors etc.: I know it might be hard to read about how painful it was for me to find out that I wasn’t considered Jewish. Any sane person would want to avoid causing pain to another. Ideally one would be able to speak to a student about this issue and have him/her leave the conversation with a renewed sense of clarity, hope and happiness. Unfortunately, I have never heard of this happening. And I don’t think it’s possible. Telling someone who thinks that they are Jewish that they actually aren’t is like telling someone that her family actually isn’t her family. Not only that, she has been lied to by others she trusted saying that her family is her family. And a lot of her family might still think that she is family, even though she isn’t. And worst of all, it would be in her and her family’s best interest if she walks away, and never has any association with them or mention that she is or was part of that family… because she isn’t. Umm… ouch. No matter how you word it, no matter how carefully you broach the subject, no matter how much love you try to give… it’s going to hurt. A lot. There is no way around upsetting this person. No matter how well you handle the situation, there is going to be a lot of pain, which, depending on the person, will be directed at herself, her family, her community, you, orthodox Jews, or Jews in general (or probably some combination).
I always used to feel so much sympathy for the doctors that have to tell their patients that they are terminally ill. Once I spoke to a doctor about this and he said the most insightful thing; “Better me than someone that doesn’t care.” The same is true in this situation. The sad fact is that people do grow up thinking that they are Jewish when halachically, they aren’t. And someone needs to tell them. Also, especially if they are on the path towards discovering obeservant Judaism, someone eventually IS going to tell them. And that someone might not be kind, sensitive, or loving. So with that in mind, make sure that you don’t worry so much about hurting someone that you fail to tell him/her at all. Accept that no matter what you do, the person is going to hurt. I remember when my mentor told me, I was so impressed by how she asked the infinite for strength and help finding the right words (out loud). She told me with so much care, and love. But guess what? It hurt. It hurt like nothing else ever had. And guess what? It’s okay. It needed to hurt and needed to happen in order to bring me to where I am today.
As Jewish role models, we have to recognize that our “jobs” in this world aren’t always going to be easy and filled with instant positive results. We are going to make mistakes, and even when our intentions are completely pure, it doesn’t mean that the result will be what we wanted. Sometimes, we might have to tell someone that she/he is not halachically Jewish. Make sure you pick a good time, when the person is already at a level of self reflection and has a sense of emunah and self worth. But don’t delay too much because otherwise this person might have to find out from an unsympathetic source. As I said before, ask the infinite for help, and the right words will come. Accept that this truth is going to hurt no matter what, but through the greatest darkness can come the greatest light.