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Essays on Conversion

The essays on this page were written by members of our Congregation who have converted to Judaism.

 

Essay by Johnny Redmond published in the October 2013 Bulletin

There is something greater then ourselves, but what is it? How do we fit into the ever-changing world that surrounds us? How can one find a peace of mind, a center, a foundation to operate from, when they have no such place? These questions ran through my mind as I desired the answers, or at least the proper path to the knowledge to begin to fathom the answers. It is a journey that embodies ones personal beliefs, as well as causes one to question what they feel they already know. It is a journey that brought me to a place of comfort and understanding within the walls of the synagogue.

Coming from a family where one’s beliefs are personal, and where no system is thrust upon you, I was given the opportunity to explore and discover.  I had a desire to become a part of something greater than myself that would allow me to have a better understanding of the world and who I am. It was not an exploration that started and ended in one step.

When I was studying in Beijing and enveloped in the Chinese culture and customs, I attempted to imagine myself operating by the Buddhist doctrine. Although, it embodies great morals and lessons it was not a lifestyle that fit who I was and what I was looking for. I decided to examine the world of Christianity, a religion that was somewhat familiar thanks to the Sunday school classes, and morning chapels of years past. But as I sat there and attempted to absorb the words in which they preached, I came to the realization that this would not be the place that I would find my inner peace.

The next step of my journey, initially unbeknownst to myself, would be one of true discovery. As I attended college, I was surrounded by friends who identified with the Jewish faith and lifestyle. With each Jewish holiday that came I found myself being invited and celebrating at the houses of my friends and their family. We would sit around, as they shared memories and stories from bygone years, and would produce plates of one great dish after another. I would go to Temple and listen to the Rabbi and Cantor, and with each word that was uttered and each song that was sung I was consumed by the positive and life-affirming atmosphere of the synagogue.

Up until that point I had never considered converting to Judaism. But as I started to research and discover more in-depth information I came to the realization that this might be what I was looking for.  Unfortunately, I was not able to convince the Rabbi at school. He did not feel the same way that I did and informed me that it was not the correct decision for the time. Not knowing where to go from there, I decided to stop pursuing the idea of conversion.

Then at nineteen years old I made a decision that would change my view of the world, as well as how the world viewed me. I was forced to come to terms with the fact that I was gay.

This was not a fact that I warmly embraced. I saw it as a flaw, and something to be ashamed of. I had no foundation to find solace in. I found myself alone and unable to answer the question of why this had happened to me. Instead of finding an inner peace and acceptance, I found myself filled with self loathing and depression and lived an unhappy life for four years. Fortunately I found the courage to make changes to become a person I could be proud of. I packed my belongings, my memories, wished that life goodbye and moved home for a new start.

The next year was spent rediscovering who I was and with each day I learned something new about myself. I reconnected with those who had cared about me but I had kept at a distance. I learned what it was to laugh, to love, and to enjoy what surrounded me without being judged by myself and others. Each day I was taking new steps towards becoming the person that I wanted to be. But in some way I knew there was a key element still missing. It turned out what was missing was a foundation.

Converting to Judaism was at the forefront of my mind once again and I dove in full force. Knowing that I had to try to comprehend and absorb thousands of years of history and traditions was overwhelming. I was frozen, unsure where to begin.  It then occurred to me, that every person learns about who they are and where they come from the books and stories that are shared with them when they are young. With this realization I turned to the library for guidance and perused and devoured over a hundred children’s books concerning God, Shabbat, history, customs and the everyday life of Jewish people in our past and our present. It helped me establish a better grasp of the world in which I was entering.

Additionally, books that I ordered online were arriving at my house on what seemed like a daily basis and article after article, website after website were read feverishly for I wanted to gain as much knowledge as I could. Discussions and questioning by the Rabbi, and friends and family reinforced these new ideas but it was not just the history and traditions that I wanted to implement into my life. I desired a way to understand the world around me and develop a specific mindset.

Judaism allows me to wonder, to question what I see, to appreciate the small moments by finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It gives me a place to learn and accept that there is something out there that is greater than myself. It can be found in Torah, in prayer, or a moment of sitting quietly and listening to the breeze as it rushes by. Judaism is ever evolving, allowing it to live with the times, and therefore allowing me to be me, and accepting me for who I am.

