My Own Personal “Conversion” Story (On Becoming Sefaradi — Part I)

“What? You are a Sefardi? How did THAT happen??

Over the past two and a half years, I have been asked this question, literally, hundreds of times. Rather than answer the same question hundreds of times, I decided to write this post. Additonally, I wrote this to give others, who may be considering this “change,” some background and context.

No, I am not a convert in the traditional sense. I was born Jewish and, thank G-d, I remain a committed Jew to this day. The eponymous conversion is of a different sort, as you shall soon read.

First a little background. I was born into a Dati (observant/frum) family and have been observant my entire life. At no point did I ever consider NOT being religious. Attending the schools and yeshivot that I did, I found myself continuing to grow in Torah and Mitzvot. In 1999, I became the rav of the shul in which I grew up (KJBS in Chicago) and remained in the position until our aliyah in 2009. While I was (and continue to be) involved in the rabbinic world, I never considered myself an especially “spiritual” individual. I said my tefillot every day and also taught about tefilla (prayer) for many years. And yet, I still did not feel spiritually connected.

Then, a few years back, I began to sense that something was missing in my life and, with the help of some wonderful friends, I began to explore areas of spirituality. This quest led me to the topic of “Hitbodedut” (also known as meditating with G-d).

Made famous by Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, the idea is fairly simple, yet has the potential to alter one’s life.

In doing Hitbodedut, one spends time ALONE with G-d. At first, it may be in total silence, and, as things progress, it may develop into words and speech. The goal is to connect; to connect with G-d on a different level. It is to face up to what one has done (and not done) that day in his or her service of G-d and to make amends. It is to pour your heart and mind out to G-d, Who ALWAYS has time for you.

At first, I was skeptical and felt that this was not me at all! How does one spend time alone (an HOUR!?) with G-d? Isn’t He everywhere, so why the “private audience”? After spending 30-45 minutes every single day doing Hitbodedut for a year a half, I can say it literally changed my life.

But, this newer connection; this newer awakening to the presence of G-d in my life was only in the infancy stage. I felt that, and knew that I needed much more. I began learning more books related to connecting spiritually with Hashem, which then also had a profound effect on me. It affected how I taught, and how I saw things. The very same texts that I had been teaching for years took on new meaning and gave me a deeper understanding.

And yet, there was still SOMETHING missing, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Until one day, it hit me that there was indeed an area in which I could improve and potentially affect my relationship with G-d even more: in my TEFILLAH, prayer.

I decided to look at “other” siddurim and versions of the text that we say in prayer. On a whim, I picked up a siddur in the version of עדות מזרח (Sefaradi). As many of you are aware, there are three basic versions of the siddur: Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard and Adot Mizrach. The latter, is the version used by Sefardic Jewry. And even within this last category there are other sub-divisions.

I opened up the siddur one morning before Shacharit and began to read some of the piyutim (poetic liturgy) that precede the tefilla. Although it was poetic, it was understandable…and I fell in love with these words. I felt that the words I was saying were echoing that which was happening in my heart and in my mind, of late.

Then, I began to look at the differences between the wording in Nusach Ashkenaz, that I had been saying for decades, and the words in the siddur in my hands and saw VAST differences. There was a very different “feel” to what I was saying; there were more references to G-d, to Israel, to the FEELINGS inside of me. In short, the liturgy that I had not been aware of for all these years suddenly awoke in me something profound. And I the journey began.

After saying this new version of Tefilla for a few days, I needed to make a decision. One is not permitted to veer away from their family tradition of prayer. Generally, the way one is raised in the version of that family’s prayer practice is the way it is to stay. This is based on the words “אל תטוש תורת אמך”  (meaning, do not veer from the teachings of your mother; tradition.) My dilemma was quite simple: on the one hand, I had found a new avenue to bring me closer to G-d, and on the other hand, I seemed to be restricted from making this choice.

I needed guidance, and I needed it fast. I knew full well that the time had come for me to take certain steps but was hesitating. And then, I found an amazing teshuva (halachic responsum) that set in motion a series of events that altered my spiritual life.

This change brought about even greater change, which eventually led me to “converting,” as you will read in the next post

Stay tuned…Part II coming soon …

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.