Monday, July 9, 2012

My Conversion, Part 4: Conversion

This post is part of a series. Please start with Part 1.

My tentative interest in converting began sometime in late 2009 or early 2010. I bought a number of books on Judaism and converting to Judaism and thought really seriously about how converting would affect my life. I would go from the Protestant majority to an historically persecuted minority. I would have to tackle a new language, new culture, new foods. I would be giving up many of the childhood traditions I knew and loved. It would be a serious refurbishing of my identity on many levels. If I was going to put all that effort into a religion, I expected to get everything I wanted out of it - and I was quite demanding.

My new religion had to make sense to me theologically and if I had a question, I wanted a real, thought-out answer. Its values had to align with mine. Most importantly, I wanted a religion that could make me feel closer to God. For a long time, Judaism fulfilled everything for me except the God connection. I continued to go to services and learn more about Judaism because I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't seek to actively start the conversion process without that final piece.

I participated regularly in Jewish services, holidays, and study for over a year before it finally all clicked for me. Looking back on it, it makes sense that I would only feel a connection to God through Judaism after becoming comfortable with it in all the other aspects I was exploring, but at the time it seemed like I suddenly felt closer to God out of nowhere. So I went to my rabbi in Nashville to start the conversion process.

There are no set regulations for conversion (different movements have some loose guidelines), so each rabbi may do it differently. After talking to me about why I wanted to convert, my rabbi handed me a list of requirements for her conversion candidates. I had fulfilled most of them before I even talked to her about conversion, despite only moving to Nashville a couple months before. The requirements were:

A Conversion Class, which met monthly and included readings about theology, holidays and practice, Israel, and Jewish culture.

Living Jewishly through Shabbat observance and testing out other halachot (keeping kosher, holiday observance, picking up Hebrew, etc). I had been slowly incorporating these things into my daily life since my first encounter with Judaism the year before.

Tikkun Olam/Volunteering, at least part of which had to be within the Jewish community. I had already signed up to co-teach the synagogue's pre-k Sunday school class, which was a complete blast. The kids were great and I got to learn basic Hebrew phrases, like b'vakasha (please) and todah (thank you).

Keep a Personal Journal for reflection on my religious choices. I didn't have to share this with the rabbi or anyone else, but it helps to write that kind of thing out and I continue to use it.

Finally, Membership in the synagogue was required. We had already joined shortly after moving to the city, so this wasn't an issue.

How long the process takes depends almost entirely on the conversion candidate. It's up to you to tell your rabbi when you feel ready. If the rabbi disagrees, he or she will talk to you about it. Traditionally, the rabbi is supposed to turn away a conversion candidate three times, just to be sure they're really committed to converting. I set a date for my conversion ceremony about 6 months into my official conversion process, but most things I've read and heard say that it typically takes someone a year. Again, it varies depending on the person. I converted on a Friday afternoon. I took a half day at work and met my bet din (a court of three overseeing Jewish leaders, in my case the synagogue's two rabbis and the Sunday School director) at the Orthodox synagogue in town, because that is where the mikveh (ritual bath) is located. The bet din seems like it will be scary, but then it's not really. There's not really a good way to prepare for the bet din. There is a section about it in Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant that runs through the basics of how it works, but it's going to be different for everyone. Your rabbi really shouldn't let you get to that stage if he or she doesn't think you're ready. During my bet din, I basically reiterated why I was converting and explained how I chose my Hebrew name. They asked me some follow-up questions and reminded/warned me that Judaism can be hard. After that, I went to the mikveh.

The mikveh is hard to describe. In a literal sense, it is a ritual pool (for more on the mikveh, see Chabad's explanation). For a convert, immersion in the mikveh represents rebirth into the Jewish people. I walked into the water down seven steps, while my rabbi explained that they represented the seven days of creation. The water was warmer than I expected and it almost came up to my shoulders. I fully submerged three times, reciting a blessing each time. Something about this process is said to ignite the Jewish soul in a convert, so when I came out, I was Jewish. It almost felt anticlimactic to do regular things, like get dressed and brush my hair. Afterwards, in the hall, one of my rabbis declared "Congratulations, you look Jewish!" and I went home to prepare for Shabbat.

My parents and my then-fiance-now-husband's parents came down for the weekend and came to Friday night services with us that night. In the middle of the service, I gave a short speech about why I converted, chanted Hatzi Kaddish, and was presented with my conversion certificate, which is now proudly framed in my apartment. My life since then has been an attempt to figure out my new identity, learn Hebrew, and come up with new blog posts.