Choose Jewish

It is such a gift when I hear my conversion students affirm their Jewish beliefs, dip in the waters of the mikveh, and proudly recite the Sh’ma for the first time. In a way, I’ll admit, I even find myself a bit envious.

by Rabbi Nicole Guzik

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Every so often, I serve as an eid – a witness to those converting to Judaism. As someone who regularly meets with conversion candidates, I can confidently say that conversion to Judaism is not an easy task: months and months of study, observance of kashrut and Shabbat, attending Friday night and Saturday morning services, engaging in deep reflection as to why you are choosing to follow a religion different than what you know. And for many people – a real struggle as to why you are choosing a religion that doesn’t include the pretty Christmas tree in the corner; choosing the religion that clearly sets you apart from mainstream America. It is such a gift when I hear my conversion students affirm their Jewish beliefs, dip in the waters of the mikveh, and proudly recite the Sh’ma for the first time…I get goose bumps; I’m in awe of their commitment .

And in a way, I’ll admit – I even find myself a bit envious. It seems like a funny feeling to experience when watching someone in their final stages of conversion but you understand if you’ve heard someone speak about their first Jewish experiences. And if you haven’t had the opportunity for such a conversation, let me paint the picture. Imagine lighting the Shabbat candles for the very first time: taking a deep breath in, pausing before striking the match, letting the worries of the week melt way, and with the kindling of the wick, feeling the warmth and glow of Shabbat ushered into your home.  Adults who convert to Judaism travel a spiritual journey that involves an embrace of thousands of years of tradition. They choose Jewish. So why the envy? I wish there were moments in the lives of those born Jewish – asking us, challenging us, pushing us – to choose Judaism again. Moments that shake us up – reminding us that our Judaism should not be taken for granted.

Here are some of the questions conversion students are asked to answer by rabbis on a beit din:

Do you accept the God of Israel as the one universal and indivisible God?

Do you commit yourself to the further study of Judaism and to continued growth in the observance of mitzvot?

Will you support all those who seek to reestablish and revitalize our Jewish homeland by making the land and State of Israel a part of your life and the life of your family?

Do you commit yourself by associating with the Jewish community? With your synagogue?

Do you bind your personal destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people?

Jews born into Judaism are rarely asked these questions. From bris to bar mitzvah, for better or worse, we are accepted because of lineage. But imagine standing before a beit din of rabbis, asked to answer that very list of questions.  If push came to shove and our personal Judaism was being evaluated – would we be proud of the Jews we have become?

It is time to find individual and communal ways to purposefully re-choose our Judaism – to ensure that our spiritual journeys remain fresh, relevant, engaging, and real.

In the Forward this week, an article came out discussing the reasons why people convert. While it’s still true that the majority of people convert while in some kind of relationship, there is a growing trend of young, single people looking to better themselves within the Jewish faith. One woman went to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. After watching a film that included a myriad of positive Jewish images (conveying the Jewish obligation to Israel, Torah, and tikkun olam) the woman whispered, “This is why I want to be a Jew.”

Can we answer with that same conviction?

There is a lengthy inquiry amongst Jewish thinkers and commentators: are the Jews the chosen people? Maimonides, the medieval Sephardic philosopher gives a fascinating definition of what it means to be “chosen.”  He explains that a person is “chosen” if they set themselves apart to stand before, to serve, to worship and to know God.” The person that initiates a relationship with God, strives to engage with Israel, learns more about their Jewish roots, and takes the time to develop Jewish identity – that is a chosen person. Chosen-ness is a result of choosing every day to renew one’s Jewishness, choosing to be in relationship with God and the Jewish people.

When a convert joins the Jewish faith, they complete their conversion with the following statement:

I pray that in all these ways, I may continue to grow in my love Judaism and find blessing because of my decision to become one with the Jewish people. By joining Judaism and the Jewish people, may I add my willing heart and hands to our eternal task of being God’s partners in seeking to perfect the world under God’s universal sovereignty. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear O’ Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

No need to be envious. We are on this journey together. Let us learn from our brothers and sisters by adding our willing hearts and hands to the eternal task of being God’s partner. Every day – we must find avenues to renew our faith and strengthen our conviction. Every day – we get to choose.  Choose wisely. Choose Jewish.

Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.