Making a Choice

NecklacesI haven’t posted here in quite a while, but I have something to post later in the week that won’t make sense unless I jump ahead in my story. I will keep telling the story of how I got here. But for today, I’m going to share the statement I read at Shabbat services in June 2017 on the day I became Jewish:

When my husband and I started dating, I was a practicing Methodist.

Before we married, we agreed that any kids we had would be raised Jewish and that we would find a congregation where I would be comfortable, too. We’d find somewhere I could come with my Jewish family and feel familiar enough. At the time, the kid part felt like the big decision. The part about me seemed ancillary. It would be an opportunity to learn, but not something that would change my direction. I would continue to go off to church on Sundays, too.

As it turned out, the part about finding a synagogue community where I was comfortable wasn’t ancillary at all. It was the first baby step on the road that brought me here today.

Fifteen years ago, Joel and I stood together under a huppa. We’d chosen a Jewish wedding after reading a book that described Jewish wedding traditions. As I read about them, our plans to have a co-officiated ceremony fell away. There was a richness and truth to the symbolism of the huppa and the broken glass that spoke to me even though I’d never been to a Jewish wedding.

We joined our first synagogue together shortly after we got married. It was a tiny Reform congregation in northern California where no one thought twice about an interfaith family, and where I could start to learn Jewish prayers by ear. The prayer books didn’t have much transliteration, so I spent those years reading the cantor’s lips, imperfectly learning the sounds of Jewish prayer, and learning how to stop being self-conscious about the fact that I was a beginner.

While we were there, we had stillborn twin boys. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the mourners’ Kaddish became the language of my grief, the people showing up for us became my community too in a very concrete way, and the Mi Sheberach became the language of my prayers for healing.

Six months later, my sister called to say her best friend knew a pregnant teenager in Kansas who was looking for a home for the baby she was expecting. Four months after that, we brought our daughter home, and I learned the word beschert. We had a baby naming, and the same congregation that had cried with us now lined up to hold the baby.

That year was when Judaism began to be part of me. Not just something I watched, but something I practiced pieces of. In the years that have passed since the drama of that year, there have been many other far more subtle turning points, when what I was and what I am shifted slightly.

Since then, we have moved cross-country three times. We have belonged to this synagogue (twice) and a Reconstructionist congregation in southern California in between. I have become increasingly involved in our congregations every step of the way. For me, one of the primary expressions of a life of faith is, was, and will be a commitment to finding ways to serve. Even at times when I felt my own difference or like an outsider, I have been welcomed. And there has always been a satisfying, meaningful, and sometimes even surprising answer to the question, “How can I help?”

The first time I joined a synagogue choir—at the urging of people who’d heard me sing at a congregational retreat—it didn’t occur to me until I opened my new binder that most of the songs would be in Hebrew—and then a beat later, I realized I knew the phonetics of Hebrew well enough to be OK.

The last time I joined a church was in 2011. It was the Congregational church where our southern California congregation had worshiped before it had its own building. The two congregations still had a relationship, and I pretty much only saw the minister when he was at the synagogue for an event.

The day I joined that church, they handed me a lapel pin shaped like a red comma and said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”

Never put a period where God has put a comma.

The sentiment stuck with me, and it struck me when I started to think about what I wanted to say tonight.

For a long time, I thought the words, “I will not become Jewish” were a full sentence. I was a Christian with a Jewish family. I would participate in Jewish family life and even in synagogue life, but the traditions I grew up with were part of me. They were an intrinsic part of my childhood and young adulthood—a part that I valued.

But it wasn’t the full sentence after all.

“I will not become Jewish” turned out to be the start of a paragraph that read, “I will not become Jewish until I have spent 15 years counting time in seders, High Holiday services, and Shabbats. I will not become Jewish until Mourner’s Kaddish is the prayer I reach for when a death moves me, and Mi Sheberach the prayer I use to ask for healing of myself or others. I will not become Jewish until words like tsuris and mitzvah and mazel tov roll off my tongue with ease. And, most importantly, I will not become Jewish until I can no longer imagine myself setting aside these things.”

I imagine my Jewish future will look much like my present. I will study Hebrew a little bit this summer so I don’t lose what I’ve learned in the past year and look forward to B’nai Binah class starting up again in the fall. I’ll go to school board meetings and organize the book fair. I’ll organize rides and visits if anyone needs help. I’ll come to Shabbat services—especially on nights when I’ve forgotten how to breathe.

I am extraordinarily lucky that the people who love me the most have said clearly and repeatedly that this is my decision and that they love me no matter what I choose. I also owe much gratitude to everyone along the way who has befriended me, taught me, and accepted me. In ways large and small, you have helped bring me to this day.

Over 15 years, Judaism has become part of who I am. Today, I become part of Judaism. Today, I can say for the first time, I am a Jew.