The Jewish story will become my story and my personal Jewish history and legacy will begin with me. But it does not begin as I leave the mikveh, for it is a story that began long before that. It began the moment I first questioned where I fit in, the moment I desired to find a place of peace, and the moment I wanted to understand the world that surrounded me. It is a journey that started with me on my own, but ended with discovery, fulfillment and a foundation.

 

Essay by Kathleen Del Monte, published in the January 2006 Sinai Bulletin

From the first evening I walked into Sinai, I experienced a feeling of close family and community ties with one another and God. It was an exhilarating experience for me to not only see but to feel the joy emanating from those who had come to worship on this Friday evening. It was a friendly place. The sanctuary was bright and cheerful — no sadness here! It was a different type of service than I was used to. There was so much emphasis on being grateful to God for all that he has given us, and while this all seems like a simple concept, here we were actually thanking God for the trees, the sun, the sky, and the flowers. I left services that night wanting to know and learn more about this 4,000 year old Jewish religion.

I started buying any books I could find on Jewish family and life, holidays and traditions, and cookbooks, of course, a hobby I have held for many years.

Also, I decided it would be helpful if I could follow along in services, so I began Hebrew lessons at the JCC. The first several weeks, I kept asking myself what I was doing there. Learning Hebrew was definitely a challenge, and I got frustrated; but my teacher was very patient with me. With her encouragement, I continued my lessons. Learning to read Hebrew became very important to me. By that time, I knew it was going to be my link to pursuing a Jewish life. Each time I attended services, I could see my reading improving as the blessings were chanted. If I couldn’t keep up, at least I knew where we were on the page. After leaving services, I found myself humming the chants. I would listen to these blessings on CD on my drive into work every day, and I would chant along with them. I was succeeding, and I was proud of my accomplishments. By this time, I had started meeting with the Rabbi and going to Torah Study. I wanted all that my Jewish family and friends had – this connection to God. Though I knew who I was and had grown up in a loving family, had been taught to love God and family, and the importance of being a kind, caring and compassionate person, I felt I could bring these virtues with me into my new religion and my Jewish family. I wasn’t losing anything; I was adding to my life. I am ever grateful for the su port of my family, friends, teachers, Rabbi and Cantor for encouraging me through this journey – of course, my journey has only just begun.


Essay by Nicole Walters published in the June 2006 Bulletin

My faith in God started at a very young age. As I grew older I started to question some of the teachings that seemed so outdated. As I matured into a young woman, I disagreed more with the practices of my family. But never gave up believing in God, knowing there is something more powerful than myself.

I started looking for a place to nurture my beliefs, sadly I never felt quite right. Until 4 years ago when I met Craig. He told me he was Jewish, but he was new to the area and hadn’t joined a synagogue. Several months later we took a trip to Toronto to visit his family. Shortly after arriving his Bubbe passed away. As Craig went to help his grandfather in his time of need, Craig’s mother told me about the burial the next day. I had very little knowledge of how Jewish funerals worked. I was overwhelmed and had no idea of what to expect. Craig tried to prepare me for the service and explained that his family would sit shiva for seven days. I was moved by the experience although it was very sad. At the funeral everything was very simple there weren’t any flowers and the casket was a simple wood casket. Later I asked about the flowers and his family said that instead they asked tzedakah to be given. At the cemetery after they lowered her into the ground his family took a shovel and placed earth on the casket, it was very moving that this was real they were finding closure in such an honest way. Later when we arrived at the shiva house all of the mirrors were covered with sheets. The simplicity was moving no vanity, nothing was being put on and no one was trying to be brave there was only remembrance and mourning. Craig’s family accepted me with open arms and tried to explain the events to me.

It started to make sense. I wanted to be a part of the Jewish people. I wanted to learn more. What were the teachings of this 4,000 year old religion? I couldn’t learn fast enough, I tried to learn about the culture, the food, traditions, and religion of the Jewish people. I read and really got excited; I had finally found what I needed for my spirituality to grow.

