Sunday, March 31, 2013

Good conversion to Judaism essay

Describe the factors which have drawn you to Judaism.
I feel like I have had an interest in converting to Judaism for over half my life.  I grew up in Salem, Oregon, which has one Reform Temple.  Accordingly, I knew very few Jews myself.  My first real exposure came in 8th grade when we did a unit in our English class about the Holocaust.  I remember reading Night and watching movies like "Escape from Sobibor" and feeling a strong connection to the Jewish people.  I remember being blown away by their resilience, and falling in love with their traditions.  Our family had always celebrated Christmas and gotten together on Easter, but neither of those holidays had any religious or even traditional meaning in our largely G-d-free household.  Suddenly I was introduced to holidays I'd never heard before like Chanukah, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and was impressed by this new concept of G-d I had never known.
This initial interest which began in 8th grade sparked a period of study about Judaism that lasted several years.  I remember secretly checking out every book about Judaism in our school library and voraciously reading them by flashlight at night.  I've always been good with languages, and at one point I bought an introductory book on Hebrew and flashcards so I could begin teaching myself the language of the Torah.  I had never shared my interest in Judaism with anyone, but I remember committing to myself in high school that I would convert to Judaism when I became an adult.  Not having a connection to the Jewish world through a friend or mentor, however, made it difficult to hold on to that commitment I made to myself.  Eventually my original passion subsided. 
I went to college at the University of Puget Sound where I majored in English Literature.  My exposure to Judaism was almost nonexistent except for two important exceptions.  One class I took there was “Religion and Archaeology” which, for most of the class, focused on the excavation of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This reminded of one of the things I find so appealing about Judaism: it’s not a monolithic faith. Jews are a vibrant and ever-changing people whose beliefs and practices have evolved over time, and that part of being Jewish is wrestling with these issues.  This subject had piqued my interest so much that I did my final project on the famous synagogue at the hot springs of Tiberias.  The class reawakened my interest in the Jewish world, especially my interest in its rich history.
The other event in college that connected me back to Judaism was my attendance at my first Passover Seder put on by the Jewish Student Union.  I remember being struck by how beautiful the words of the Haggadah were in both Hebrew and English.  I also recall being impressed by the significance of this holiday that connects Jews back to the roots of their history as well as the G-d that has preserved them.
After college, I joined Teach For America and was placed to teach in a rural region in Northeastern Louisiana.  By conventional wisdom, this should have ended my connection with the Jewish people, since I was so far removed from any center of Jewish life.  As fate would have it (or perhaps it wasn't fate at all) another teacher who was placed in the same region as me is Jewish. 
That he was Jewish did not really come up on my radar screen at first.  As our friendship grew, however, I began to take notice of the certain things in his life that are uniquely Jewish.  I'm not talking just of his occasional attendance at temple, though that was certainly a part of it.  His concern for other people and his devotion to the welfare of others is something with which I am always impressed.  What particularly struck me was his commitment to family.  Though when asked about his family my friend will usually make a disparaging remark, I am nonetheless continually impressed by how open his relationship is with his family and how openly loved is shared, a personal quality I feel is a product of his Jewish upbringing. I am positive that not all Jews possess these same qualities that I admire in him, but at the same time I can't fail to mention that these qualities in him have drawn me closer to a love of Judaism.
As our first year of teaching came to an end my friend suggested that I work at a Jewish sleep-away camp which he attended as a child and had worked at for several years.  Having never been to sleep away camp before, I thought this would be a great chance to earn some money while also taking a break from the long months of teaching that I had just finished.
My only regret about working at this camp was the dubious nature by which I was employed there, since I had to pretend I was Jewish.  Because this camp took a pluralist view on Jewish observance, it was not unusual to have a "Jew" like me who was unfamiliar with many Jewish practices.  That coupled with my working knowledge of Hebrew meant that my non-Jewishness largely flew under the radar.
Although I had to work through the initial awkwardness of learning the words of the prayers and when to bow during services, I was amazed by how at-home I felt while being ensconced in the Jewish tradition.  In every other religious service I've been a part of, I've always felt a little uncomfortable, like what was being said or done did not jibe with me at a personal or spiritual level.  After the first few days of getting used to the daily religious services at camp, it felt like the more natural than anything else I had experienced.  I looked forward to the shacharit service every morning, looked forward to Shabbat each week so we could sing Shalom Aleichem and hear Kiddush over the wine.
But my strong connection to Judaism that was created at camp is not solely a religious one.  I am extremely thankful that I was given an opportunity that very few people in the world  have ever received--the experience of instantly being considered a full-fledged member of the Jewish community.  I was astounded by how welcomed I was as a fellow Jew and how there is a special love that knits together the Jewish people into which I was included.  I put on a yarmulke for the first time in my life and instantly felt a part of a special people.  Because the camp has strong Zionist ties, I found an admiration for the State of Israel and its importance developing inside me.  Although it might sound cliché, I feel like my soul was awakened for the first time in my life.
