I’m 28, single and Jewish in Chicago. Like most single Jewish women, that means JDate, JCC events, and being set up by well-meaning friends. What sets me apart, is that I’m also a JBC—a Jew by Choice. I started studying with my rabbi when I was 27 (and single) and met with the beit din (legal body convened for conversion), went to the mikvah(ritual bath), and took my Hebrew name at 28 (and single.)
I converted for the same reasons most people convert, so that my children will be Jewish. I am simply missing the one detail most people have before they make this choice—a Jewish partner. On the night that my synagogue publicly welcomed me into Jewish life, a good friend said, “I understand converting for children, but why these young, single people would convert is beyond me.”
She said that to me and my friend Brad, another single JBC in my congregation. Her own husband is a JBC and he converted when their son, who was raised as a Jew, was 18. He certainly didn’t convert for the sake of the family, but when it was right between him and God.
Getting to God
All right, fine, I’ll admit it. My conversion wasn’t “pure.” Along the way, there was a Jewish man. In my opinion, he was Jewish enough that he wouldn’t marry a non-Jew, but too secular to ask a non-Jew to convert. I had enough respect for him, that before I made my move, I wanted to decide if conversion was an option.
I went to a bookstore and got a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. I read the book and read it again. I got online and read conversion stories, learned about different movements within Judaism, ordered more books on Judaism. I decided, “Yes. This makes sense to me, if it came down to it, I would convert for him.”
By the time December rolled around I’d completely forgotten him, was dating somebody else, and had also read Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. Add to the mix my twin sister starting her own family and my grandmother dying from a three week battle with pancreatic cancer. I was ready to admit there was something more to the world, that there had to be a higher power.
On December 24, Christmas Eve if you are keeping track, I met with my Rabbi for the first time and went to my first Shabbat service. Instead of agreeing that it was obvious I should convert, he gave me a list of books and asked me to “try it on and see if it fits.”
Trying it On
Over the course of the next year, I officially tried on Judaism. I joined a synagogue, went to services every week, tried to study Torah, and taught myself Hebrew. I also read more books on Judaism than anyone thought possible. The first couple months I was parched for knowledge and raced through books, as if someone might take them away from me the next day.
I went to every special program at the synagogue and was invited into people’s homes for holidays and life events. It was fascinating to experience each holiday and moment of the calendar for the first time as an adult. I hope that I approached it with a child-like sense of wonder.
There were moments when I was certain that I would never feel Jewish or learn it all. Once, just before Passover, I was at a large Jewish bookstore and the number of books was so overwhelming that I started to cry. At Shavuot, I’d stayed up all night studying Torah with 50 other Jews. Nobody questioned my Jewishness, but at the morning minyan, I didn’t know the prayers and couldn’t follow along.
But in September, I went to a havdalah service with the Jewish Community Center. I was outside of the safety of my synagogue and this time I didn’t just follow-along mumbling, but I knew the songs and the prayers. I felt like a Jew, I knew it was starting to sink in.
The week before my conversion, I went to a bris (circumcision) and sat shiva with friends. With the exception of a wedding, I’d experienced the entire calendar and life cycle moments. I could safely tell my rabbi, “Yes, this fits. Judaism fits and I’m certain that this is the right choice.”
Organizing a Library
I’m a bibliophile and love books. I have books on every surface of my condo, bookshelves are two deep in places, and unread piles sit next to my bed and couch. Finding Judaism, for me, has been the same as coming home and finding my piles organized into a library. In Judaism, I found the words to describe how I’d always felt and the resources to make decisions in the future. Words like tzedaka and tikkun olam, sources like the Torah, Talmud, my rabbi and my community.
Many Jews by Choice find Judaism through a Jewish partner, which I didn’t. But in Judaism, we find the same things—a way to live in the world, a way to raise our children, a community, thousands of years of tradition, and a relationship with God.
Sometimes I worry that I should have waited, I should have found my Jewish husband before I converted. Let’s be honest, I’ve shrunk the dating pool considerably. I risk being a single, Jewish woman for years to come. In the end, I decided that I’d rather be a single Jewish woman, than just a single woman.
Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant
The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Blech
Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
Search for God at Harvard by Ari Goldman
How To Handbook for Jewish Living by Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs
Originally published in January 2006, Shebrew