I soon found Sinai Temple and visited for Friday night services. As I sat absorbing everything that was happening, I felt I was home and at complete peace. I soon thereafter knew that conversion would truly make me happy. Now the hard part was asking a rabbi to perform the conversion. It took a while, but after a few phone calls.

Rabbi Shapiro met with us.

Now after learning about Judaism and spending time at the synagogue celebrating Shabbat and holidays, I am finally beginning to get it. On Shabbat as I rush to services I feel tired but when I arrive I exhale and I’m happy to be there. Shabbat for me is just being able to pray try to find peace after a long week to breath and relax. I attended High holiday services with Craig for the first time and each service was a little different, On Rosh Hashanah there was such a message of hope for the next year that I can do better that life is just how we perceive it, it’s about looking for the rainbow that will soon come after the rainfall. On Yom Kippur Craig and I fasted for the first time together and as we stepped into the synagogue that night I know I felt full. I cried during that service, I think some of the tears were sad but most were tears of joy knowing I was in the right place. I was able to ask for atonement and hope to do better this next year.

There is also Pirkei Avot where Simon the Just teaches so beautifully: The world is sustained by three things, by the Torah, by worship, and by loving deeds. I hope that all of these Torah, worship and good deeds will help my life to be a better one. I know my decision to convert and become part of the Jewish people was the right path to find happiness. Although I have learned some I feel my journey is only beginning. I hope my learning will extend through my life to my future husband and children and bring peace to my family.


Essay by Michele Nash published in the November 2006 Bulletin

Being Jewish is to navigate this world with a dual consciousness. I am an American with half of my heart in Israel. I am immersed in a culture of consumerism, yet feel guilty shopping Friday evenings or Saturdays. More eloquently,“My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the West” (Judah Ha-Levi). I (try to) chant my prayers in a culture in which chanting has almost vanished. Those prayers are in a language seen as so foreign they may as well be other-worldly. I observe holidays many don’t even know exist.Those holidays reveal me as “other,” surprising people who relied on my surname to categorize me. I attempt to follow mitzvot to which the larger culture is ignorant.

I embrace this dichotomy. I walk through this world conscious of it. People lower their conversations about Israeli politics when I enter the room.After Mel Gibson’s recent anti-Jewish comments I received a call from my 15-year old nephew, saying,“I’m sorry Aunty,”A conversa- tion about people’s ignorance and hate followed.This same boy observed several years ago at a Shabbat dinner at my house,“Every Friday is like a holiday for you!”A discussion of the holiday that is the Sabbath followed.

When I was pregnant with my daughter so many suggestions for a name came from all corners (family, co-workers, strangers). My husband David and I were committed to giving her a Hebrew name.We announced our intentions to family and friends. So we immediately went to the Bible for ideas, with two of my favorite names, Rebekah and Sarah, coming up frequently. Still we received suggestions, mostly from younger people, “Paige! Is Paige a Jewish name?” or “How about Macken- zie?”

Meanwhile my husband and I poured over Jewish baby-name books. Finally, we chose to name our daugh- ter Arielle. My husband fell in love with the translation of the name,“lion of God.” He knew that was the image he wanted for his daughter. I liked the sound of the name and fully agreed with the image.Arielle was born in May 2004.When told her name, most (non-Jewish) people respond,“Oh, like the little mermaid.” Oh well, we know better and so shall she.This is the baby that has been raising her bottle and exclaiming “L’chaim!” as she bumps bottle to cup, mug, or glass for over a year of her life.

Chanting in Hebrew still gives me goose bumps. I feel the spiritual connection with hundreds of generations from all over the globe. Lighting Shabbat candles and chanting Shabbat prayers I feel as if I am experiencing the ocean’s tide. I am one wave coming in on Shabbat, following others, with others to follow me, as the earth spins each time zone welcomes that special day for my people. Exiting my house or the temple after Shabbat prayers, the dichotomy again reveals itself. Most of the country doesn’t even know it is Shabbat. I feel as if I am a stranger and a native of this land (Genesis 23:4). That is O.K., I know who I am, and as I said, I embrace the dichotomy, and I carry the Shema in my heart.