Undoubtedly, this experience at camp is the major reason for my interest in converting to Judaism.  However, what I think solidified this desire in my mind was the experience of instantly returning to a non-Jewish identity after being a considered a full member of the Jewish community at camp.  It is difficult to describe how painful it was to return back to the community where we teach and have the other Teach For America teachers there regard my donning of a Jewish identity as a joke.  It hurt each time that my Jewish friend could talk openly about his Jewish identity while I had to keep my desire to be Jewish a secret. One day, I remember finding a copy of the camp siddur I brought with me and recall becoming teary-eyed while reading through the Mourner's Kaddish.  Amazingly, it was not so much the experience of being Jewish as the sudden experience of not being Jewish that made the decision clear in my mind.
Since I've been back in Louisiana, I've attended several services at a Reform temple several hours from where I live, including Yom Kippur.  Although I can't say that the Reform service resonates as much with me as the services at camp, I can't help but feel a sense of belonging.  I think the moment that I knew without doubt that I would become Jewish was during a Sukkot celebration that the rabbi at the temple put on for young Jews.  Amazingly, a singer/songwriter of Jewish rock and folk songs who had been at camp was there as part of a Southern Sukkot tour he was making.  As we stood there under the Sukkah singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” and I shook the lulav and etrog for the first time in my life to signify G-d's presence all around me, I knew that this was what I always have been and wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Which Jewish values do you find most appealing and persuasive?
I’m not sure if this could necessarily be called a “value,” but one of the things that I find most appealing about Judaism is its emphasis on right action rather than simply on right thought.  Judaism is not simply about holding a set of beliefs or being beholden to more commandments than others, but being an example to your community and your world through honesty and compassion, by abiding the law and through acts of loving kindness.  I also find that Judaism’s emphasis on family and connection to one another to be extremely appealing.  If I should have children, G-d willing, this is the tradition in which I would like to have them raised.  The concept of tikkun olam is something that have a lot of personal reverence for, and although this was a value of mine before becoming involved with Judaism(i.e. Teach For America), it is nonetheless one that resonates with me.
How is Judaism more appropriate for you than your former religion or worldview/lifestyle?
Growing up, I attended various Christian functions mostly because I was invited by school friends to do so.  I can also remember that at various 6 month-or-so episodes in my life feeling a true conviction for the Christian faith.  More often than not, however, Christianity felt strange to me, especially as I got older.  The thing I found most disconcerting is what I feel to be Christianity’s anti-intellectualism, especially among the protestant denominations in which I was a participant. I don’t want to disparage the Christian faith, and I know for a fact that there are many intellectually minded Christians, but it seemed to me that, in practice, Christianity requires that you leave your intellect at the church doors.  The constant demand to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a man who lived on Earth and who was also simultaneously G-d, felt strained and disingenuous.  Its emphasis on the fact that we are all inherently sinners who need a blood sacrafice from a man who died 2000 years ago and that we should lay all our troubles on him rang very false to me.  I have always been fascinated by world religions, and finding little satisfaction in the Protestant strains of Christianity, I read several books on the theology of more orthodox strains of the Christian faith (Catholicism, Anglicanism, etc.).  While I felt that these traditions were more theologically satisfying from an intellectual standpoint, I also found their theologies to be vacuous, devoid of any connection to humanity on Earth.  They decry taking pleasure in the world around us, describe the human condition as one that is hopelessly lost and direct our attention to the world to come rather than the world we live in now.  Judaism differs from my experience with Christianity in several important ways.  First, Judaism seems to me to be a set of beliefs that for the last 2000 years has had its foundation in intellectualism. No Jew is ever asked to hold to practice or belief purely on faith or even on meager evidence.  Judaism is a conversation about what right actions is, and although this inevitably manifests itself in practices that all Jews should adhere to, I feel more intellectually grounded in those practices than giving up my intellect all together.  Moreover, Judaism is a celebration of the joys and struggles of life that G-d has given us and a way of spiritual fulfillment in this life rather than a rejection of it.  In this way (and for many others that would take too long to list) I feel like Judaism is much more appropriate for me than anything else I have experienced religiously.
Describe your understanding of and relationship to G-d.
G-d is the king of the universe, meaning he is the all-pervasive force that directs the happenings of this world.   His ways cannot be completely known by the likes of humankind, but he has provided ways for us to come closer to His divine presence through Torah and our G-d-given intellect.  He has a master plan for this world, and by performing acts of loving kindness and making choices that help to benefit others, I help to bring G-d’s plan to fruition. It is my responsibility to live as righteously as possible because this is part of his divine will.
How has your personal and home life changed because of Jewish tradition?  How do you see your Jewish life progressing in the future?
Undoubtedly, the most transformational change that I have undergone because of the Jewish tradition is my entering into the covenant of circumcision, the brit milah.  It is hard to explain just how important entering into this covenant means to me because the profundity of it all is wrapped up in so many facets of my nature—my identity as a Jew and a human being, my connection to the splendor and sorrow of the Jewish people, my physical appearance, my connection with the Holy One—in a way that I scarcely know where to begin.  In fact, I left off discussing my circumcision altogether in the first draft of this essay because I found it too difficult to articulate while still doing justice to this pivotal experience.  For it can neither be explained simply as a narrative account without losing the crucial element of the experience that goes beyond my personal story, nor can it be framed in terms of its spiritual and cultural significance without leaving out the profoundly palpable and human aspect of the story. 

