a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika: Orthodox? Reform? Conservative? Just Jewish.

Posted on: August 29, 2012

Receiving e-mails from you is one of the best things of this “job”. I don’t, in any way, consider myself an expert in conversion or Judaism. I started writing this blog to get my thoughts about conversion, Judaism, race, identity, etc. out of my head and into a safe space. I hoped that people would be inspired by it, but I write for me. When you enjoy it and are moved to ask questions — that’s the icing on the cake.

Last week I got an e-mail from a reader in my original neck of the woods that got me thinking a lot about my conversion process. I thought I’d share some of those questions today. If you want to ask me a question, send me an e-mail at blackgayandjewish@gmail.com

Hi Erika,

First and foremost, thank you for sharing your conversion story to a mass audience. It has helped me fill in gaps, find answers to questions and overall get a taste for what to expect. I literally just began my Intro to Judaism class and, aside from the Jewish practices I’ve already incorporated into my life, I still have so much to learn! (As any Jew or Jew-in-progress, really. That’s the beauty of Judaism: learning never stops).

I did have a few other questions I would like to ask you, however.

First, reading about your increasing level of observance, may I ask what attracted you to Reform more than to the Conservative movement initially? I myself am gay and I believe in the complete and utter incorporation of ALL PEOPLE into worship life. I just can’t see myself in a community (or really, an institutionalized movement) that says otherwise. At the same time, I adore and thrive off of tradition which, unfortunately, oftentimes equates to a lack of progress regarding LGBT inclusion. To find both can be tricky.

Second, as just mentioned, I have two options at this moment. I have met with both a Conservative rabbi and a Reform rabbi; both have agreed to oversee my conversion should I choose their respective routes. Now that you’re attending both types of synagogues, what has your experience been? Do you prefer one over the other? What advice would you give to somebody like me who strongly believes in full equality and thrives off of traditions?

Lastly, how do you deal with all of the polemics of who is a Jew? Have you done/are you planning Aliyah? As far as you know, is a Conservative conversion any more “legitimate” than a Reform conversion? (Please pardon my terminology; I don’t agree with the politics of Jewishness whatsoever, but I’m aware that I need to be cognizant of them nonetheless, since this is the world I’ve decided to place myself into).

I’m excited for this journey, and I’m thankful to have so many first-hand resources to consult, like your own blog. Baruch HaShem!
Erika, thank you for taking the time to read my questions and answer them. Have a great week-

Best wishes,

X

 

Hi X!

I’ve copied and pasted each of your questions below. I hope they help you out! Best of luck with your conversion process-soak it all in because it goes by fast.

All the best,

Erika

 

First and foremost, thank you for sharing your conversion story to a mass audience. It has helped me fill in gaps, find answers to questions and overall get a taste for what to expect. I literally just began my Intro to Judaism class and, aside from the Jewish practices I’ve already incorporated into my life, I still have so much to learn! (As any Jew or Jew-in-progress, really. That’s the beauty of Judaism: learning never stops).

I did have a few other questions I would like to ask you, however. First, reading about your increasing level of observance, may I ask what attracted you to Reform more than to the Conservative movement initially? I myself am gay and I believe in the complete and utter incorporation of ALL PEOPLE into worship life. I just can’t see myself in a community (or really, an institutionalized movement) that says otherwise. At the same time, I adore and thrive off of tradition which, unfortunately, oftentimes equates to a lack of progress regarding LGBT inclusion. To find both can be tricky.

Deciding whether to do a Reform Conversion or a Conservative Conversion was one of those things I wish I could do over.  I thought, in looking at descriptions of each movement, I that the Reform movement was more in line with what I wanted and was looking for-especially as a gay person. The Reform movement was marrying LGBTQ Jewish couples, ordaining women as rabbis way sooner than the Conservative.

In hindsight, I think I would have preferred to do a Conservative conversion rather than a Reform conversion simply for the extensive learning involved. Doing a Reform conversion and then going into a Conservative synagogue was definitely a bit jarring. For some reason, I only went to Reform, Reconstructionalist or Renewal services–and then Orthodox, but I didn’t go to a Conservative. I think, had I visited my current synagogue during the process that I would have done my conversion there.  I don’t think it’s important to do a Conservative conversion now, though I may need to do one depending on what the rabbi at the synagogue I attend decides.

