An Incipient Convert

The Start of Something Big

I was Baptized Lutheran. I went to Sunday School. I had my first Communion. I went to more Sunday School. I learned Luther’s Small Catechism. I was confirmed. I was in the Middle and High School Youth Group. I went on service trips every year of high school during the summer. It’s more than fair to say I grew up in the Church. My Grandfather actually provided the seed money to build a Missouri Synod Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My Mom is a church lady, actually employed by the church. I genuinely enjoyed my time in the church, respected our pastors, and still have friends I made in youth group some 15 years later. So why do I feel so Jewish?

That Sinking Contradiction

xw43AwLI didn’t set out to become a Jew by Choice (JBC) when I started on the Religious Journey through Chicago. If anything, I was an agnostic, lapsed Christian. Nothing against my church, but as I got older, believing became increasingly more difficult. The best metaphor is a cup of water. The cup grows larger when faith (water) stays the same. The same amount of faith can’t fill the cup, and I was left unfulfilled. Call it a crisis of faith, but 30 years of seeing bad things happen to good people made it sometimes hard to see the wisdom in religion. I refused to believe every bad thing was merely a test. To me, God shouldn’t be the cruel owner holding a squeaky toy over our collective heads. Moreover, what I saw from the Religious Right in politics made me deeply angry. It seemed backwards. People weren’t defining their positions based on the Bible. Rather, they were finding Bible verses to justify their intolerance.

True, there are liberal congregations that believe deeply in promoting a progressive faith agenda. Churches like my birth church, the ELCA, have been at the forefront of refugee resettlement efforts, ordaining women pastors, and admitting openly gay members. But for every truly welcoming, truly “Christian” experience, there is another example. People like Trump can just say they are a Christian now despite all evidence to the contrary. In some denominations, saying one is a Christian and joining a church feels too easy. People like Kim Davis, a three time divorcee, can rail against gay marriage and consistently have a broad segment of Evangelicals support her. In my experience with Protestant and Evangelical churches, I constantly felt eager eyes on me, a potential recruit into their flock. To be honest, I felt more comfortable among Eastern Orthodox Congregants, who were curious yes, but more guarded in their welcome.

I heard as kid, “the just shall live by faith alone”, but maybe faith isn’t enough. I can’t see the wisdom in someone living a horrible life just so they can be spooked by death and repent shortly before passing on and still make it to heaven. Our lives have to count for something. Maybe it came from watching “Defending Your Life” as few too many times as a kid, but whenever I pictured Heaven, there was a scale weighing the deeds against sins. I also vehemently disagree with people who genuinely believe that they have no agency, and if something happens, “well that was God’s will”. Such a passive acceptance to injustice in any form is anathema to how one should approach the world.

Parallels

Beyond just growing up Lutheran, I also grew up with many Jews. In college, I finally met people who hadn’t known Jews growing up. It was then I realized how few Jews there are relative to the general population, and that my experience was not typical. I was in an Israeli household when Rabin was assassinated, and I will always remember that sense of anguish when peace was most achievable. I experienced Seder, went to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I knew a real bagel and challah from the crap at Einstein’s or Panera. In those Jewish households, I always felt at peace. There was a sense of calm that comes with knowing you are part of a small and culturally significant club. But more than that, whenever I joined service clubs or volunteered in high school, I was working along sides Jews. Rather than the holier than though Christians, my Jewish friends didn’t pontificate, they just did the work.

Torah-Scroll-300x240In college I was an honorary member of the both the Muslim Student Association (MSA), and the Campus Hillel. It’s fair to say that I had religious and cultural wanderlust from an early age. I made better and more lasting friends with my Muslim friends, but Islam as a religion could feel cold and austere in practice. Meanwhile, Judaism and the Hillel seemed to spring forth from a font of kindness. From what I learned, Jews were chosen as a unique people by God, but that wasn’t just an idle blessing. That unique designation conferred a wholly unique set of responsibilities to broader humanity. And it’s easy to see that this charge has been taken seriously.

