Continuing to Choose a Jewish Life

Tonight we had one of the best Itza Mitzvas to date. We started with an article from US News & World Report about a return to tradition and then swimmed all around the topic. Why might people be looking for more tradition in their religion? What happened in society to make people want more from churches and synagogues and mosques? We also talked about personal reasons for observing or pushing away from mitzvot.

It’s a question I’ve certainly not addressed here or even out loud before. As much as I talk about being Jewish, we don’t hit the big personal questions so often. So I thought I’d talk about my answer tonight and a bit about why I chose a reform conversion instead of a more traditional conversion. You know, cause you asked. Well, you didn’t, but last week I spoke on a panel about conversion and then had a nice chat about conversion with a friend over IM. It’s on my mind these days.

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At ROI120 this summer I had an amazing talk with Rabbi Avi Orlow. If you subscribe to Jewish Living, then you saw him and his wife featured in an article about intrafaith marriage. Two Jews that love each other, but do Jewish differently. There were three couples I think, one that I know and one that I will know. Both couples have rabbis as one spouse. Cool.

Avi’s wife identifies as Reform, in fact she’s a cantor. Avi identifies as modern orthodox. And they are married, with kids, and it works.

I was flabbergasted. How is this possible! Avi assured me that it is indeed possible to end up with someone who seems, at least at first glance, to be the opposite of you Jewishliy. His wife still identifies as Reform, although she has made informed choices and lives a life that looks orthodox.

We got into this personal chat when I was digging in my heels about never going through another conversion. “But Leah, what if he’s your beshert? If all of your values are the same and you love each other, why not bend on that one thing?”

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I chose to have a conversion under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t the lowest common denominator, it was a choice. Some people this that Reform is the weak tea of Judaism, the easy conversion, the quick conversion for a wedding. Not so my friends.

I studied for a year for my conversion. I went to shabbat services every week that year of study and for most of the year after that. I only got lax this year after Yom Kippur. I can’t explain why shul hasn’t moved me the last few month, life happens, I guess. I don’t feel shame or guilt or pride in missing or attending every week, but generally going to erev shabbat services makes me feel amazing.

I learned Hebrew, I studied history, I studied torah. I celebrated holidays and even snuck in a bris and a shiva the week before I converted. And I wrote. I wrote this blog and I wrote essays and journals. I took becoming a Jew more seriously than anything ever before. If I’d studied anything in college with the passion I’ve studied Judaism…

My conversion included a beit din with two rabbis and a cantor. Two of the three were women, but all were adult, learned Jews. And then I went to mikva. I’ve written about my mivka experience in depth, but having a physical manifestation of a spiritual journey is pretty amazing. That’s what mikva is… or is for me.

I chose Reform for a few reasons. First, I understand the challenges if I ever try to make aliyah or marry someone more traditional. I also understand the challenges this could pose for my children, should they want a more traditional life than I currently lead.

I chose Reform because of the respect for the individual and the search for meaning in tradition. In Reform Judaism you have the responsibility to learn about the mitzvot and then choose to observe based on a search for meaning. It is called informed choice. This makes a lot of sense to me.

I passed on Conservative Judaism for two big reasons. The first was the conservative synagogue I looked at. It felt like a “crank ’em through for marriage” system. I wasn’t engaged, so that wasn’t appropriate and it just felt weird. You can’t gaurantee that after this set of classes I’ll be ready, but that’s what I felt from the rabbi. The second was that to me (TO ME) the Conservative movement felt a little “wink wink, nudge nudge.” I didn’t understand believing in Halacha, but not having to follow it. It just didn’t sit well with me at the time.

I passed on Orthodox because it seemed like a lie. Not that orthodoxy is a lie, but that I knew I had no intention of living an orthodox life, so why would I begin my Jewish life with a year of lies? Why pretend that I would keep a kosher home or keep shomer shabbat, if I had no intention of doing so. It was absurd and I’m not a huge fan of lying.

So, I chose the reform movement and I’ve been very happy with that. I’m getting more active in the movement and occasionally think about becoming a rabbi in the movement. One reason I don’t just get something more traditional is that if I become a rabbi in the reform movement, I’ll be welcoming Jews into the fold, but will have had a more traditional conversion than the one I’m overseeing.

Huh?

It seems hypocritical… or just unsettling. Here’s this conversion for you, it’s like the first one I had, but I got a more traditional one than you.. but I think your’s counts, but didn’t think mine counted enough… blah blah blah.

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Have you ever laid tefellin?

Not yet.

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At this time in my life, I don’t see converting again. However, the conversation with Avi rings in my head and I am no longer so stubborn about it. I’m pretty stubborn, but there is just a little bit of give in there. Same values, love of my life and the only stumbling block is another dip in the mikvah?

I’m at least willing to have that conversation. Once upon a time, I was not.

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A bigger issue is probably observance. The actual day to day living as a Jew. Rabbi Z asked us today what choices we made about observance, what draws us in and what pushes us away.

I am more comfortable with mitzvot in my home than any other place, other than giving tzedaka. I have a mezuzah, I occasionally light shabbat candles at home, sometimes I say the sh’ma before bed. During Passover I put all the forbidden foods in a bag and into the coat closet. (Where I promptly forget about them until fall.)

I currently don’t observe mitzvot that seem to be “keeping women in their place.” But I’m a little torn there. Mikva meant a lot to me and I’d like to be someone who goes every month. However, not touching my husband for two weeks a month… I’m not sure I’m down with that. (sorry, there is a lot of Jewish short hand in this post, I’ll try to find some links to help explain.)

I’m not a fan of the mechitza… except when I was in Jerusalem and experienced it, I kind of liked it. But that also had something to do with being in a small shul FULL of singing men. Which was an amazing experience.

I often dress modestly, but not always. I can’t imagine covering my hair, although I don’t judge women who do it, and I always feel a little safer when I see a man in a kippah.

I also would never make a choice of observance that would mean I couldn’t eat with my family or visit them for a weekend. That means not keeping strictly kosher or shomer shabbas. But it also means upholding shalom bayit.

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Maybe this is why I stopped talking about all this stuff. It isn’t easy. I wrestle with it.

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I welcome comments, but don’t be mean about this. I’m just trying to tell you how I’m doing Jewish at (nearly) 31, 2.5 years after a reform conversion.

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