Growing up in a relatively non-religious household, I never seriously considered why spirituality and religion are so important to people. Growing up in a predominantly Christian town, I had always been more attracted to non-Christian religions. For a while, I fancied myself Buddhist and chanted Sanskrit mantras. (This phase took place from middle school into high school.) But my interest was more intellectual than personal and spiritual. At no point did I seriously explore Judaism though I had thought about it as an option.
The only other time I delved into religion was when I went to a Church of Latter-Day Saints in my hometown. My sister and I were around six to eight-years-old when we attended Sunday school and services at the church. We went primarily because my dad’s side of the family were Mormons from Utah and I suppose my parents wanted my sister and me to have some exposure to religion to find out what we felt most connected to. Alas, Mormonism didn’t stick, partially because we were being pressured to get baptized when we had no desire to and felt we weren’t committed enough to do so. I remember my mother especially resenting this pressure because she wanted us to make the choice ourselves. I am beyond grateful to have been exposed to Mormonism, yet also glad I got out of it so that I didn’t feel obligated to do something I didn’t have to.
I’d say religion didn’t come up again until my freshman and sophomore years of university because I had a couple of close Christian friends. One in particular being my friend Will with whom I had many conversations about faith. We once had a conversation in which he said, “I know you don’t believe, but….” That statement triggered a sincere reflection on what I do believe. At the time I was a struggling agnostic, rebelling against organized religion…mostly Christianity.
The truth is I have never felt a connection to Christ as savior, nor have I ever enjoyed the preaching of Elders constantly at my door. I openly dislike the Christian emphasis on Hell and its use to inspire fear and motivate good deeds. But I have never strongly disparaged Christians for their beliefs. Just not for me.
I asked myself whether I could go through life without spirituality. Is that what I was missing?
One night, I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum with Will where a Stanley Kubrick exhibit was going on. This was October of 2016. This was the first time that I had been in a Jewish space, so I thought of Judaism and Jewish culture. After the visit, I became very quiet and felt meditative. I then said, “I think I want to convert to Judaism.” It was so sudden, but I think I was finally voicing what had been going on in my subconscious.
Subsequently, I did research on Jewish beliefs, the conversion process, and the different denominations. I then researched Reform synagogues in San Francisco because I identified with the liberalism of the Reform movement.
My first time in a synagogue was daunting since it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I started out going to Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday and sat in the rear-most pews due to my shyness. I didn’t want to be noticed fumbling over Hebrew. I didn’t want to make friends, really. It took me many months before I felt comfortable moving up the pews and bowing and talking to people at the oneg. I credit kind clergy and my mentor with my increasing comfort in the community.
Books were also a source of comfort. Jewish history and life has inspired many a novel, and I wanted to read a lot of them. I learned about the openness of Judaism, how intellectual and academic Jewish religious life is, and how varied Jewish philosophy is. Each book brought me closer to why I wanted Judaism. I discovered that my sensibilities aligned with Jewish life. I enjoy study, I’m a skeptic, etc.
Moreover, I began to view the Bible differently. What once had seemed like an inaccessible fable/self-help book became a literary adventure and spiritual guidebook…and still a fable. I appreciated the Reform view of the Bible as written by man with divine inspiration because it allows for freedom in study of the text. You can study it for morality lessons one day, then focus on literary interpretation the next, or even both at once.
During the initial stages of my spiritual discovery, my sister showed interest. She constantly asked me questions, some which I couldn’t answer. Then we started studying Torah together weekly, and her interest inspired me. Sharing my journey with her made me happy and accepted.
Nonetheless, I occasionally had difficulty when going home to visit my family for a weekend or during breaks from university. My mother has asked me more than once to run an errand for her on a Saturday and I have had to politely refuse due to my commitment to Shabbat rest. At first, she didn’t understand and thought Shabbat was just an excuse for me to sleep all day. Granted, I did occasionally take the opportunity to nap, but I mostly read books and prayed when I wanted to.
My dad, on the other hand, a man who had sworn off Mormonism in his teen years and has since turned to Norse paganism as a faith, has teased me about my chosen monotheism. Initially, this made me uncomfortable, but now I enjoy having banter. We also have a sort of joke that whenever we drink alcohol together and I say “L’chaim”, he deliberately mispronounces the toast or says, “Skaal” in response. (Skaal is Norwegian for “Cheers”.) Generally, he and my mother are supportive of my decision to convert.
However, I don’t envision my parents ever joining me at synagogue. Although my sister has attended services in Davis with me.
I realize I have yet to mention God. When I was younger, I fantasized about an old white dude with a booming voice like in The Prince of Egypt giving me advice and granting me wishes. Now I wrestle with God because God is no longer some fantasy in my mind. God is not a man in the sky. God doesn’t get angry when I swear. Exploring Judaism has helped me gain confidence in questioning God and discovering what I do believe God to be. I’ve found I connect most to the concept of the Shechinah, the maternal Presence of God. I think I felt it after attending the Second Night Seder during Pesach. I felt transcendent once I left the space. I was overcome with the joy of being with community. Was all of this truly the Shechinah? Perhaps. It’s what I attributed my feelings to. God being a comforting Presence gives me peace, especially during Shabbat after a busy week operating in the “tyranny of space” as Heschel puts it.
I like the idea of God as a unifying energy or force that gives meaning to the universe and purpose to our human lives. I am comforted by God as eternity. I also look forward to endlessly contemplating God as I age. Judaism has granted me a gift in that respect.
On the other hand, I am also comforted by the fact that one doesn’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, which allows for diversity of thought in the community and very interesting Torah study contributions.
Being a part of the Tribe, as it were, and now having a partner who is Jewish imbues me with a strong sense of pride and optimism for my (Jewish) life. Conversion is the most transformative decision I have made so far. I feel welcomed and loved.