 This is not to say that my conversion process wasn’t amazing. During my conversion process I asked a lot of questions and my rabbis (who were beyond amazing) asked a lot of hard questions in return. They really challenged the things I challenged and pushed back a lot-it allowed me to sort of figure out my own path and as I realized that the synagogue I was converting in wasn’t for me they encouraged me to look for a synagogue that worked-which happened to be a Conservative synagogue.

The Conservative synagogue I attend has all of the tradition I crave, but is also incredibly queer by accident. They didn’t try to be an “all-inclusive” space they just are, which I really appreciate.

At times I am very drawn toward Orthodoxy simply for the sake of tradition and closeness to Gd. I realized, though, that doing an Orthodox conversion was out of the question because I couldn’t honestly take on all 613 Mitzvot and make promises I couldn’t keep or compromise the most important parts of who I am. As a result, I sort of adopt things that work and wrestle with things that do not.

I’m a Jew. To break it down into Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionalist, Renewal or Orthodox is too limiting for me. I appreciate things about all of the movements just as I dislike things in all of the movements. I sort of stick my toes into a lot of the traditions and make it work for me. I don’t have to keep kosher and I don’t-from a halachic standpoint-but there is a Jewish obligation to be aware of where my food comes from, right? Is it not also a Jewish obligation to make sure that the people who make that food are treated well? Many Orthodox people don’t see that side-it’s simply halacha. I can’t do things simple because I’m “supposed to”. It has to mean something for me.

Second, as just mentioned, I have two options at this moment. I have met with both a Conservative rabbi and a Reform rabbi; both have agreed to oversee my conversion should I choose their respective routes. Now that you’re attending both types of synagogues, what has your experience been? Do you prefer one over the other? What advice would you give to somebody like me who strongly believes in full equality and thrives off of traditions?

I think you should check them both out before making a decision. Go to a few Friday night services and some Saturday night services so that you get a feel for what the different movements are like. I’ve found that I much prefer my Conservative synagogue-but realize it may not be like other Conservative synagogues. The synagogue is big and old-but the congregation is on the smaller side-sometimes 40-60 ppl for Friday night service and sometimes barely a minyan when service starts. The synagogue doesn’t have a cantor-which I appreciate and instead kind of works like the Orthodox synagogues I’ve davened in.

These are my experiences:

Reform Synagogue feels too much like Catholic Mass for me. The large buildings, the stained glass, the cantor with the operatic singing voice, the “we are the ones who are doing the service up here on the bimah and you are the ones observing down there” feeling just turned me off. I started going to another Reform Synagogue closer to my home and had a better experience, but was a little confused by the page skipping during Friday night services-entire sections would be skipped over and while I enjoyed the lack of cantor and the more community feel I still didn’t get into it.

 I checked out the Conservative Synagogue I go to now on a friends recommendation. I walked in and felt instantly connected, though really confused. Even though it’s pretty queer it’s still a Conservative synagogue and the prayers are all in Hebrew. It seemed disorganized, people were praying at their own pace mumbling prayers in Hebrew, no one is on the same page- it’s all over the place on the surface or to an outsider, but for some reason I really enjoy it. It feels real rather than contrived. The leader isn’t praying for the community we pray along with him/her at our own pace. Every once in a while they’ll announce a page number, but you’re basically on your own. It feels really spiritual and I feel in control of my own religious experience, rather than it being in the hands of the rabbi and cantor. I should also say that I checked out Renewal and Reconstructionalist synagogues as well-both were interesting, but not for me.

I grew up in the Baptist church, and while I never “caught the Holy Ghost” I appreciated the movement in prayer. I saw that same movement in Orthodox synagogues and found the same, less buttoned-up approach to prayer in my synagogue.

