Monday, April 16, 2012

My Conversion, Part 3: Introduction to Judaism

***Note May 14, 2012: I was unhappy with the way I rushed through this segment, so I rewrote it.***

Shalom and welcome to Part 3 of my conversion story! Please read about my childhood and college years first.

We pick up the story in the summer before my senior year of college. After giving Christianity another chance and then taking a serious look at my actual beliefs, I found I had a lot in common with Judaism and decided to check it out.

Marc (my boyfriend, now fiance) and I were spending the summer at school in Galesburg, IL doing research and working. Galesburg is a town of 35,000 located a three hour drive west of Chicago and about 45 minutes from the Quad Cities on the Iowa border. Luckily, Galesburg has a synagogue, because western Illinois is not filled with them and the closest one outside of Galesburg was a 45 minute drive. We started going to Temple Sholom in Galesburg, where they got just over ten people (a group of ten Jews is a minyan, required for certain prayers in Judaism) every Friday night and had a rabbi who drove in from out of town once a month to lead Saturday morning services.

There were four major barriers I had to get over before I was ready to pursue conversion:

  1. Hebrew was (and continues to be) a problem. Language barriers are tough and not quickly solved. I have been actively engaged with Judaism for close to four years now and I'm still working on learning Hebrew. Fortunately, I started out in the Reform Movement and their prayer books are completely transliterated (the Hebrew is written out like it sounds in English), so I was able to follow along and participate without knowing Hebrew. I've discussed the pros and cons of transliteration before.
  2. Christmas was hard to give up, but I wasn't going to let one holiday get in the way of a religion that had everything else I wanted. Giving it up wasn't easy though. Christmas was always my favorite holiday, not to mention it's the family holiday for my family. My family celebrates Christmas basically as a secular holiday and I'm still trying to figure out how I'm supposed to interact with it now that I've converted. This year was the first year in my life that I wasn't home for Christmas. I really thought it wouldn't affect me, but then out of nowhere a couple of days before Christmas, I got really choked up about missing it. I'm struggling to build a Jewish identity for myself out of my past. Sometimes I look at my experiences before Judaism and think they fit really well with who I am now or, in some cases, seem to have foreshadowed my conversion. But then there's things like Christmas and I'm not really sure what to do with them. When Christmas actually rolled around this year, I thought I would really miss it, but I was completely fine. I called my family to say hi and then Marc and I got some Chinese food and watched It's a Wonderful Life.
  3. Judaism puts a great emphasis on the fact that it is a generational religion. It's passed down from generation to generation from Abraham and Sarah to today (theoretically). Before I converted, it was hard to think I would ever feel fully Jewish without that family connection. Taking a Hebrew name ending with "bat Avraham v'Sarah" (daughter of Abraham and Sarah) is designed to give a convert that familial connection. The flip side of that is taking the name without feeling a little like you're dropping your own family. Abraham and Sarah are not replacements for your family; they are your spiritual progenitors. Being comfortable with dual-natured relationships like this is important, because Judaism is full of it.
  4. Along those lines, religion and culture was the final hurdle I had trouble with before I decided to convert. Judaism is inexplicably both a religion and a culture simultaneously. I was raised to understand religion and culture as two separate things. Growing up, I didn't think of Lutheranism (my religion) as having anything to do with my Midwestern American culture. I didn't really jump this hurdle so much as it just disappeared. I woke up one day and the religion-culture thing just made sense. It's like light being both a wave and a particle (this lesson is the one part of high school physics that I remember).

Learning Judaism for me was mainly about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was going to stumble over the Hebrew (even with transliteration), run into conflicts between beloved childhood traditions and Judaism, and have trouble with theological concepts and I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if I wasn't ok with stumbling sometimes. Throughout my life, I tended to avoid uncomfortable situations or situations where I might embarrass myself, so sticking with Judaism long enough to become comfortable with it was a big accomplishment for me in and of itself. Over time, I came to see these four things as positive attributes of Judaism instead of issues standing in my way.

Continue the story here!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Conversion, Part 2: College and My Spiritual Awakening

One year ago today, I converted to Judaism! Below is part two in a series detailing my religious story. Please start at the beginning.

Part 2
If you don't leave college with a better understanding of yourself, then you missed a major part of college. College is great because it throws you into a bubble with brand new people from all over the map and that's bound to cause cultural and social learning opportunities without even entering a classroom.

