a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika: Conversion to Judaism as an AG Lesbian

Posted on: June 11, 2014

About two weeks ago I got an email from an AG-identified Lesbian from Jersey interested in conversion to Judaism. J asked a few questions, which I happily answered, but if you’re a queer person of color who converted to Judaism and have some pointers for J, please share them in the comments.

I’ve been following your blog for the last year in admiration and although late, I’d like to congratulate you on seeing your calling through to completion (or at least the conversion process through to completion as I don’t believe it ends there). Two weeks ago, I met with a Reform Rabbi discussing my interest in Judaism and last Friday I attended service for the first time. Outside of needing people of color the experience was awesome as they were very friendly and inviting. However is it strange that I left the service still wanting…now what am I wanting that’s still unclear. It would have been nice to see people wearing Kippot and Tallitot; it came across like a Catholic Mass. By no means should this be perceived as judgement as this was my first experience and I really didn’t know what to expect. Is it typical to only have Friday service and no Shabbat service on Saturday? I am not sure if they have morning and evening services during the week. I’ve been leaning towards attending a Conservative Synagogue however my concern is that being a black, aggressive lesbian could be an issue. You’ve mentioned in recent blogs that you’ve switched to a Conservative Synagogue. Can you speak on your experience? Do you attend Saturday services and weekday prayers? Do you wear a Kippah, Tallit or Tefillin? Do other woman wear them? How was the environment? Last, do you still feel as drawn to Judaism post-conversion or has the struggle changed things?

Thanks for reading and your thoughts,
J

Hey J,

Thanks so much for taking the time to write to me.
You’re right, conversion to Judaism doesn’t end in the mikvah, it is a life-long, ever evolving process. I left Reform tradition because, like you, it reminded me too much of Catholic/Episcopalian services and yes, I’ve been a Conservative-identified Jew probably right after my conversion was complete. I attended a Conservative synagogue for Friday night services and an occasional Saturday morning service. I love the music of Shabbat evening service, though Torah service on Saturday is also really awesome.
The charismatic music director of my synagogue has left so I’ve been going to an all-Hebrew minyan in Brooklyn that I’m in love with. The only problem is that because it’s an independent minyan it only meets once a month so I’m shul hopping on other nights when I can make it. ( I recently lost my Jewish non-profit job and am working in retail management again.)
I think it’s pretty atypical to do only a Friday night service and not a Saturday morning service, especially because the Torah reading is typically only on Saturday.
In terms of fitting into a shul as a black ag lesbian, I think it really really depends on your community. I always (always) tell people to try out as many shuls as you can, depending on what your community has to offer. If there is a Renewal/Reconstructionist synagogue in your community, I would check those out as well. They tend to be a bit more open and accepting of Jews of Color and Queer Jews in general. I personally know several QWOC who are active participants in their Jewish communities through those movements. If you’re on Facebook, you should check out the small, but mighty LGBTQ Jews of Color group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/366575170067770/?fref=ts
A lot of us have converted and it’s good to at least see other queer Jews of Color.
Let me know if you have any other questions.

Erika

Erika,
Thank you for responding to me. I found your insight to be helpful. It does make sense to shul hop; I’m looking for a spiritual home so stopping at the first one is limiting. I think for me having to re-tell my story can be cumbersome, especially when some Rabbis subscribe to the “turn you away three times” rule to judge your intent and dedication. Not sure if you felt that way during your initial sit-downs. 
I never gave any real thought to the Reconstructionalist community. As small-minded as this may sound, if for some, Reform Jews are not really Jews because of them not participating fully within Halakhah. Then Reconstructionalist were completely outsiders like Messianic Jews. All, I am sure, are misconceptions of a newbie.  My limitation is living on the Jersey Shore and so my options are limited. Nevertheless, you’ve given me food for thought. 
Lastly, I saw your Jewish bookshelf on your blog, is there a book in particular that truly inspired/guided you in your conversion. I’m reading “Jewish Literacy” which is very detailed and informative but I don’t believe addresses that topic. (Unless I haven’t gotten that far which is very possible – that book is serious!)

Please feel free to use me email for your blog. Good luck on the shul and job hunt.
Thanks again,
J
Hey Jay-

Here are my responses to your questions:

I think for me having to re-tell my story can be cumbersome, especially when some Rabbis subscribe to the “turn you away three times” rule to judge your intent and dedication. Not sure if you felt that way during your initial sit-downs.
I don’t think that non-Orthodox rabbis will turn you away three times. That definitely didn’t happen with me, but yes, when you sit down to talk to rabbis they’ll most likely be interested in hearing about your religious back ground (if anything) and what your motivations are for seeking conversion. They should ask these questions and if they don’t ask about who you are as a person, rather than who you are in terms of your sexual orientation, I’d keep looking.
…Then Reconstructionalist were completely outsiders like Messianic Jews. All, I am sure, are misconceptions of a newbie
I thought the same thing, but when you look into the movement a bit more, you’ll find that they’re actually quite Torah-observant in some communities, way more than some Reform communities. When I went to a reconstructionist synagogue for Saturday morning service I was shocked by  how traditional it was-all in Hebrew, Torah reading, etc.
…is there a book in particular that truly inspired/guided you in your conversion
Jewish Literacy is amazing and crazy thorough. I use it still as a reference manual. Essential Judaism is also a really good reference manual. In terms of a book that helped to inspire or guide my conversion, Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life and Living a Jewish Life is awesome ( I love her in general) As well as Being Jewish by Ari Goldman.
Read as much as you can, it’s always good to have a good baseline of Jewish knowledge before going into a conversion, IMO.
Good luck!

1 Response to "Ask Erika: Conversion to Judaism as an AG Lesbian"

Hi friends –
I’m a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (and a convert) and a big homo, and am happy to both talk with you more about Reconstructionism, and to point you to a few congregations near you in Jersey that might be worth checking out, if you’re interested.
Good luck in your journey!
Heath.

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