D’varim: Bamidbar (4 of 5)

My last semester at college, I took a class on Judaism.  The professor converted under Reform auspices after writing her dissertation on Jewish construction of mythic monsters and it was really encouraging to see a convert present Judaism to people encountering it for the first time.  It reassured me that one day I would reach that point of familiarity and confidence, too.  As one of few Jewishly identified students on campus, that semester I was often called upon by my classmates to explain or defend some of the more troublesome of Jewish practices in the eyes of a modern, liberal audience.  One religious studies major presented her term paper on the family purity laws, which were not well received.

It was difficult to encourage my peers to see the other side of the practice, to remove their own socio-political biases that labeled this misogynistic and archaic.   It was difficult to encourage this of them when I still wrestle with the practice myself.  I like that women are responsible for counting the days, for bathing with such fastidious attention to detail, and for notifying their husbands after visiting the mikvah.  Judaism trusts women with responsibility.

And yet I acknowledge for myself that men once had to visit the mikvah for their own spiritual impurity due to the loss of potential life within them, before the rabbis of yesteryears changed the rules.  And I recognize that my emotional needs include hugs at the end of Rough Days, days that cannot be scheduled according to my biology.   My classmates respected my honesty in articulating the internal conflict, and I found a new tolerance for ambiguity in my approach to Jewish practice.

After graduation, I moved to Houston to participate in Teach for America’s program.  The closest synagogue to my apartment complex was also the oldest congregation in the state.  I fell in love immediately with one of the rabbis and asked her to be my sponsoring rabbi. The class proved frustrating however, when my co-students moved the discussions from topics that almost all converts experience—deciding how to build a Jewish home, trying to master Hebrew, telling your family—to topics that some of us simply could not relate to, like the stereotypical in laws, trying to motivate your fiancé(e) to participate in Jewish activities with you, and trying to prove that you weren’t doing this for marriage alone.  As the minority student, however, I simply felt outnumbered.

When I was forced to move home, my Houston rabbi put me in touch with one of her former colleagues.  I finished the class with this rabbi’s group, but when it came time to begin our biweekly meetings, routinely forgotten meetings on his part and a sense of humor that did not mesh with mine made me realize I wasn’t ready to convert under this rabbi’s sponsorship.

When I went off to grad school, I lived two blocks from Hillel and one block from a Reform synagogue.  I started out at Hillel, attending the Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Reform students met in the basement library with a portable ark and photocopied siddurim.  Conservative services were held upstairs, in the Hillel center Sanctuary, with copious copies of Sim Shalom. I was really put off by this blatant disparity in resources and started attending services at the Reform synagogue.  The community was very insular and the rabbi made comments about converts, Muslims, and Israel from the bimah that assured me that we would not be a good match.

To complete my master’s, I moved to DC with the intent of completing my internship and eventually finding a job.  I sought out congregations with thriving young adult populations and found a Conservative congregation that blew me away.  The course was thorough, academic, and provided a full spectrum of Jewish views.  I enjoyed the required Hebrew portion and was finally able to understand the importance of Oral Torah for living lives we recognize as Jewish today.  As a result, Karaite Judaism no longer sounded as appealing to me in light of the ever-increasing stringencies espoused by some Orthodox rabbis.  But once again, I was one of few conversion candidates who was not engaged and the class discussions did not allow for full participation on my part.

Even more frustrating was being told that I had to wait until May to convert while those with impending weddings visited the mikvah as early as October to avoid the taboo of intermarriage.  I don’t believe intermarriage weakens Judaism or the Jewish people—I think a lack of devotion to one’s faith and identity weakens the Jewish people.  I disagree with Conservative Judaism on this point and am prepared to deal with the consequences if my rabbi cannot officiate at my wedding.  But I wish the process of conversion were respected by more rabbis as much as the taboo of intermarriage.

Part of me knows it is my own fear talking, the worry of never finding a Jewish spouse with whom to create a Jewish home.  The last Jewish man I dated decided after five months that the opinion of his Orthodox mother mattered more than our connection or my honesty about my status and situation from the beginning.  I grew attached only to be told I wasn’t good enough to be brought home.  I know you can’t extrapolate and that a few Jewish guys’ behavior does not represent all Jewish men.  But there is that fear, which coupled with my distaste for the opinion in Jewish culture of intermarriage, that made that conversion course particularly unbearable.  It was a hidden blessing when I had to return home due to not finding a job.

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