Before I decided to contact Rabbi Ginsburg about my desire to convert to Judaism, I knew that the brit milah would have to be an important part of the conversion process. Even if I were to disregard the obvious legal significance of the brit, from a practical standpoint it would be oxymoronic to have an uncircumcised Jew.  Perhaps if only in a physical and superficial way, it was important that I “fit in” with this Jewish norm.  I wish I could say that I was more reflective in the months leading to my entering into this holiest of covenants, but to be honest I think I was more anxious about the fact that people were going to be poking, prodding and slicing my manhood to have any profound contemplations on my upcoming experience.

I was surprised by how matter-of-fact the mood was as Rabbi Tarkieltaub, my adult mohel, and the surgeon were as they explained the procedure.  In fact, the mohel even seemed a little bored with the whole affair, stroking his long white beard absentmindedly like my circumcision was one of a long list of errands that he needed to accomplish that Monday morning.  At least that means he’s done a lot of these things, I hoped, while simultaneously fearing that his drowsy-looking eyes would droop at a crucial moment in the coming hour.

The surgeon led us to the operating room and a nurse handed me a hospital gown to slip into in a small changing room. After struggling for an inordinate amount of time to fasten the straps in the back of the gown (which, to my embarrassment, prompted one of the nurses to inquire several times through the crack in the door if I was alright) I became resigned to the fact that within minutes everyone in the operating room was going to see a more intimate part of me than my backside anyway, and stepped out of the room with the gown only covering my front.

The nurses directed me to sit on the slender operating table in the center of the room, and as I hitched myself backwards onto table, I noticed a dark-skinned man who must have come as I was changing.  The surgeon introduced him as Mohammad, a medical intern who would be assisting in the circumcision.  How ironic, I thought, a Muslim man circumcising someone so he can convert to Judaism.  His English was far from perfect but still betrayed how green he was to the medical profession.  My circumcision dream-team was starting to take shape, an apathetic mohel and now a nervous Muslim.  Jesus, what was next?

The surgeon asked me to lay back.  The operating room table lacked a headrest, so I had to position my left arm awkwardly beneath my head as a nurse attached my right index finger to a blood pressure monitoring machine.  The surgeon pushed my gown up to above my waist, and suddenly I realized how weighty this moment was.  There I lay, exposed to every Jew, Muslim and gentile in the room, the evidence obscenely conspicuous, unavoidably obvious and incontrovertible, the judgment inescapable: a goy. How bizarrely similar this was to S.S. officers demanding that Jewish men expose themselves and the secret that was unmistakably carved into their flesh, their fate in the Holocaust sealed in a most degrading manner.  Perhaps the irony that day was lost on everyone but me, but I couldn’t help but admire at this extraordinary role reversal.  For while the Nazis exposing a Jew’s circumcision revealed the ultimate secret that carried the ultimate punishment, the Jew exposing my uncircumcised penis was a cause for celebration. What more beautiful redemption of the Holocaust, albeit a small one (a few square inches of foreskin, in fact), can there be than when the roles are reversed, the Jew exposing the gentile, that the reaction is not revenge but charity?  The act the mohel was about to perform was not born out of hate, but from the most genuine form ofchesed I have ever experienced in my life, the act of brining me under the Divine Presence.  I looked up at the mohel and he no longer seemed to have that glazed-over look I had noticed before.  His expression had transformed into one of quiet confidence, and he squeezed my arm reassuringly while making small talk with me as someone was injecting local anesthesia into my groin.  Despite the fact that he was about to take a scalpel to my penis, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of love for this man whom I had only met minutes beforehand.