Essay by Joe Dow published in the June 2007 Bulletin

Having lived for many years as a non-practicing interfaith couple, it wasn’t until our two boys came along that we truly began to respect and celebrate both Christian and Jewish traditions and their accompanying holidays. Since my wife is from Azerbaijan, she never grew up attending a synagogue or celebrating Jewish holidays since for her and her parents, it was not encouraged to practice Judaism. I believe much of her interest in Judaism came from her love and respect for her grandmothers, whom she remembers having a Passover Seder, and speaking Yiddish at home.

So, it was with this desire within me to unify my family that brought me one Shabbat to approach the Rabbi and express my interest in conversion. At my first meeting with the Rabbi, we began to plan what my first Passover would look like. We started with the basics: preparing haroset, finding a family Haggadah, and having a Seder plate along with many activities for my young children. I am pleased to say that my second Seder improved greatly upon the first, and I am looking forward to many years of experiencing the growth of this process with my family as we add to our Haggadah from year to year.

Meetings with the Rabbi were quite frequent and required a time commitment for the many readings given to me. However, as time passed, and I began to learn about Jewish holidays and traditions, I found that my journey to- wards Judaism became more of a personal one although I knew there would be great benefits for my family as well.

In thinking about why I am choosing this path of conversion to Judaism, my mind keeps returning to words in the Sinai bulletin several months ago written by Cantor Mekler, and I am paraphrasing here:‘Judaism does it right. It just makes sense.’ In other words, many of life’s dilemmas, from birth to death as well as the great questions about the meaning and purpose for our lives, which all religions try to address, are answered most completely for me by Judaism. Judaism does not offer simplistic answers to these complex questions, but rather addresses the complexity of the questions with profound answers as debated by Rabbis through the centuries and expressed in the Mishnah and the Talmud as well as by many modern Jewish writers. One of these writers, Richard Levy, in his essay The God Puzzle, states:

“I believe that the world—the interconnections between space and time, which Hebrew translates as Olam—is like a huge jigsaw puzzle.”

For me, understanding all of these connections between seemingly random events, such as overwhelming family crises and the potential meaning we can draw from them, and the purpose, although not caused by God, they may have in our personal growth and development helps me to weather these storms.

When witnessing a beautiful early morning sunrise, Levy describes reciting the prayer, Baruch atta Adonai Elo- heynu melech-ha-olam, oseh ma-asei v’reisheet, Praised are you,Adonai our God, ruler of the Olam, who does the deed of creation? For me also, saying a prayer of acknowledgement and thanks to God for the beauty of nature gives greater meaning to the origins of this beauty but also momentarily connects me to the spiritual and holy in everyday events.

This learning process is just beginning for me, and I would be entirely remiss in this essay thus far describing my process of Jewish learning if I did not mention the many members of the weekly Torah Study group, and the impact they have had upon my Jewish learning. For at least the first six months, as many of them will attest, I never uttered a single word during the Torah Study, but I have learned so much from them, not just in their interpreta- tions of Torah, but sometimes in just the ways they view life as a result of their experiences. Listening to George Dickstein describe in one session what it was like growing up Jewish in a working class town in Connecticut many years ago was a very important experience for me to understand what it means to be Jewish and how that experi- ence has changed in America in the 21st century. And, I have continued my studies with weekly Hebrew classes at Sinai, and so I want to thank my teachers, Gloria Wald and Loren Hutner, and fellow students in this process as well, especially the inimitable Belle Rita Novak, who still refers to me as the “new Jew,” which is truly a compliment.

As you can see, my learning process as a new member of the Jewish community is just beginning, and I look forward to continuing to experience it with all of you at Sinai Temple.


Essay by Herbert Wood February published in the June 2010 Bulletin

My first true introduction to Judaism was through my relationship with my wife, Ronda.As our relation- ship developed, my experience with and understand- ing of Judaism expanded. I witnessed a community of close friends participating, supporting and living “Tik- kun Olam,” a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing or perfecting the world.” I don’t think I understood the importance of this phrase until after a visit with my grandfather.

