Making Jewish souls and welcoming Jewish souls coming home [part 2]

It was still several months before I did anything about becoming Jewish, as I was coming to terms with my divorce, finishing my master’s degree, getting my new job, and a place to live. In September, a co-worker asked me if I was going to a spaghetti dinner that would be at her synagogue in Visalia. I couldn’t get to my phone fast enough. I called and asked if I could also go. When she told me there was one ticket left, I was so happy that I would actually be able to finally ask the questions that I had always wanted to ask.

I immediately ordered two books on my Kindle. They were “Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends” by Anita Diamant and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Although it was only 3 days until the dinner and I read them both nonstop when not at work.

It was just so amazing to read these books. I couldn’t believe other people shared my faith and that it was the one faith that I had always been curious about. I realized that I was not alone. I went to the dinner and told people a very brief version of my story. I got phone numbers and invitations to not only call if I had questions, but also an invitation to attend the next Shabbat services which turned out to be Rosh HaShanah.

The next week when I got to the synagogue, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I sat with my co-worker and services began. I did my best to follow along with the prayer book, but I didn’t know any Hebrew or any of the prayers or even when to stand and when to sit down. Despite all of this, I was suddenly overcome with the same feeling that I had always had in my dreams. I knew within the first 5 minutes that I had finally found my way home.

I started coming to services every week and meeting more and more new people. One of the people I met told me that he had converted and that he had taken classes at a synagogue in Fresno. Since at the time there weren’t any classes at the synagogue in Visalia, I called the one in Fresno. I was told that I had missed the first three classes, but I could make an appointment to come in and talk with the Rabbi about starting anyways. I went to the appointment and said down in the Rabbi’s office. He asked me why I wanted to take classes and I told him my reasons.

He said that I could start the classes, but that I couldn’t miss any more. I promised him that I would do my best to be there every week. For the next year, I attended classes every Thursday in Fresno (about 40 minutes away in one direction) and Shabbat services every Friday in Visalia (about 30 minutes away). I never missed a class and only became more and more certain about converting as the weeks went on.

At the end of the second to last class, the remaining few of us were given our final exams. These weren’t pass or fail. The Rabbi merely expected us to do our best and then we would meet to discuss our answers.

I ended up typing 15 pages of answers for 10 essay questions (maybe not so surprising considering the length of what you are reading now). I gave my answers to another member of the congregation (I had since become a member myself) who is a very intelligent man. He is a lawyer, he occasionally leads services, and he is working on a master’s degree in Hebrew studies. We met at his house and discussed my answers before I turned them into the Rabbi. Then I submitted the test and met with the Rabbi to talk with him.

His only complaint was that the answers were too Orthodox. He had expected me to answer more along the lines of what we had learned in class. I told him that I had deliberately gone to other sources for my answers because I wanted my choices in how I was to live a Jewish life to be based on study and consideration of more than one point of view. I didn’t want to settle for the first answers with which I had been presented simply because they were first.

Throughout the year, I had also done other things to ensure that I was living a Jewish life. I celebrated Sukkot at synagogue and went with others to a nearby etrog farm to learn about what made the etrog and the 3 parts of the lulav to be kosher. I danced at synagogue for Simchat Torah and attended the Channukah party. I went to the Tu B’Shevat seder. I lit 6 candles for Yom Hashoah. I went to the Purim carnival where I made lots of noise and ate a Hamentashen. I attended two Pesach seders. I also put a Mezuzah on my front door; and lit candles at home every Friday night before going to synagogue.

During the summer I travelled to Maryland where I went to a Holocaust museum. I had to sit down every so often because I couldn’t stop crying. I went shopping in a little Jewish shopping area in Baltimore and went to services at an Orthodox synagogue in Annapolis.

The time finally came for my conversion ceremony. It was July 27, 2010. I had not asked any friends to attend as I didn’t think anyone would take time out of their busy lives to drive an hour away to the synagogue in Fresno. It turned out that 4 of my new friends did just that. Also there were the Rabbi and two members of his synagogue that had agreed to be part of the Beit Din.

The four of us first went to the Rabbi’s office. The only question they had was why I wanted to convert. I told them my story. When I was done, one of the gentlemen that I had never met before stood with tears in his eyes, hugged me, and told me that my story was one of the most beautiful he had ever heard.

We then signed the certificate as the Rabbi said he didn’t know if there was going to be time after the Mikveh. We went to the Bimah where I put on my tallit for the first time. The Rabbi then got the Torah from the ark and handed it to me. I was not told that this was going to happen and I just started to cry.

Normally I don’t cry as often as it would seem reading this story. It took some time, however, to recite the Shema and other prayers that the Rabbi wanted me to say as I had difficulties trying to control my crying. I was just so overwhelmed with feelings about the Torah: the history of it, what it takes to create it, how much it costs, what it means, and on and on. I couldn’t believe I was given such a privilege.

When I was finally able to look up after finishing, I realized I was not the only one who was crying. Everyone else, including the Rabbi, was crying as well. We then went to a lake nearby for the Mikveh ceremony. I went under the water 3 times. After getting out of the lake, I changed into dry clothes, and my friends took me to lunch. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day.

Since then I continue to take classes at my synagogue (Living a Jewish Life, Lunch and Learn with the student Rabbi when he is in town, Torah study, and Hebrew). I check out books from the synagogue library and order more books from Amazon both in paper and on my Kindle. For everything new I learn, I realize how much more there is to learn. I can’t seem to read enough. It is so different than when I was studying for school though.

A lot of the time, I feel like I am not so much learning new information, but remembering information that I had once known and somehow forgotten. So really, this is not the end of this story, but merely the beginning.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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