a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika: Nailing Down a rabbi during the Chaggim

Posted on: August 30, 2012

The chaggim are a particularly interesting time of year for rabbis who are extremely busy gearing up for the busiest time of year. Catching and holding their attention is not only hard, it’s close to impossible. Yet, it was right before the High Holidays in 2010 when I first approached a rabbi about my desire to convert to Judaism!

I’d visited a few synagogues and decided to just walk into a few of them. Maybe I was feeling all Charlotte York, but I literally walked in, found the rabbi and said, “I want to be a Jew.”  I gotta tell you, it was a bit nerve wracking and totally awkward, but they all told me the same thing, “Great to hear! You should buy tickets for our High Holiday services! And I’ll call you after the Holidays.

As luck would have it a synagogue on the Upper East Side started conversion classes right before the High Holidays. As a result, our instructor was able to get us discounted (free) tickets to service. I went by myself and it was a very uncomfortable experience. I didn’t understand the service, I didn’t have anyone by my side, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Last year was a completely different story and this year I’m even more excited to celebrate the Holidays with my friends in shul and with friends and my partner in our home.

Preparing for the Holidays is hard enough and when you’ve finally made the decision that a conversion is the right path for you … in the month of Elul, you’re faced with another challenge-Wanting to start the process, but waiting until after the Holidays to even sit across from a rabbi in their study.

I’ve been e-mailing back and forth with a reader I’ll call T. T’s a black woman considering converting to Judaism and wanted to know where to start. Hard question, right? I wasn’t sure how to answer her question succinctly and told her so. I also warned her that reaching out to a rabbi this time of year would be extremely difficult, but told her not to be shy about introducing herself to the rabbi of the only Conservative synagogue in her area and to continue to go to service as much as possible. I also pointed her towards some books and encouraged her to get as much reading done as possible.

T wrote back a few days later with more questions. I thought it would be best to cut and paste some her questions and some of my answers. If you have any answers for her, please forward them, she would appreciate the support, especially if you’re also in an area with a small Jewish community. It’s been hard for me to relate to that experience because New York City has just as many synagogues as most states have churches.

Here’s T’s response to my first e-mail:

I went and talked to the Rabbi and am in a way more confused than I was before. He did ask me about myself, my background as you said. While he did not outwardly say “no” he did not say “yes” either.  He did, how ever, invite me to come back for services and classes, saying I was welcome, but did not set a schedule of any kind or tell me to read any thing.  Is that what you experienced? Is he testing the water with me?  It is a strange place to be in. Knowing, but not knowing, just starting and not knowing anyone, people starting to include you, but then remembering you are not Jewish and apologizing and hoping they did not cause offense. I know every journey is different, but was this your finding, not having set class and learning times? That awkward in between time of starting to belong, but not quite?

I hope this emails finds you well, and I thank you for opening yourself to my questions.

Shavuah Tov,


*Edited for length and clarity


Hi T,

I approached a rabbi right before the Chaggim and got the same answer. Things will settle down a bit after Sukkot I’m sure, but until then I’m sure that you won’t be able to reach anyone or get any real answers, which I know can be frustrating. The great thing about Elul is that it gives you time to reflect on the year that’s passed, but the year that’s in front of us. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s avoiding you or testing you-he’s probably just really busy.

Because of the size of the synagogue I converted in, I took an established “Intro to Judaism” class that was open to anyone interested in furthering their Jewish knowledge. So we had some Jews in the class as well as people seeking conversion. After the first trimester of class I was paired with one of the congregational rabbis and we met on a monthly basis-sometimes more- for about a year. It was great to have my rabbi’s support, but it was also a lot of my own work-which is sort of how conversion works. This is just my opinion, but the rabbis will give you the tools; they’ll teach you about traditions, you’ll learn the prayers, you’ll understand the Holidays, you’ll learn about kashrut and maybe learn some Hebrew but what they give is basic-it’s our job, as Jews to continue to learn using the tools they’ve provided.

I’m not saying your rabbi won’t be there for you, but as my conversion rabbi told me at the mikvah-the rabbi’s role is simply to hold post at the gate. They let you in and then they welcome you into the community but all of the work happens on our end.

In terms of feeling lost, the entire process between first walking into a synagogue to walking into the mikvah feels like an in between stage and if I’m being honest, afterwards can feel like free-falling. Your rabbis are a great support system, but after you’re a Jew the rest is up to you.

In the meantime, I agree with the rabbi-going to service is a great first step. It allows him/her to see that you’re committed to conversion, you get to know the community and get to play a role in that community. I would follow up with him, acknowledging that the holidays are a busy time and try to get something into his/her schedule after the Holidays. They run around like crazy people this time of year !


Good luck!



2 Responses to "Ask Erika: Nailing Down a rabbi during the Chaggim"

She should use sidduraudio.com to get through services. It was my best friend for a long time. Wikipedia is also great for those who don’t read Hebrew because it offers the transliteration and actual hebrew right next to the English. Best of luck to her on her journey!

I love Siddur Audio. It’s still my go-to site for nigunim.

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