On March 29, 2015 (9 Nisan 5775), right before Passover, I stepped out of the warm waters of the mikveh and formally became a part of the Jewish people.
According to tradition, the Israelites stood at the base of Mt. Sinai before G-d, promising to observe His commandments. In similar fashion — and like many others before me — one year ago, I stood before my rabbi and members of my congregation in front of the open ark containing the Torah scrolls, formally pledging my loyalty to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I recited the Shema, Judaism’s quintessential prayer and vowed to observe the traditions of my new faith and live a life of Torah observance, in essence, tying my destiny to that of the Jewish people. I chose my new Hebrew name, Aliyah Hadar, to reflect my spiritual ascent. I was then welcomed by the community in the presence of supportive friends and was fortunate to have my mother, who also underwent this conversion process with me, standing by my side.
Today, on my first anniversary as a Jew, I cannot help but reflect on the profound meaningfulness of that day and the many reasons why I chose this path.
Contrary to common practice, I did not convert for the sake of marriage or a romantic relationship. I was, and still am, single. Nor did I convert because I lacked a heritage of my own. I am proudly part of a vibrant multicultural, multiethnic family which, I often joke, could comprise its own United Nations. I already had a religious upbringing. So, how on earth did I end up a Jew at this point in my life?
Judaism has called out to me since my earliest years. At the age of six, I received as a gift a videotape of Barney in Concert, in which the famous purple dinosaur resolved to teach children the alphabet in various languages, including Hebrew. Interestingly enough, over the years, I only remembered the Hebrew. It found resonance with me, and I could still recite the Alef Bet verbatim years later. Moreover, although I was not raised in a Jewish home or exposed to Hebrew in any form, by a seemingly orchestrated course of events, I felt inexplicably drawn to Jewish culture and compelled to learn more about the seasonal and daily brachot. There was just something about “Baruch atah Adonai….” that made me feel “connected” in a way that I could not yet explain. While I was vaguely aware of some Jewish ancestry on both sides of my family, it wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen (which, interestingly again, could have been the age of my bat mitzvah), when I made the connection that my last name could be traced back to the Levites, who assisted the Kohanim in the ancient Temple. Later, I would also come to find that my mother’s paternal lineage as a Kassin had over five centuries of Torah scholars, rabbis, and Kabbalists. A proud heritage that, despite my religious beliefs at the time, made me realize I was, indeed, a Jew…a disconnected Jew.
Growing up in the Christian Church, I had always been taught that G-d “chose” the Jewish people. Later, as I went on to pursue a college degree in Jewish Studies, I learned that this “chosenness” had been an underlying cause of Jewish persecution throughout the ages. Yet, it became clear that, contrary to its interpretation throughout world history, this claim is not one of Jewish superiority or arrogance. It is not meant to suggest that Jews are more special or more important than anyone else. In fact, midrashic tradition teaches that we received the Torah only after the rest of the world rejected it, and possibly under divine duress. Regardless, I believe that our tiny yet resilient tribe was given a precious and unique role to play in world history. Endowed with the legacy of enlightening the world to monotheism and G-d’s Oneness, we were instructed to be a “light to the nations,” to repair the world and make it a better place for all of humanity, to do justice for all who are oppressed, to welcome the stranger as we once were ourselves, and to be a reminder of G-d’s faithfulness — not by peddling a particular theology or by missionizing “lost souls” through the threat of eternal damnation, but by letting our actions speak of what G-d has done for us and in us.
I am thankful that Judaism allows me the freedom to grow in understanding G-d and humanity – to reason and to ask the difficult questions, without being fenced in by dogma. Judaism is less about getting to the answer and is more about asking the right questions. Therefore, while my former theology provided myriad simplistic answers and comforting yet unverifiable assurances, Judaism humbly accepts that we don’t have one catch-all response to why there is suffering in the world or what happens to every soul after death. Rather, multiple perspectives are embraced without invalidating opposing points of view. And as my rabbi once said, at the end of the day, we do our part to live honorably and do the best we can with the lot we were given in this life, and trust that G-d (the one true Judge) will take care of us in the next.
Moreover, Judaism is about being part of a worldwide family in covenant not only with G-d but also with each other, from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor. It means having a sense of obligation for one another because we share a common destiny. Our tradition teaches that whoever saves one life, it is as if he or she saved the entire world.
Furthermore, Judaism allows me to inject a deeper consciousness into the most ordinary moments in my life. It gives me the opportunity to transform a regular Friday night into Shabbat or to sit down to a meal and not be indifferent to its Source. It reminds me, from my pocketbook to my prayer book, that I am a human being made b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d) and that I have an obligation to live and act accordingly.
Judaism isn’t only a religion I chose one year ago. It is also a way of life I continue to choose day after day. That is not to say that this year has not had its challenges. Taking on over 3,500 years of Jewish history, culture, and tradition as your own is a gradual progression, and there are days I feel more confident in my Jewish identity than others. But this isn’t about rejecting my past experiences or becoming someone I’m not. It is about remaining true to where my soul has guided me. It is about reaching my own spiritual “Promised Land.” And, as another Passover approaches, I am excited to continue growing in my life as a Jewish woman. “L’Shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!” (Next year in Jerusalem!)
Lauren Levy is a law student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She has a B.A. in Jewish Studies and a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Florida. In 2010, she spent her summer in Israel studying Modern Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School. In March 2015, she converted to Judaism through the Conservative (Masorti) movement.