I didn't go to a religious school, but I got an excellent religious education starting almost right away. In my required first year course the discussions were usually dominated by two students - a devoutly Christian man and a woman who was raised atheist. Their arguments really crystallized the religious limbo I had been in for the last five years. I couldn't agree with the religious perspective advanced in class which excluded non-religious people from being moral. At the same time, I instinctively rejected the idea that God doesn't exist. This was the first time that I felt certain about anything religious in a long time. It took me another year to actively seek out a new religious identity, but having one clear belief that I could stick to, even something as simple as "God exists," was a good place to start.

My sophomore year, I gave Lutheranism another chance, this time with a slightly more progressive brand of Lutheranism than the sect that I was raised in. It was better at first and I thought maybe I could be this forever, but something still felt off. I tried a few different Protestant denominations to see if I felt at home in any of them. Finally, I decided Christianity wasn't for me.

*Side note: Before I explain why Christianity isn't for me, I want to emphasize that this is not an attack on Christian beliefs. Just because I found these aspects of Christianity religious deal breakers doesn't mean others can't find faith and meaning in them.*

I wanted a religion that required me to be more thoughtful. All I heard at Christian services were lines about giving my life over to Christ and pure faith is not an answer to the theological questions that still nagged me. I wanted a religion that would challenge me to think about my beliefs on an intellectual level, a religion that would answer my theological questions with something more than, "because."

I decided to start from scratch. You have to know what you want before you can find it, so I enlisted my boyfriend's (now fiance, Marc) help in talking out what I believe. He was raised Jewish and was going through a religious search of his own at the same time. He had tried church with me and decided it wasn't for him either. We spent an entire summer just talking out what we believed and what we wanted to find in a religious community. We covered everything from the nature of God to our purpose on Earth and the afterlife. I didn't have defined beliefs about everything we talked about, but just talking it out gave me some direction. Marc mostly listened while I tried to explain what I thought and posed the occasional question for clarification. It was incredibly helpful. By the end of the summer, Marc was somewhat surprised to find himself saying, "Erin, what you believe sounds a lot like Judaism."

Then we found the "Belief-O-Matic," which asks you a series of questions about your religious and social beliefs and then tells you which religions most match your answers.  Judaism was my highest match.

Next week, watch for Part 3: my introduction to Judaism! Happy Easter and Happy Passover.

UPDATE: Part 3: My Introduction to Judaism

Friday, April 6, 2012

My Conversion, Part 1: The Way I Was Raised

This month, I will celebrate the one year anniversary of my conversion. In honor of this occasion, I have decided to share exactly how I got here in a short blog series.

Part 1
I used to have moments of pure awe and amazement at creation. They usually happened on Sundays in the Spring when the sun was shining and the birds were singing and I was leaving church.

I was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, a conservative denomination of Christianity. I never really liked church - I found it restrictive and confusing. It only got worse as I got older. In Junior High I started confirmation class, which is supposed to teach you the foundations of the religion, but the more I learned, the more I just didn't get it. It made me feel stupid, like the theology was obvious and I just wasn't getting it. Everyone else seemed to understand it, but even the foundational underpinnings of the religion didn't sit right with me. I completed the confirmation class, but didn't actually get confirmed. I left religion instead, just in time for teenage cynicism to set in. Those moments of awe I experienced as a girl were replaced with skepticism and anger. I was angry at the world for being so full of hatred and violence, angry at religion for being illogical, and angry at God for letting terrible things happen and leaving me without a religion to have faith in. Forget religion and forget God, I thought. Who needs them anyway? They only cause confusion and divisions and animosity without providing anything tangible in return.

I replaced God with superheroes. Later in high school, while I was still angry with God and boycotting religion, I came up with a theory about my sudden interest in superheroes - they were a substitute for God. The world of superheroes is generally a world of good and evil, right and wrong. A fictional person's faith in Superman is rewarded by at least a glimpse of his red and blue blur in the sky. The real world has more gray areas and the reward for real life faith in God isn't so concrete. This self-assessment might have pointed out my need/desire for faith and meaning, but it didn't lead me back to religion. Rather than grapple with beliefs, faith, and organized religion, I decided the unknowable wasn't worth worrying about. By the time I started college, I was agnostic.

Part 2 coming soon! Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!

UPDATE: Part 2: College and My Spiritual Awakening