“I have a question,” asked S., my first conversion student, a serious and cerebral college student. “I know we’ve covered the High Holidays, and I understand what they are, and all of that. But the thing about Yom Kippur — how am I supposed to feel?”
No one had ever asked me that before; in fact, I’m not sure anyone ever told me that before. Once asked, it seemed the most obvious question in the world. We talked about it for the better part of an hour, this young man and I, about the shadings between fear and awe, about hope and solemnity. It was the first time that I learned about Judaism from someone on the path to becoming Jewish, though definitely not the last.
I was teaching him because my wife, Rachel — with her packed schedule as small-town rabbi and Hillel advisor — asked me to. How could I prepare someone to become Jewish? Sure, I co-taught our own rural Hebrew school and had worked for Jewish organizations all my life, had lived in Israel for a year, expounding ad infinitum about Jewish history to others on my fellowship. But explaining Judaism — and processing what for so many born-Jews is perpetually unexamined — turned out to be a different matter altogether.
In the two years since that first experience, I have worked with 12 conversion students, teaching in our local coffee shop, our dank synagogue classroom, and in other states (God bless Google, seriously). I love the questions people ask. Why does the Hebrew root of the word for sanctification imply set-apartedness? What do you mean most Jewish law doesn’t come from the Bible? Why is Shabbat 25 hours and not 24? If there’s not a Hell, how does God punish bad people? Sometimes, I don’t know the answers. More often, there isn’t just one answer, and the struggle to accept that exemplifies why converts are so often our best and brightest.
How people have ended up learning with me varies wildly. Those in our community, who maybe know the synagogue but have never been, or who live close enough to have heard of us, might reach out to Rachel, the most public Jew around. Others begin attending services and hear about classes I teach — including Intro to Judaism. A friend two hours away wished aloud that she could learn the laws of kashrut, which led to an entire class series taught online and captured on film. A professor at the local college thinks she might have some hidden Jewish ancestry, and is panting to learn more. A non-Jewish partner was considering conversion before she ever met her Jewish husband-to-be. Shockingly mature college students have decided this is the way they want to bring meaning into their lives. A small congregation in rural Virginia found my YouTube series, the recorded classes I left up after the online series ended. They have no teacher to guide their conversion cohort of five, and want to know: could I do it, maybe? I haven’t said no yet, though my enthusiasm is always tempered with a little bit of dread, and solemnity. Is this the time I’m going to seriously misrepresent Judaism to someone?
What I did not know but should have perhaps guessed is that this work is deeply intimate. I am a happily agnostic observant Conservative Jew, and discussing spirituality and my feelings is not an area of natural comfort for me. Yet zoom in on a recent lesson, one in which my student asks me, “Why does God let bad people go unpunished, at least in the short term?” I start in via Maimonides. “No, “she presses. “I want to know what you think about God.” There’s a long pause before I can even begin to answer.
And there’s more. In part because of my relationship with my students and in part because frankly we are a little hard up for observant Jews here in Maine, I’ve begun sitting on the beit din — the Jewish religious court. I didn’t actually even know that non-rabbis could do this until I moved to sparsely populated Maine, yet here I am. And if I myself automatically assumed that my inclusion in the decision-making body somehow rendered those conversions suspect, might not other people? Might not other institutions in the Jewish world?
But my initial reaction to serving on the beit din, or being asked to — that automatic impulse that surely I couldn’t count — was born out of unfamiliarity and ignorance. As someone who was born Jewish, I’d never really thought about conversion much at all. When I had, I had the mental image you might expect — a couple of older rabbis (male, obviously) looking down severely at a quivering supplicant.
And as we know from recent news stories, the experience can be freighted with gender- and age-related power dynamics, though surely most male rabbis work as hard as possible to keep that from being the case. Yet I’ve been told of conversions in which applicants were told to wait months before mikvah could be scheduled, told they needed to pay a fee, told to wait to be contacted only to continue waiting and waiting.
That’s not the case with those who find Judaism via our little shul. I’ve never seen a beit din that was less than two-thirds female, and the ones I’ve been on are usually entirely female. Though there are moments of solemnity and tears, there is always laughter, and usually at least a little chocolate, as the rabbinical court sits around the same small round table as the convert. I have learned about the kind of joy that is still and calm. There are always, always hugs, which somehow never figured in my imagined scenario with the beards and the fierce scowls and the sitting in judgment.
Nor, I guess, did I imagine the ridiculous tachlis parts of a conversion. I’m not just pointing to the 20 email conversations to book a date, book the mikvah, wait — who’s going to turn it on ahead of time so that the water can warm up? No, I’m pointing to me in the mikvah, pantless and thigh-deep, scooping out a handful of bugs with a paper napkin while cheerfully reassuring the mercifully unaware convert waiting in the bathroom that we were almost ready, just one more minute! This is me, remembering to grab an extra box of tissues as we close the door to the rabbi’s study behind us, ushering a spouse or best friend or child into the room with an encouraging of course you can come in too! Here I am — endlessly bemused, amused, and still a little surprised to find myself one of the guardians of the gates, a coach and a guide to this thing called Judaism.
When people express incredulity that I’m still here, somewhere far away and cold, so unlike the Jewish metropolis I come from, I explain: what a precious thing it is to have someone invite you to stand inside her life with her, to help mold it and alter it.