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Black, Gay, And Jewish: I’ve Become A Jew!

Black, Gay, And Jewish: I’ve Become A Jew!

Last Wednesday I joined the covenant of Abraham.  I stood before the mikveh a gentile and left a Jewish woman.  My rabbis blessed me and handed me the Torah and now I’m part of the Jewish people.  I’ve studied and prepared for the day when I’d be able to say that I am a Jew.  For over a week I’ve been able to make that declarative statement, yet the same question keeps popping into my head-What happens now?

Our rabbis warned us that this would happen-the let down. If you’ve never been through the conversion process you may not know what I mean so let me explain.  There’s a lot of support and checking-in for would-be Jews.  When you are in the process of converting to Judaism you have a huge team of people behind you every step of the way.  These people are usually your rabbi but can also be other people in the process of converting.  If you’re as lucky as I was, you have between 4-7 rabbis at your beck and call almost any time of the day.  For the past year I knew that I could pick up the phone, write an e-mail, send a text, or Facebook message any one of them and was guaranteed to have a response within the hour.  Every week I went to the synagogue for conversion classes.  I sat in the same spot at a table in a room full of who wanted to convert to Judaism.  Each week I was engaged with Jewish texts, I was encouraged to look at them, read them, question them and read them again.  At least once a month and sometimes twice a month I sat down with my conversion rabbi to ask hard questions about my life, my future, my decisions.  I was asked to consider how I felt about God, Israel, the Jewish people.  I was asked to reflect about my Christian past and think about what trips back home would look like, sound like, feel like.  I was given so much information-passages of Torah, print outs, books with the most important chapters and pages highlighted for me, suggested supplemental reading and memoirs of converts.  You are given so much information in a loving, caring, thoughtful way and then one day, mikveh day, it all comes to an end.  This is not to say that my rabbis have deserted me, they have not and they are still there, but they’ve got new students to get to the place that I am now, a week-old Jew.

All primates care for their young.  Turn on any Discovery Channel special on primates and you’re sure to see a small infant monkey or great ape clinging to its mother for dear life.  Just as the baby clings to the mother, the mother clings to her baby.  She doesn’t let other monkeys come too close.  I read some where that it’s not unusual for orangutan babies to stay with their mother until their teens.  It occurred to me the other day that I’m a week-old Jew trapped in the body of a thirty-one year old woman.  Had I been born Jewish I would have an entire network of Jewish people to guide me through this infancy.  This is why it’s important to have a congregation before you convert-so that you have a group of people around you when you take those first steps into Jewish life.  Without a congregation to call my own, I’m like an orphaned Jew.  I thought that these first few weeks as a new Jew would be all about finding ways to live more Jewishly, finding deeper meaning in my Jewish practice, feeling more connected spiritually to Judaism.  With the High Holidays looming in the not-too distant future, it’s been more about trying to find a congregation that I can call my own.

Throughout the conversion process the community aspect of Judaism was always the largest pill to swallow.  Since I had refused to set foot back into my Baptist church at twelve-years-old I’ve been on a spiritual and religious path.  When I found Judaism last March I knew that I found what I was looking for.  Accepting the religious aspect of Judaism was not hard for me, being a loner-prayer it was the people part was the part of Judaism I struggled with.  This community aspect of Judaism was one of the questions that my beit din asked, “How did I see myself fitting in the Jewish community?”  I answered the question with a question, naturally.  “In an ideal situation, a congregation or Jewish community is a sort of safety net, the folks you turn to when things are going on in your life-good or bad.”  That’s what our conversion rabbi would remind us.  Isn’t that what my friends and family are for, I wondered.  Can’t I be a Jew on my own?  Turns out, you can’t.  Ever been to a seder with only one person present?  Neither have I.

For the most part, it’s safe for me to assume that the women and men in my conversion class have the safety net our rabbis talked about because the synagogue we studied in, the synagogue that handed me Torah, is their home synagogue.  If I was an Upper West Side-r it would be my home, my safety net.  As a Brooklynite, I’m still wandering.  Luckily I have a network of Jewish friends that serve as my Jewish family.  I have three synagogues that I’m seriously considering as synagogue homes.  It will be nice to have a group of folks to sit next to on Friday nights and Saturday mornings-going into a new shul, by yourself is so nerve-wracking.

There should be a support group for New Jews-New Jew Anonymous-where we lost at sea Jews can lean on other folks going through the same process.  One of my favorite bloggers and fellow Jew by Choice recently wrote about this feeling of “New Jew Angst“.  He reminded me that while I may be “lost at sea” trying to find my way,I’m in control of the ship.  As I read his words of encouragement I realized two things 1.  He’s really good at that ever-so-Jewish art of imagery in story telling. 2.  He’s right, I am in control.  As much as it sometimes feels like I’m drifting on an ocean of uncertainty, I have control of my Jewish destiny.

The other day one of my seven rabbis sent me an e-mail linking a trip to Israel she thought I would be interested in.  She closed her e-mail with the following, “Fly little bird, Fly!”  So that’s what I’m doing.  As much as it feels like I’m lost I was given a really solid step to start on.  I’ve learned so much in the past year and know that there is so much more for me to learn.  I could be complacent.  Just as I made the choice to become Jewish I could make the choice not to do another Jewish thing for the rest of my life.  I could ignore Fridays when they come around, I could forget to go to shul, I could never open my pocket Tanakh again, but why would I?  I’ve accepted this really beautiful gift, Judaism, and I want to make sure I’m as good to it as it has been to me.  So here I am, just a week old taking my first steps in this big Jewish world.

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