I returned home in November, after most conversion courses in the area had already started. I took a long time researching congregations in the area, first in my section of the East Bay before eventually expanding to the Peninsula and City. By then, I had developed a good sense of reading a congregation from its website: if it does not mention conversion on its website beyond a request to call a rabbi and if it does not mention a young adult group—separate from any singles group—I know by now that it will not fulfill some of my most important needs at this stage of my life.
The East Bay Jewish community is small and fragmented, but I fell in love with three congregations in the City after visiting. This is a vast improvement over my experiences on the East Coast, and I consider it affirmation that I am a West Coast Jew. Perhaps the quotient of independence and confidence, the live-and-let-live attitude and determination to move west still imbues our congregations with a welcoming open-mindedness that I did not find in the South or the East. Here, especially at Congregation Beth Sholom, I feel like I can spiritually breathe while still holding onto the tradition that grounds me, without compromising my morals and values.
Yet, even today, I find it difficult to be myself completely. There are still congregants—mostly Baby Boomers and their parents—who launch a racial diatribe against “the Arabs” on their first encounter with me. Were these comments made about any other people, I truly believe today’s Jews would not stand for it, and thus these comments leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It concerns me because we share an aboriginal land with another indigenous people and any future peace brokering will require an acknowledgement of their right to this land and their peoplehood, as much as our own.
If I speak up, I risk severing a bridge that stands little chance of being repaired, or even worse, am quickly rejected as an insincere convert by a member of the very community I seek to join. Thus, Israel is still the hardest obstacle left for me to overcome. I am very conflicted in my support of Israel, both because there are political decisions that I vehemently disagree with and because I grow increasingly uncomfortable with the power of the religious right in a supposedly democratic government.
And yet, despite this lingering conflict over the State of Israel, I know I am ready now. I haven’t finished working through my problems with infant circumcision or all of the edicts about family purity laws. I still fear never being able to find a Jewish husband with whom to raise a Jewish family and wonder what will happen if my future progeny decide to go down the Orthodox path. I don’t know if those fears will ever go away.
But I’ve always imagined the rituals of conversion to be a bit like koshering dishes: my soul is Jewish, but my body is not. Just like you have to toivel the dishes and put them through fire until red hot, so it is with the body, which may have been used for non-kosher things in the past, even if they weren’t wrong or evil things. They weren’t Jewish things. They weren’t done with Jewish devotion to truth and learning and justice. To convert, my body must be put through the water of the mikvah and the fire of the mitzvot. And because I know for certain that I can accept all of the mitzvot while being intellectually honest and emotionally true, I am ready now to muster all of the audacity it takes to go before G-d and say “I am ready to be one of Your chosen now!”
I know now that it’s not just that I want Judaism. I took a long time to make sure it was not just my emotions or some phase I was going through. I know Judaism is a lifelong commitment, to the people Israel, to our G-d, and to myself. It requires a lot of hard, serious work; it’s a burden, a blessing and a mission. But now I know that my soul needs it. That it is the most authentic way for me to live my life so that I feel connected to the Holy and to my people.
I want to raise my children with the empowerment to question, the zeal for honesty, the reverence for learning, and the deep commitment to create a better world that has bewitched me and called my Jewish soul out of this long ancestry of wisdom, prophecy, and promise. Because my Judaism is a deep source of satisfaction and obligation.