Ten years after this church choir girl boarded a Birthright Israel plane I completed an Orthodox conversion under a Beit Din headed by a Rabbi now living in Israel. When I tell people this story I inevitably am asked if I felt different “after”. After my first trip to Israel, yes, but after dunking in a Mikvah, no. I have felt Jewish for over a decade and knew in my heart that I have a Jewish soul from the day my feet touched Israeli soil. I am excited to have a Hebrew name and official documents and to be able to proclaim that I am “fully” an undisputed member of my people – but do I FEEL different, not one bit. For me, that was the point all along.
Yet, there is something a convert feels that IS special – for us there IS a choice. In my case I felt a calling – sometimes it whispered, sometimes it sang in my ear and sometimes it chanted and screamed – I definitely felt a calling. Was it for me to use my voice and my story to lend others strength or insight – was it for me to assure my children would be considered Jewish by their peers – it was all of this and more – and it was real. Still, it was my choice if I listened or not. We all know how to quiet voices in our heads that we’d rather not listen to, be they echos of our parents or of our own better selves.
Finding my place in the organized Jewish community and my connection to Judaism in a world of religions categorization and labels was not a quick and easy road. If the story wasn’t so clear in my mind or my wounds still fresh I would write of the harrowing tale of One Rachel Cohen and Three Orthodox Rabbis. In the end though, the truth is that the uncomfortable, discouraging and painful process of conversion helped me to very clearly identify what Judaism isn’t, wasn’t meant to be and shouldn’t be – if I can help it. Visits with Rabbis of many dominations opened my eyes to what I want Judaism to be and made me ever more committed to ensuring this definition be the one my children and grandchildren come to know and find strength and pride in. While every person has their own soul, and their own answer to “What is Judaism” – every answer has one thing in common, and that is love.
What does NOT deserve a cloud is my list of What Judaism should strive not to be:
One size fits all.
A fixed construct.
Dictated by the Israeli Rabbinut.
Good Jews vs. Bad Jews.
AIPAC vs. JSTREET.
Stuck in the past.
Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic.
Israel vs. Diaspora.
Focused on caring for Jews only.Only a religion.