Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why am I converting Orthodox?

After my post of frustration yesterday, and a conversation tonight with a Reform rabbi friend, I decided to write this because I don't know that I've written anything like this before. It's long and wandering, much like my path so far, but give it a go if you will. I might write more on this again, and if I do? Well, I hope it's well-perceived.

For a long time, I thought that the fact that I converted almost three years ago under the auspices of the Reform (not Reformed, folks) movement was to my advantage in my pursuing an Orthodox conversion. I mean, I know the rules of the game. I've studied for almost six years now. I've learned halakot, traditions, customs, prayers, songs, holidays, you name it, I know it. The neshama says feed me, I give it lots of Jewishly oriented foodstuffs, and it wants more. My neshama is an overweight 6-year-old with a penchant for Manischewitz, kugel, and everything challah.

But then, just last night, someone asked me why I felt like I needed to re-convert. This person, a respected friend (I think I can call him that), said that he has a problem with people who nullify or negate their Reform conversions when they convert Conservative or Orthodox. And that really got me thinking. Do I really have it so lucky?

You see, people who come at Orthodox Judaism with a fresh face, from a Christian or Atheist or Pentecostal or Muslim or Buddhist background are going at it straight. They say, "I chose Judaism" and it's left at that. There's no questioning why they chose specifically Orthodoxy as their conversion method. There might be, but it doesn't come with the question: "So what? Reform conversion not good enough for you?"

A long time ago, when I started this whole path down the road of Orthodoxy, I made very clear that I'm not re-converting. I don't need the certificate. I have one, and it's really pretty, and I'm quite a fan of it. It's in an envelope, and every now and again I pluck the envelope out of my file cabinet and look at it. The white out spots because the rabbi accidentally wrote the location of our shul and not the location of the mikvah and beth din. It has personality, a history, it's where I began. That shul? It's my family. It's like that family you can't ever forget. Because, first and foremost when you convert, is you can't forget where you came from.

I have a first family, my nuclear family. They were my "the golden rule is the rule" family who never made us go to church and insisted upon pride, truth, and the pursuit of honesty. Then there's my second family, the shul family, who helped shape me and show me that my Jewish soul wasn't just a figment of my imagination. They helped me grow and thrive and become Chaviva, the Jew, the girl who has traced both sides of her family back to the 1700s without finding a single Jew (lots of Quakers though!). And now? I have a third family, my Orthodox family. A community of people who insist upon dinners and stay-overs and challah and kindness and smiles and hugs and helping me affirm my Jewish soul, the Jew, Chaviva. To them? I'm nothing but Chaviva. A girl who will someday dip in a mikvah and will come out the same as she is right now this very second.

So it's not, I repeat not, re-converting. I'm reaffirming my Jewishness. It's a reaffirmation of my neshama, my path, and acknowledging that I'm still moving on that path, and that I've arrived at another fork in the road, I've come upon another family, that here I am in this beautiful place with these beautiful people and my Jewishness is thriving and springing forth in a more observant, traditional, skirt-filled, and heckschered-food kind of way. You're not looking at a photo here, folks. This is a motion-picture. A movie. No stills here.

I can't really express how much I am not nullifying or discounting or throwing out my Reform conversion. How can I? It's what got me started on this path. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again -- Reform Judaism (for me and many others I know) is the gateway drug. It's the most opening, welcoming, easy-to-feel-at-home-in form of Judaism that's out there. Without my Reform family? I wouldn't be here. Had I just gone to that grumpy ole' Conservative shul way back when, I probably would have stopped dead in my tracks. I would have said "goodbye Judaism! hello ______!" Reform Judaism was my starting point, I was there hashkafically and it made sense then. Now I'm here. My ending point? I don't know.

I'm not exactly sure what will happen some day when I feel more observant, more Jewish, whatever. It's a process -- a process of evolution and reevaluation and reconsideration and most importantly, reaffirmation. That's why we have such important milestones within Judaism. You have a naming ceremony or bris, an upsherin, a bar or bat mitzvah, an engagement, a wedding, a first baby, and the cycle repeats. Some men have second bar mitzvahs. There are all of these cycles that we honor, we affirm that we're Jewish and these events are significant in our growth personally and spiritually. And for me? Well, the conversion under the auspices of the RCA and Orthodox movement just means that I'm hitting another milestone (here's hoping the next is engagement, eh!?).

I'm not affirming my hashkafah amid Orthodoxy because I'm worried about having fully Jewish kids who won't have to suffer through conversions or questions or because I want my wedding to be legit for my future Jewish husband and his family (though these are definitely bonuses to the whole shebang). It isn't for a sheet of paper. It isn't because -- like I said so long ago -- that I will jump through as many hoops as Orthodox Jews want so that they'll see me as REALLY Jewish. No, it's because I want to affirm where I am Jewishly, where my neshama is Jewishly, where my body is Jewishly. Sitting before a beth din and having them ask me if I'm going to raise my kids Jewish, if I'm going to cover my hair and go to mikvah and all of these things, well, to me that makes sense. It is me affirming where I am now.

The question was then posed -- if I had originally converted Orthodox, and decided to go Reform, would I insist upon a Reform conversion? And my answer was no. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. It's nice that we can float so fluidly between belief and observance and everything. I've oft referred to myself as an Underconstructionist Jew and I think that's how ALL Jews should identify. Labels create havoc and confusion and frustration. They create the "us and them" philosophy, and they are what is driving the right further right and the left further left. The middle? It's a lost art. But wouldn't it make sense, if people really thought about where they were? Am I an observant Jew? A non-observant Jew? Am I pro-Israel? Anti-Israel? Am I pro-mechitzah? Anti-mechitzah? And think these things without feeling like there's a suffocating pressure to actually CHOOSE a side, or to do so with the fear of oppression and dissection and being picked apart by the other side. If only we could feel safe to define ourselves and affirm ourselves. To define ourselves by what we ARE and what we BELIEVE and not by what we are NOT and what we don't believe.

I refuse to define myself by what I am NOT.

So this is all I can say. I see myself as a traditional-seeking, mitzvot perfecting, mechitzah loving, GLBT and women's rights believing, hopeful, realist Jew who happens to feel cozy right now in the modern Orthodox community. As such? I feel like it's a good time for me to reaffirm my Judaism. Once upon a time, I refused to even consider that someday I'd be Conservative or Orthodox. Why? Because people told me, and I read everywhere, that it was oppressive, hateful, condescending, secretive, unwelcoming, archaic, and wrong. It was anti-forward thinking. It was stuck in the past. It was not what Judaism is meant to be. But then? I realized that wasn't the truth. At all. It was the opposite. What I experienced was different. And I chose to NOT define myself by what I wasn't and instead take a look at what I was and what I felt and believed.

And here I am. Reaffirming, reaffirming, reaffirming.

But the most important thing? I'm doing this for me. It feels right for me. I was planning this before Tuvia. Before Connecticut. Before all of this. I'm not doing it for anyone or to prove anything. I have nothing to prove. It's how I feel. It's what my heart sings, and if it's right for me, if it's what I feel is necessary for me, for my neshama, for my own heart and mind and body, then that's all that matters. And if you don't agree? Well, you can have your own conversation with G-d to battle that one out.

Because, really? It's between G-d and me.

(It would be nice to have everyone on board with me here, though.)