During a visit with my grandfather Edward Moran, before my wife and I were married, he asked me to sit at his small kitchen table. He started off, telling me that he thought Ronda was a wonderful person and I should marry her. He then brought out a box that he had saved from the Second World War. He said, I think you should see this. I found out that my grandfather was a medic who took part in the liberation of Buchenwald Concen- tration Camp.What I saw, what he witnessed were some of the most evil representations known to humanity. He showed me pictures that he had taken, (the ovens, bod- ies stacked like cordwood).

As our conversation neared its end, he told me he was most proud of the fact that not one person died after the Army arrived at the camp.To this day, I’m not sure why he chose that time to discuss what he had experienced. I believe it was his way of passing on the baton, it was my turn to make the world a better place. It was no longer OK to isolate myself from the needs of the world. Rabbi Tarfon taught: You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.

So with a new vigor, I became more involved in the Jewish community. I began to support programs involv- ing local concerns and issues abroad. I celebrated Jew- ish holidays with friends and family, but internally feel- ing like I was still missing something. Although accepted as a member of this community, I felt like an outsider. Not complete, not born as a Jew so not really Jewish. I decided embrace the religion, to truly make it my own. My journey involved learning more about the people, the traditions and the Torah. Judaism became the core of my being and it framed my day to day life.

As I experienced Judaism through a different lens, my focus changed from being an outsider to converting. I began to reevaluate my life. I believed I always had an innate ability to understand people and a desire to make a positive change.With a different perspective on life I was no longer satisfied with my career. I felt a strong need to reach out of the box. I left a career in automotive management and went back to school. Since finishing my master’s, I have worked as special education teacher, a behavioral specialist, an assistant principle and now as the Director of Social Work for a Hospice.

With a renewed focus, my pursuit of conversion embracing Judaism has allowed me to do that. Hillel taught: Do not separate yourself from the community; do not be certain of yourself until the day you die; do not judge another until you are in his position...and do not say: “When I have leisure I shall study”—you may never have any leisure.

Why does being Jewish matter, because the Torah provides me with an understanding of mankind’s relationship with God.A road map with a steady moral com- pass. Because Judaism provides a commitment to social justice an emphasis on this world.


Essay by Cheri and Jay Mustain published in the February 2010 Bulletin

Cheri Mustain -

I sat behind one of my uncles next to my husband, sister, and amongst my 34 cousins a year ago Thanksgiving. I said prayer after prayer without hesitation as did my sister. It had been at least 25 years since I've been to this particular church, not one prayer forgotten. The familiarity was overwhelming and comforting. I felt a sense of belonging that was incredible. I cried. Yes, I will miss Gramma, and I once again realize that we are here on Earth for just a moment in time. But those aren't the only reasons I cried. The comfort, safety, and communal feeling brought on my tears. I didn't have religion in my life right now. My attempts at raising my children in a Christian church weren't very successful. Once the questions came I found too many contradictions in my beliefs. It just wasn't working.

I live my life enjoying giving. Whether it’s my time, my ear, a gift, or help in some other fashion. To experience the giving that is a very integral part of the Jewish culture was awesome. It was a “Wow” moment for me.

I enjoy learning and questioning and then learning some more. To witness that at Torah study was abso- lutely incredible. It’s OK to challenge the meaning of the Torah. Many interpreters do as well as the members of the Temple! That was amazing to me. Wow, was I fitting in with my beliefs. Up until now, I was unable to question the Bible or the priest, it would be sinful. And I felt guilty or just plain “bad” if I even remotely thought about it. Guilt was a big part of my Catholic learning.

Those were the two most impressive aspects of Juda- ism for me as I was researching religions. There are many more. Each and every time I spend time at the Temple I’m both honored and privileged to be part of the community. How awesome that a community that most are born into welcomes me and my family with open arms. Commendable.

There are of course a few struggles. My main struggle is my lack of attachment to Israel. I hope and anticipate that as I read this some day, it was just an initial phase. I long to feel the connection at a much deeper level. I anticipate that and assume that’s where I may be at some point, which is exciting to look forward to.

