My family raised me with a focus on education, critical thinking, and ethical behavior. When my brother found out about my conversion plans he wrote to me. He said, “...it kind of surprised me because I never had a sense that you were all that active or intentional about any particular faith.” He’s right. My family is Catholic, but I have generally been a skeptical agnostic. I’ve always been interested in Judaism, though, from an historical and religious perspective. Some friends told me about the hatafat dam brit - that kept me away for a while.
So why the turnaround? Those born to Judaism may not know that converts are traditionally turned away three times. They are asked "Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected, and that tribulations are visited upon them?"
I’ve observed anti-Semitism on the rise in our news cycle. I have watched with interest as Israel struggles with its own identity as an inclusive state. After Pittsburgh, several people asked me if I was still sure about this. My response? Absolutely. I cast my lot with the Jewish people. I knew I didn’t need to be Jewish to do good things or to believe that the righteous will get their reward. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that the Jews have thrived because, “At the heart of Judaism is...the belief in human freedom...There is nothing inevitable in the affairs of mankind.” I don’t believe in fate - I believe God has a plan, but I believe God can be convinced otherwise.
I’m in the military. When I was deployed to the Mediterranean we visited Israel and my dual curiosities about Judaism and conversion intersected. I visited the Kotel, walked the market streets, and took in the sights. I was blown away - Israel is a miracle. It made a lasting impression on me. Shortly after leaving the country we celebrated Passover on the North Red Sea. It all started coming together.
My wife got in touch with someone from a local synagogue. I started working with some Rabbis. I love that Judaism meets you where you are. I wasn’t ready before. I needed to see Judaism in action. When I visited Israel, I knew pursuing this was something I needed to do. I knew I was finally ready to take those steps. This was the basic evolution from “What is this?” to “Should we…?” to “I’m all in!”
So I started the study, practice, and decoding of all things Jewish. While some people find the lack of dogma in Judaism challenging, I think the empty space is the good stuff. I like the rabbinic arguments, the contradictions, and the varying traditions. I like the sassy Jewish heroes and heroines that challenge God’s judgment; they have backbone. I am a stiff-necked person; I belong here! As a convert I try to engage with it all to live my best Jewish life. I'm learning timeless wisdom in an ancient language and the expectation is to never stop learning. There is an expression of joyfulness and possibility inherent in Judaism. There is a responsibility to myself, my community, and the world. That’s my Jewish lens.
I know I’m no angel. I question myself constantly. Am I doing my best for tikkun olam? Understand, I don’t know the mechanics of the messianic age. I am not sure if I can affect the cosmos with my prayers. But as a personal cultivation and spiritual system, Judaism has stood the test of time. I’m in.
A Rabbi once told me “We start with the Sh’ma and everything else is up for debate.” To me, God is not only the force that brought order to this chaotic cosmic mess, but also that small, still voice in our minds. There’s just no way to fully grasp the God of Israel. I can’t say I’ve mastered every theological dilemma, but Judaism has struggled with these issues for millennia. I’m ok with the ambiguity and I’ve found my people.
Several months later and I am very involved in my Jewish life. I sing in the Temple Choir. I also try to set the example for younger Jews in the military by keeping kosher, wearing a kippah, and being available to talk about serving as a Jew. My wife and I are planning to visit Israel together in 2020 to experience ha’aretz as a family.