Events began to roll by so fast that I hardly remember anything until I looked up to notice that the gloves of everyone on the surgical staff were flecked with blood; the incision had already been made.  Within a matter of minutes, I noticed the surgeon reaching for his forceps and gently dropping my blue and bloodied foreskin into a stainless steel metal pan.  I guess I hadn’t given much thought to what a detached foreskin would look like or the fact that I mine would at some point would need to be discarded. Suddenly seeing my foreskin in such gruesome fashion gave me an unexpected sense of how truly visceral the brit milah is, especially with the amount of blood involved in an adult circumcision.  Reflecting on what I had seen weeks after the circumcision was done, I realized not only how unique my situation was within the Jewish world—being self-aware and cognizant of my bris—but also that this scene must have been similar to what Abraham experienced in the first-ever brit milah.  Just like in Abraham’s case, the covenant I was making with G-d that day was not verbal oath but a tangible sacrifice made in my own flesh and blood, an indelible testament to His singular sovereignty. Though I was not converted that day, there can be no doubt that this act grafted me to the scion of Jewish ancestry and cast my lot with the fate of the Jewish people.

Surprisingly, the longest part of the operation was not in the cutting but in the suturing.  When it came to be Mohammad’s turn to try a few stitches, both the mohel and the surgeon seemed fairly amused at his difficulty in making a straight suture line, chiding him that he would never be allowed to be so careless if he were working on a heart. Personally, I didn’t think he should have been allowed to be that careless on a penis either, but saying so would have probably shattered his already fragile confidence.  At this point, the surgeon and Mohammad needed to leave because they were scheduled elsewhere, so the mohel offered to stay behind and finish applying my bandage.  He worked swiftly and quietly, only speaking when he absolutely needed an item from one of the nurses.  When he had finished, he turned to me and put a hand gently on my shoulder.

“Mazel tov—I’ll check in to see how you’re healing tomorrow morning,” he said, and seeing that I was unable to string together a more coherent phrase than “thank you” at this point, he too exited the operating room. He had taken my foreskin, but given me more than I could ever thank him for.

Of course, my personal and home life has changed in several other ways besides my circumcision.  On Thursday nights, I prepare challah to have for Friday night, which I have along with lighting the Shabbat candles and saying Kiddush.  On Saturdays, I avoid work and try to make time to remember the importance of this holy day by doing non-strenuous activity as well as reading Torah.  I no longer mix meat and dairy in the same meal.  I’ve fasted on Yom Kippur and observed the dietary laws of Passover.  I find myself reading more Jewish books not just for knowledge but for pleasure as well.  For the past two summers, I have worked at a Jewish summer camp for children ages 7-13.
In the future, when I am no longer living in a place so far removed from centers of American Jewry, I see myself attending synagogue on a much more regular basis and being active in synagogue life.  I also see myself still heavily involved in Jewish camping.  I hope to more fully observe the Jewish holidays and continue to build on my knowledge of Hebrew.  G-d willing, if I should have children, they will be raised in the Jewish tradition.
Describe your sense of identification with the Jewish people in relation to Israel, World Jewry, the local Jewish community and your synagogue.
Having worked at a Jewish summer camp that put a large emphasis on Zionism and the State of Israel, I have developed a very deep admiration for the country and its culture.  Through my experience with Israeli people and various readings on the subject, I strongly believe in the Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael and their right to defend it. Although the Jewish community where currently I live is virtually non-existent, I feel connected to the Jewish community through prayer and Jewish practice.  I look forward to the upcoming holidays so I can again feel that connection to the Jewish people.  I have been studying modern Hebrew for the past 6 months and have been progressing rapidly.  Rabbi Ginsburg’s videos have also been invaluable in building my knowledge connection to the Jewish people.
What is your commitment to prayer, Shabbat and keeping kosher?
I have learned the main body of the prayer service in Hebrew although at this point it mostly a recitation of sounds rather than understanding of what each individual word means.  I’m currently studying Hebrew so that these prayers will grow in importance to me as I connect to the word meanings.  I have learned the basic blessings for Shabbat, the blessing before meals and the Birkat HaMazon.  I’m committed to continue growing in my knowledge and recitation of the Hebrew prayers as well as to begin praying in the morning and evening.  I am continually working to make Shabbat a holy day by refraining from work and doing restful activities to preserve its sanctity.  I have refrained from eating non-kosher foods as well as mixing meat and dairy.  I have fasted on Yom Kippur and refrained from eating chametz during Pesach.
How do you plan to continue your Jewish study?
I am one of the fastest learners I know, especially when it comes to language.  I’m hoping to have conversational Hebrew skills by the beginning of next summer.  One of the things I find most appealing about Judaism is its emphasis on ongoing study.  Although I already consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the basics of Judaism and its practices, I’m excited to begin a journey in which I delve into the deep and abiding questions of Judaism.  I am very interested in studying Talmud, both because of its enormous challenge and because of the knowledge and wisdom that can be gained from it.  In this way, I hope that my Judaism is something that will grow throughout my lifetime.

No comments: