Big Life Decisions

Since tonight is the first night of Chanukah, I thought it appropriate to finally make a big announcement: I’m converting to Judaism.

This didn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s something that I’ve considered on and off since high school, really, and would pop up every few years. It started again over the summer when I began thinking about my future career goals. This fall I took a chemistry course to start fulfilling pre-requisites so I can apply to conservation schools. My dream job: Working for the Israeli Antiquities Authority as an archaeological conservator. This led me to thinking more about Israel and how much I love it. I often get terribly homesick when I think about Israel. I feel very connected to the history, people, and politics of the region. I won’t go into those details here, as that’s enough for a series of blog posts. Anyone who knows anything about my political leanings and academic background will know my views on these topics.

Secondly, ever since I left JTS and finished my internship in Israel, I have missed being submerged in Jewish living. Katy and I will celebrate Jewish holidays in small ways: putting up the menorah, making latkes and sufganiyot, that kind of thing. But it’s just not enough.

I found a Masorti egalitarian schul that I thought would suit me, so I made an appointment to talk to a rabbi. He told me he could immediately tell that I was ready to convert and that for all intents and purposes, he already considered me to be Jewish. He said he also didn't want to rob me of my journey and that I should come to services and take classes and schedule meetings with him as I see fit. “You have your Master’s in Bible so you’ve already beaten that to death! I won’t require you to attend any classes."

He also had no problems at all when I told him I was an atheist and even admitted to being more of an atheist than believer himself. To be clear, belief in God is not necessarily essential in Judaism, at least not in conservative Judaism. The Jewish people are the center of the religion. The common history and practices is what makes Judaism. It doesn’t matter whether God is real or if any of the stories are real. What matters is that these traditions are kept generation after generation because that's what unifies Jews as a people. Well…it’s a complicated subject and simplifying it doesn’t do it justice.

So what do I need to do to convert?

Step 1: Attend services and classes.

The rabbi told me I told really need to attend any classes regularly, but did recommend I go to whichever ones I wanted. I want to take some Talmud classes! Katy and I had a blast in our Talmud class at JTS (if you could call painstakingly translating lines of text from an ancient language we barely knew into English a “blast”), and I’d like to opportunity to learn more. I’ll definitely attend services in the New Year. The synagogue I’m looking at doesn’t have Friday night services so I have to go Saturday morning. Since my chemistry classes have been on Saturdays, I’ve been unable to go. That will change once my class is over!

Step 2: Meet with the beit din.

When I'm ready for the official conversion, I’ll set a date to go to the mikvah. The rabbi will act as my sponsor and he'll gather three other Jews to act as beit din, a gathering of Jews for a test of law. I will have written a short paper stating why I want to be Jewish and what it means to me to be Jewish. The beit din will ask me questions and we'll discuss my intensions. Then they’ll decide whether I am truly ready to convert.

Step 3: Go to the mikvah.

mikvah is a ritual cleansing pool used in purification rituals. This ancient ritual is where the concept of baptism came from. However, the mikvah isn’t a one-time ordeal. Traditionally, a person goes to the mikvah in preparation for a significant event or after an act which has left the individual unclean. Examples include before the start of Shabbot (kind of like going to confession before mass), before marriage, at the start of a new job, becoming an aunt or uncle, after menstruating, and after touching a dead person. So it’s not quite a spiritual cleansing, it’s a physical cleansing and mental/spiritual preparation.

I bring my witness with me to the mikvah. This person doesn't have to be Jewish; I choose who I want to be my witness. They will witness my submersion into the waters of the mikvah. I have to take a shower to make myself physically clean and free of blemishes. Then I go into the pool area with my witness, strip down, and wade into the pool. There will be some blessings and I'm asked two questions: Are you prepared to be Jewish (yes), and Has anyone coerced you into converting (no)? Then I dunk myself under water, making sure not to touch the sides or bottom of the pool; I must be completely submerged. Then when I'm up, the witness says, yep she did it! There are some more blessings, and poof, I'm officially Jewish!

I cried when I talked to the rabbi about it. Only a little. I feel so very good about this, like I’m coming home.

Anyway, if anyone has questions while I’m home over Christmas, I’m happy to answer them. I guess the one thing I want everyone to know is that this is very important to me, but that it does not change who I am, nor does it wipe away where I come from. If anything, it is a reflection of what my family has taught me: that it is important to find myself, be myself, love myself, find what makes me happy, and do that for the rest of my life. And for that I am extremely grateful. I would not be who I am without the love, support, and acceptance of my family.

I am really looking forward to this and can’t wait to get things started in the New Year!