I find now as I make the commitment to Judaism that it has become the very base of my daily life. I will look for Jewish recipes as I cook and Jewish lessons as I raise my children. In fact, as I was researching religions and was down to just three, I read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, Ph.d. I thought “Wow” some-body has put into actual practices how to raise your children with good morals and values. It works for me. I feel comfortable with the religion. I embrace it daily.

The day of my grandmother’s funeral is now the day I consider the day she gave me my final gift. The day that I now view as the turning point in my spiritual life. I am happy and proud to offer myself and my children the gift of Judaism. I now sit once again next to my husband and children and give a quiet smile as I listen to them recite prayers that I know will never leave them. That one day will give them the comfort I received on the day my grandmother passed.

Jay Mustain -

God created man “In the image of God.” Being Jewish is important to me because of the “image of God”. The image of God is caring selfless leadership made possible by wisdom. A God that learns as well as teaches (Genesis 18:25) illustrates the first instance of a human being arguing with God. Abraham stated “must not the judge of all the earth do justly?” and thereby asked God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Man’s ability to argue with God gives my life a depth and richness that is unachievable without this ability. Without this ability the distinction of who truly “leads” one’s life is blurred. Is it God, a boss, a parent, law enforcement, media, etc.? This answer is clearly given to me that we are responsible to lead our lives. We have the responsibility to gain wisdom, to teach, to lead and also to question anyone or anything if it appears unfair or unjust. This principle creates leaders and leadership thinking. It is clearly depicted in Genesis 18:25 that God wants us to lead our own lives.Anything less results in a life of inner turmoil and a life surely not suitable to meet the Creator’s intention of “in the image of God”.


Essay by Buff Maniscalco published in the May/June 2011 Bulletin

Twelve years ago, on a bimah, on the edge of the wilderness of Maine, my friend Marisa stood before a congregation of Jews and proclaimed herself to be Jewish, just as I will soon do.Within that tiny gathering, our mutual Jewish friend Lois stood beside me to watch the event.Afterwards Lois turned to me and said,“I don’t understand why anyone would want to join something that I’ve been trying to hide from all my life.”In my heart I knew the answer. But everyone must choose their own time to come out of the wilderness.Today it is my turn to come home.

For forty-three years I have meandered in the wilderness looking for a spiritual home. In those forty-three years

I have learned and forgotten many things, proving Lois’ point that you don’t need to be Jewish to live. But more importantly, I have learned from Marisa that Judaism makes living worthwhile.To put it another way, the meaning of life isn’t to be Jewish, but rather Judaism brings meaning to life.

First and foremost, Judaism creates desperately needed breaks in our hurried life.The tranquility of Shabbat is more than just a goal to look forward to after a week of hard work. It is a time for inward thoughts and self-nur- turing. Shabbat peace allows for self-reflection, self-assessment and growth.These pauses are not limited to once a week.We are asked to reevaluate ourselves throughout the year not only at Rosh Hashanah,Yom Kippur and Suk- kot, but also on Purim, Passover and the whole month of Elul. It is an important piece of being Jewish.

Secondly, Judaism shows us the oneness of creation. Just as the Shema says, there is only one G-d and G-d is one. We are connected to everything and everything is connected to us.When we sit in the sukkah and look through the cornstalks out into the night sky we can feel that connection.The world around us is alive, and we, a critical part of that web of life.

But most importantly to me, Judaism is a living faith. It is not run by creeds or decrees from a foreign land or a distant time. By commanding each and every one of us to study Torah, we discover ourselves in the text. Just as Mo- ses learned at Meribah (Numbers 20), we must be patient under pressure and not strike-out when gentle words can yield the same results. From that same story, we learn that the results of our thoughtless actions can lead to serious consequences.These are two of the many lessons we can draw out of the stories when we study Torah.Through studying, each person and each generation can use the lessons that they discover within their own lives.

I have been standing on Mount Nebo long enough. It is time for me to carry the lessons I have learned in the wilderness onward. I will carry this Torah with me not as a burden, but as a beacon, lighting my way ahead.The Torah is not a history book,it is a living book.We should not look upon the words and ask“What happened back then?” Instead we should ask “What does this mean to me now?”The Torah is a tree of life, and its message grows as we grow.

Now please excuse me as I step down from this mountain. I am going home.

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