Thoughts at a Mikvah

I have worked with many Jews-by-Choice during my career in the rabbinate, far too many to actually be able to casually come up with a number. Most of my rabbinical work involves rites, rituals and teaching that I’ve done many times before. Conversion is no exception. But while I occasionally will reflect on the challenge of “staying fresh” for bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals, I never find myself challenged in that way when it comes to someone who is adopting Judaism by choice.

I was reminded of this yesterday when, as part of a duly constituted Beit Din (Court of Jewish Law), I attended and participated in the final conversion ceremony of two very different people.

One was an eleven-year-old girl of Asian descent who had been adopted as a baby and was converted, but never taken to mikvah; the other a young woman of color who, after marrying an Israeli in a civil ceremony, came to the realization that she wanted to live as a Jew. The young girl has been studying in our Religious School. The young woman has been studying steadily and seriously over an extended period of time to reach her goal.

I had been a little concerned about the response of the eleven-year-old girl to the prospect of mikvah and what it represented. After all, since birth, she has been raised as a Jew, and loves her Jewish sense of self. It’s the only identity she’s ever known. That she had not been taken to mikvah was simply a reflection of the fact that her previous conversion had not required it. How, I wondered, would she respond to being told that she needed to go to mikvah now in order to complete the process of becoming a part of the Jewish people?

Well- she was thrilled. Dressed in her best Shabbat clothes, she and her mother showed up early with smiles from ear to ear. There is no way to describe how proud this adorable young girl was, and how pleased she was with herself. A good day for the Jews, I thought to myself.

And then the other members of the Beit Din and I spent a few moments talking with the young married woman about what had brought her to this moment, and what challenges remained ahead for her. With tears running down her cheeks, she talked of how some members of her family would never understand her, and would never accept her adoption of Judaism. But she decided to go ahead because, at the end of the day, this is her spiritual journey, not her family’s. Her only concern is that she keep studying in order to insure that any children she and her husband might have would be brought up as good Jews. And while she’s talking, I’m thinking to myself “I’m not worthy to be in the same room as her.” I was so moved, and so impressed…

We spend so much time in the Jewish community being gatekeepers. It is a well-established fact that being Jewish for most of us is an accident of birth. Becoming Jewish is much harder. All true. But we would do well to remember how deserving of our respect are those who turn their lives upside down, and risk alienation from their families, in order to cast their lot with us.

They are, by and large, amazing people. And that’s no accident of birth.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.