Lastly, how do you deal with all of the polemics of who is a Jew? Have you done/are you planning Aliyah? As far as you know, is a Conservative conversion any more “legitimate” than a Reform conversion? (Please pardon my terminology; I don’t agree with the politics of Jewishness whatsoever, but I’m aware that I need to be cognizant of them nonetheless, since this is the world I’ve decided to place myself into).

Who Is a Jew is one of my favorite questions in the whole world wide-because there isn’t just one answer. I think a lot of it has to do with self-preservation, our history of persecution and a desire to keep families and traditions strong-yet our tradition shows that our ancestors where, themselves, converts. Our most important historical Biblical figures were so why does it matter who is and who is not a born Jew? Further more, the notion-no demand-to love the stranger is our obligation as Jews. Not to mention the fact that before being Jewish was illegal and punishable by death we proselytized with the best of them. Those are usually my answers to the who is (who is not) a Jew question.

I’m not planning on making Aliyah. Israel and I have a complicated love affair. My partner would never move to Israel so it’s out of the question. In terms of being called to Torah-I suppose if I stayed at my synagogue I would’ve had the honor-but I also don’t speak or read Hebrew.

In terms of the legitimacy of conversions it depends on who you talk to :) Orthodox people-no matter what they say-will say that a Reform/Conservative conversion is illegitimate for many reasons-women on a beit din, lack of full Torah commitment/observance, etc., etc., etc. I have great Orthodox friends though who don’t think like this, but their parents would/do-If I were straight and sought marriage with an Orthodox man we couldn’t get married in an Orthodox synagogue and therefore wouldn’t be married.

I’ve struggled with this for a long time-not for myself, but for my unborn children. Mainly because I wonder what would happen if my child wanted to make Aliyah to Israel-would they be able to?  What if they were able to and then wanted to get married to an Isaeli-could they? I almost considered an Orthodox conversion to avoid all of these questions of legitimacy, but I know white, straight Orthodox converts who still have the validity of their conversion questioned. They’re unable to find a suitable partner simply because of their status as a convert…

Some Reform synagogues have dismissed time-honored conversion rituals like the brit malah, mikvah and beit din-which is unfortunate. You sort of “have” to do certain things to become a Jew and to decide not to do them seems a bit off to me. B’H my Reform synagogue does all of those things. Technically my conversion is valid-I went to the mikvah-but technically it’s not because women were on my beit din. I’ve been told to my face and via internet that I’m not a Jew-not because I’m black or gay, but because I did a Reform conversion.

In the end, I converted for me and not anyone else. My promises in the mikvah and before the bimah are the same now as they were then-I’m living a Jewish life, I’m creating a Jewish home, I want a Jewish family. People will say all kinds of shit, but I didn’t become Jewish for them I became Jewish for me. People are simply people and Gd knows what’s in my heart. Which is how I sometimes respond-which will either get a more angry reply or silence.

Hope this helps.

Erika

 

4 Responses to "Ask Erika: Orthodox? Reform? Conservative? Just Jewish."

I got the same email. We responded similarly :-) Indeed, we must be–and our–our own Jews first, foremost, and irrespective of denominational affiliation, and it’s ok to make our own choices about the ritual(s) we want to mark our conversion. It all centers on finding the Jew you are inside, and finding where you fit in–and in which communities/denominations you want to be able to ritually participate. (For example, iIf you don’t want to participate ritually in an Orthodox congregation and choose a Reform or Conservative conversion, there’s really no problem there. David Wilensky makes that point on his blog.)

Also, at least one ritually Orthodox blogger holds to Judaism being prior to denominational affiliation (if that makes sense.) Have you read any of Mayim Bialik’s stuff over on Kveller? She’s Orthodox, she views her husband as Jewish, but because he did not have an Orthodox conversion, her family does not.

May be all have her kind of equanimity to accept Jews as Jews regardless of how they daven!

Er. “Are” and “we”. Damned ADHD typing fingers…

I had absolutely no idea that Mayim Bialik’s husband is a convert. Or that her husband’s mom also converted to Judaism a few years after he did. You learn something new every day….

[...] all of this, it’s no secret that I’ve often considered doing an Orthodox conversion and I’m envious of those who have the chutzpah to do so. It takes a lot to commit to a [...]

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