(Image: Seth/Shais and Susan)
There are so many people who wish they'd find out that they are already Jewish. It actually happened to Seth St. Martin! I asked him to share his story with us. Here it is.
“A Safe Space for Me”
Kol Nidre Speech at Congregation B’nai Emuunah in 2015
by Seth “Shais” St. Martin
My parents always told me, that “Religion is not for children.” It is something that, when done right, is fluid and nuanced. It can be dangerous when over-simplified by a child or by an adult. Now, don’t get me wrong. I grew up in the church. I was an altar boy when I was 7 and thrown into the car naked on multiple occasions when running late for church. “Get dressed on the way”, my mother would scold. “We are not going to be late. And put on your seatbelt.” But even with regular church attendance, I never had religion pushed on me. My parents found the right community, filled with gentle people who let their lives stand as testaments to their beliefs. I remember no dogma, and no judgment. My parents created a safe space for me to be introduced to faith and ritual and I don’t really have any baggage about religion from my childhood. For that, I am grateful.
But the church wasn’t for me. As I got older and learned what Christian beliefs were, I knew I couldn’t stay. Luckily, I had the unconditional love of my family and my community. And they created a safe space for me to leave.
At the age of 17, I began to learn about Judaism. I read the book “Basic Judaism”, by Milton Steinberg. I remember this as truly a dry and dated text, but the ideas inside were exhilarating. For me, it was a window into a worldview that matched my own. I asked my mother to take me to a synagogue and soon looked into conversion. The twist in my conversion story, however, is that my maternal grandmother happened to be Jewish and that I, according to Jewish Law, was already Jewish. Nonetheless, my Rabbi at the time [Rabbi Bloom of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, CA], recommended conversion as it was the best program to teach me how to be Jewish. It made sense at the time, but I soon moved away [to attend university] and never finished that conversion program. Over the next four years, I spent my days exploring the worlds of reform, conservative and orthodox Judaism. I regularly davened with hippie mystics with piercings and uptight chasids with long beards and black hats. I started and dropped out of several conversion programs because I just couldn’t find a safe place where I could be confident I my own skin. I was always insecure about my place in the Jewish world.
I couldn’t be a good born Jew because I had no cultural memory or identity to draw upon…and I couldn’t be a good convert as I wasn’t really willing to accept blindly all of the theological and legal tenets placed in front of me. There just was no safe place for me to be myself and feel Jewish at the same time.
I found my safe place, however, when I received a great big bear hug from a tall, skinny Chasid with a thick British accent. Rabbi Kaye [of Chabad of the East Bay] was the first Rabbi I had ever met who made me feel like he truly cared about me. He made his time with me a priority and he would drop anything to do Jewish things with me, whether study or practice. He was enthusiastic to the point of ridiculousness, and he helped me learn to create my own safe space for Judaism wherever I went. If you have spoken with me before about my relationship with Judaism, I am sure you have heard me quote Rabbi Kaye. And I won’t even try to do his accent. “Don’t let the things that you don’t do, stop you from doing the things that you should do,” he said to me one day. “I don’t care about the parts of your life where you don’t do Jewish things. I just care about supporting you when you do Jewish things.” He told me these words after he handed me a kippah and invited me to wear it around the UC Berkeley campus for a day. I had some serious reservations with this proposal at the time. Who was I to wear a kippah. I didn’t keep kosher. I wasn’t shomer shabbos. I had serious theological differences with orthodoxy in general. I was worried about what this symbol would mean to non-Jews. And I was even more worried about what this symbol would mean to Jews. But Rabbi Kaye didn’t care about those things…He didn’t judge me for how I practiced my Judaism and he didn’t judge me for my fears and concerns about wearing a kippah in public He just wanted me to be proud of my Judaism. And he wanted me to experience something new. He wanted me to explore this part of our shared tradition and see if it touched me…to see if I could find meaning and value in it. And so wore the kippah, and it was transformative. It was a reminder that I am a Jew and, though I shouldn’t worry about living up to other people’s expectations of what that meant, I should live up to my expectations of what that meant. I was reminded of my obligation to live up to my highest ideal. And my journey was about trying to figure out what that highest ideal was. A large part of the reason I wear a kippah today came from this encounter.
At the age of 21, I asked Rabbi Kaye about conversion. He said not to worry about it, gave me a big hug and told me that I was as already a perfectly authentic Jew. I just needed to catch up on some rituals… so. He scheduled a visit to the mikvah. I picked my Hebrew name. And I had an intimate encounter with a spring loaded needle. Though I was technically born a Jew, this was the day I completed my conversion.
My years studying with Rabbi Kaye instilled in me a delight of learning Jewish ideas and trying Jewish rituals. I found a teacher that gave me the freedom to love my Jewish self, regardless of what ideas rang true to me…regardless of what rituals I felt like incorporating into my life. I just had to keep trying new things. And I had to keep trying old things in case I was new. My experience with Rabbi Kaye gave me the confidence to create my own safe space to explore Judaism on my terms, wherever I went, as long as I never stopped exploring.
But in time, it wasn’t just about creating a safe space for me. I needed to create a safe space for others. In 2008, Susan and I got married. Susan was raised Catholic and her Christianity is a very important part of her identity. Most interfaith couples I have met, seem to bridge their differences by one or both partners distancing themselves from their respective traditions. For Susan and me, however, we knew that we would have to find a home within in each other’s traditions. We needed to find communities that focused on creating safe spaces for us to be together and be ourselves. About a year after our wedding, we were lucky to find All Saints’ Episcopal Church where we attend Mass weekly. To my knowledge, I am the first open non-christian, actively practicing another religion, to be welcomed in as a full member of an Episcopalian parish. Bishop Marc Andrus wrote a brand-new ceremony of welcoming for me, a Jew, into his community. And believe it or not, it is a place where I constantly find myself challenged and inspired to become a better person and a better Jew.
Shortly after this, we found Congregation B’nai Emunah. We were welcomed by this community from the moment we walked in the door. Like the community of my childhood, there was no dogma and there was no judgment. Rabbi Mark truly made me feel like he cared about me. Chaya Roberts made me and my family a priority. Sharon Bleviss would drop anything to do Jewish things with me and help me create a Jewish space. B’nai Emunah was and is a safe space for me to do Jewish things. It is a safe space for my Christian wife to do Jewish things. It is a safe space for our son, Jomar to do Jewish things. It didn’t take long for me to feel that this was my community. I felt overwhelming gratitude and an obligation to maintain it as a safe space for others in need. As I had no treasure to donate, it was time and talent that I could give to my community. I joined the board a year after walking through the door. I helped to create new programming that brought Judaism to young adults where they were…in the bars. And I participated in the first Adult B’nai Mitzvah class, finally becoming a man at 31. I felt privileged to work in front of and behind the camera, as it were, sustaining the safe space that is B’nai Emunah.
When I was new to B’nai Emunah, I had a conversation with Gregg Jackson about my career as a geologist. Gregg told me that, if I didn’t like what I was doing for a living, that I should quit and go find something that I was passionate about. It was annoying advice at the time, but I never forgot our conversation. I never forgot how zealous he was about the need to follow one’s passions. Five years later, I took that advice and became your administrator here at Congregation B’nai Emunah. Thank you Gregg. It was good advice. In my new role at B’nai Emunah, I can dedicate myself to learning Jewish Ideas, trying Jewish rituals, and most importantly, sustaining this as a safe space for everyone to be Jewish, for years to come.