This is the short version of my path toward Judaism, up to the present. I could go on for hours about my 8th grade teacher and his unit on the Holocaust or the people at South Street Temple who have influenced my walk, my halakhic adventure. But I’ve chosen to make this as precise as possible, detailing the moments where my heart and mind met and told me that this was who I was.
When I was in the fifth grade, I spent two weeks crying myself to sleep every night. I would stare at the ceiling, tears running down my face, asking questions and hoping someone or something would answer. I was talking to a G-d I knew little about, and asking the big questions about what my purpose was and what would happen when I died. I spent two weeks scared to death of dying, and every night I would ask the same questions, and I would spend my days in class filled with fear. I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t discuss it with my parents, and it was the first time I began to question what I believed. I was a child, but I knew there was something out there for me and I was determined to discover what it was. At the end of those two weeks, I was different, but I didn’t know how. I understood that death wasn’t what I was here to pursue, and it no longer scared me. I was changed, but as a child, I didn’t quite understand how.
I grew up in the Bible Belt in southern Missouri, where everyone was white and the golden rule TED-Karen-Armstong-Profile was as religious as my family got. My exposure to religion and faith was through my friends – all from families of devout Christians – and I spent my summers at Vacation Bible School with friends. I saw crucifixes on my friend’s bedroom walls and sat silent watching families as I sat at their dinner table as they thanked G-d and Jesus for the delicious meal we were to eat. I never fit in, and when I couldn’t sleep at night I’d poke through the Bible my parents had bought for me. I would read all the begettings, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea and so on. But when I got to the crucifixion and New Testament, I was perplexed. I couldn’t comprehend this idea of a G-d who would give himself a human body and sacrifice himself for the sins of those of us on Earth. My G-d expected more of individuals, expected us to do good here in order to reap the benefits in whatever afterlife was to come.
When I hit middle school, we moved to Nebraska and I grew to resent organized religion. I saw the giant churches in town and didn’t understand how anyone could expect to have a personal relationship with G-d if they were viewing a telecast version of the sermon. It wasn’t until high school that I took a gander at Christianity. It was all I had known growing up, but even then I’d just scraped the top of the barrel. All my friends in high school were devoutly Christian and I took on many of their habits and joined many Christian organizations. I would go on weekend praise and worship trips to small Nebraska towns, but it was never about Jesus for me. It was social – a chance to meet new people. But I couldn’t live with the thought that we must spend our entire lives living solely for the pursuit of getting into Heaven. And I got tired of trying to force myself to believe in something I hadn’t believed in since I was so young. I grew weary of no one being able to talk, discuss and argue about the finer points of the Bible with me. No one was willing to waiver – the answers to my questions from friends and pastors were always, “Because that’s what the Bible tells us.” Frustrated from my inquiries, I began to re-explore my own faith and develop my beliefs in my own way.
When I went to college, I lost most of my high school friends. I was exploring my religion, and they were sticking with what they grew up with – most of them weren’t willing to wish me luck in my journey. I found a friend in a devout Christian who would talk to me well into the night about religion. He didn’t tell me I was wrong, and rather listened to what I believed. We discussed, debated and I started to find myself curious about my beliefs. I took an “Explaining Religions” class my first semester, which would take an issue and discuss how each religion touched on that issue. I found myself looking at Judaism as if I were looking in a mirror. It suddenly hit me that this was something I should explore, so I began to buy books on Judaism and conversion, and I read book after book. I probably went through five books in just a few months. I then started taking Judaic Studies courses and quickly decided I would minor in Judaic Studies. In “Introduction to Judaism” I found myself in the tribes. In “Jews in the Middle Ages” I found myself amid the persecution of Jews in Europe. I had thought for the longest time that there was no community for me and that my beliefs couldn’t be matched anywhere – I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in anywhere and that I was alone on my walk.
In 2003 I decided that I wanted to convert. I was so immersed in Jewish culture and religion, but I lacked the reality of the experience. I knew few Jewish students and I was reluctant to go to synagogue because I knew no one there. I continued to read and immerse myself in whatever books I could find, and in August 2004 I began attending South Street Temple with a friend from school. From the moment I stepped into the Temple, the at-home feeling I got while reading and learning hit me. The congregants welcomed me, and I started attending Shabbat services every Friday and going to Torah study on Saturday mornings. I started keeping mildly kosher and began observing the holidays, while working with South Street Temple’s then-rabbi Debbie Stiel on conversion. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Ilan Emanuel arrived in 2005 that I really felt as though conversion were in my future. I got heavily involved in Hillel and started to attend events in Lincoln and Omaha with Jewish 20somethings. Most recently we went to the Chabad House, and to be honest, I’ve never had such a wonderful time before. The singing and prayers and service and food and community made me feel so alive in my Jewishness and Judaism.
My belief in one G-d and the ideal that what we do here in this life is most important to our community and selves is something incredibly important to me. Finding a community that shares my basic beliefs while also being willing to discuss, argue and hypothesize about all things also is incredibly important to me. I have spent so much of my life having my questions answered with simple “Because it says so,” that finding and being a part of a community that is in constant pursuit of something gives me so many reasons to feel alive. I feel unsettled when I don’t make it to synagogue on Fridays – my week can’t begin or end without knowing that I’ve had my time to make peace with the week. I learned very early that prayer allowed me something unique.