Emily Shrode
Hadassah Evolve Leadership Fellow

Finding My Jewish Mother

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
(pictured left to right:) Emily Shrode (author), Julie Van Keer, Esther Schwartz). Photo courtesy of the author.

Many folks on the journey of converting to Judaism can relate when I say that it is a beautiful path to take in life. We gain so much richness as we learn from the Torah, take on Jewish traditions, and celebrate new chagim (holidays).

There is also a feeling of loneliness, though, that comes in waves. Especially during the Jewish holidays. The holidays you’re supposed to share with your family. But what are you supposed to do if you don’t have a Jewish family?

Before I officially started on my path to conversion, I had a conversation with my rabbi. I shared how bittersweet it felt to make this decision knowing that converting would pull me further away from the family that I was born into.

My rabbi mulled over my words. Then he responded, “What if you did this in order to find your Jewish family?” My rabbi had a point there! Conversion was reframed not as a matter of losing my family but as a means to gain more family.

Julie Van Keer, president of the Hadassah Austin chapter, became that family for me. And Hadassah became a part of my global family. I wrote in a previous Times of Israel blog post about my serendipitous introduction to Julie, but it bears retelling here.

It was a Sunday morning. I woke up early enough to make it on time to a tour of the construction site for the new Shalom Austin Jewish community center. I ended up walking beside a woman who happened to be Julie. We soon got to talking.

In our conversation, I learned about this wonderful woman’s values and about Hadassah–two things I’d had absolutely no knowledge of when I’d woken up that morning. What I liked about Julie was her great passion for fostering community and for healing the world. About 20 minutes into talking with her, I graciously accepted a position she offered me on the board of the Austin chapter of Hadassah.

From that day onward, Julie and I were fast friends. And I’ve stayed involved with Hadassah. It was largely thanks to Julie’s nomination that I was chosen to be an Evolve Leadership Fellow. A leadership program for women 45 and under, this Hadassah initiative is a two-year track designed to engage emerging young leaders by offering special opportunities to learn and to grow. As an Evolve Fellow, I was featured on i24 news in Israel and wrote several Times of Israel blog posts about my experience. On my 25th birthday, I flew to Chicago to speak at a national Hadassah conference.

Julie has paved the way for me and has been by my side for all my Hadassah-related successes. “Where would I be?” I ask myself, “had I never found this mother figure who shares my values?” It’s safe to say that my life without Julie would be radically different.

Julie isn’t your typical Jewish mother. She has this wicked wit about her and can match me glass for glass when we break out a bottle of whisky. And while most mothers advise you never to talk to strangers, Julie often encourages me to do the opposite!

At the same time, I don’t exactly fulfill the typical role of a Jewish daughter, but when I am at her home for Sunday dinner, I do lend a hand–and my height, when my Jewish mother needs something from the tall shelf.

Julie is traditional in the ways that matter. I know I can always come to Julie anytime I need a firm hug or a bowl of soup or to do some laundry. And I can always count on her to save me a spot in shul on Shabbat!

Julie and I sit with each other in low moments. She sticks with me through tough times when I show my regrettably uglier side. Can you think of a better way to define what family should be?

We truly are nothing without our mishpacha (family). My conversion journey has shown me how beautiful it is to find mishpacha outside our genetic bonds. When I first met Julie, I was struck with the feeling that she would play an important role in my life. And she has lived up to that first impression a thousand times over.

I hope everyone will be so lucky to find a Julie Van Keer in their own lives.

About the Author
Hadassah Evolve Leadership Fellow Emily Shrode brings fresh eyes to the organization, now beginning its 113th year. On the local level, Emily serves on the board of Hadassah's chapter in Austin, Texas, where she currently resides and is a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. For Emily, Hadassah is a means of spreading hope and healing the world. She hopes to share her passion for the mission of Hadassah with others throughout her continued involvement in the organization. As a community builder, Emily sees value in what Hadassah does on the local level by providing a space for women to grow meaningful connections with one another.
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