Today there are little more than 14 million Jews in the entire world, a miniscule percentage that is rapidly shrinking relative to global population. Yet a place like Israel with 5.5 million Jews produced more patents than 230 million people living in Western Europe between 2010 and 2014. Jews have dominated the Nobel Prize and are heavily represented in the academic and scientific universe. Jews were among the first white allies in the civil rights movement, with a unique understanding as a traditionally marginalized and persecuted group. In so many instances, Jews were given a handful of lemons, making a miraculous amount of lemonade. Not only that, they saw impediments as opportunities.

At Hillel I learned about Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza, Ben Gurion and Herzl. Judaism is, at its heart, a faith about kindness. Christians have a similar concept, we all know as the Golden Rule. At its Jewish heart however, it goes deeper than just being a good person. Judaism, more completely than other religions examines the relationships between men, and between men and God. The Torah and the Talmud are instructive, but by no means the totality of belief and scholarship. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest philosophers and intellectuals of Jewish decent had a profoundly humanitarian bent. The mantra of Tikkun Olam, or “heal the world” has tremendous implications in how one views and interacts with the broader world.

The Ger

As I grow older, I believe I have become more selfless. I am more inclined to help and think about others. My wife is a big reason why. Both sides of her family, have influenced her deep passion for rectifying social injustice. I am at the stage where having children is the next logical (and wanted step). Together, we (in our own very small ways) try to be the change we seek. Initially, my decision to become a student of Judaism was my own. Now, it is ours. We know that my conversion is not simply flipping a switch, something to be lightly considered. I am on the very first steps of the journey, playing and replaying the reasons I want to make such a momentous shift.

493028289I’ve purchased several books on it as a faith, as a culture, and as a people. In Judaism, there is the concept of the Ger, a foreigner who lives among the Jews but apart from them. I met a Rabbi last Friday, telling him of my conversion plans. I expected two things that didn’t happen. For starters, I pictured a long meeting. I mentally prepared, creating mock questions and answers forcing myself to really think about my reasons. Secondly, I expected the outright rejection, him telling me no, and me responding, “I will make this happen.” Neither happened. Instead, he told me, “The minute you stop wanting to become a Jew, and actually are a Jew; you will be ready.”

I was given High Holy Day tickets. This was no small gift. Judaism, for me embodies the words from that classic 1980’s ballad, “the more I know, the less I understand”. I can’t wait for the months ahead. I’m ready.

A Final Note

I still intend to visit different faith congregations and write about my experience. Given that I am exploring Judaism via classes, attending synagogue services and meeting with Rabbis, much of the coming entries may be devoted to Judaism. As always, I appreciate your respectful comments and feedback. I apologize for the relative lack of posting, consider it a consequence of having too much to say and too little words to adequately convey it.

Comments

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  • Good to get back to the journey! I liked this engaging piece a lot. I will be interested to see the next leg of the road and where in the Jewish tradition you find yourself. I am reminded of an oral history you might find very relevant, called "Jewish Renewal In America" by Dr. Barbara Wright. (Aka my Mom) I wonder if there is something in Jewish Renewal that might strike a chord. I know that there are some very strong feelings, both negative and positive, about this within the larger Jewish community. Book is still on amazon.
    Take Care,
    Rogerf

  • In reply to Chicagoguy14:

    Hi Roger! Thanks for the words of encouragement. It felt good to get back into some writing. I'll check out the book. I am trying to read as many different sources and perspectives as possible. Hope you and the Forward folks are doing well!

    You are right, the idea of Jewish converts does generate a LOT of strong feelings, even within Reform circles. It seems that individual Synagogues and Rabbis have a large degree of difference in the degree to which they welcome a convert. I am starting a class called "Taste of Judaism" which is just three weeks long. There is a more in-depth class immediately after.

    Currently, I am looking at Reform Judaism, however Anshe Emet looks to have really excellent programming designed for converts. From what I hear, a Conservative Conversion is said to carry more weight. Does anyone know if that's true, and why that is?

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