a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika:My Synagogue Thinks I’m Only There Because of my Boyfriend!

Posted on: June 10, 2013

Last week before Shabbat I got an email from a black woman in Atlanta who’s considering converting to Judaism. She also happens to be dating someone who is Jewish, so or course the assumption is that she’s converting for this man.

One of the most lasting words of advice my rabbi gave me while converting was that there’s a difference in converting for someone and converting because of someone. Conversion for someone, in my humble opinion, has more to do with pleasing that person, their family, or their community, whereas converting because of someone implies that because of love, the person’s connection to Judaism, the person’s love of Judaism, the person’s actions one is moved to consider Judaism as a religious option for them personally.

When M and I started dating I was in my Christian phase. I knew that after a year of Episcopal church that I would explore Judaism. She just happened to be Jewish. When I started going to shul I wanted her to go with me. I think I even asked if she would join me at the first synagogue I attended. For various reasons she couldn’t and I went alone. I continued to go alone and as I went to shul, read about Jewish beliefs, customs, culture and thought I felt something shift in me. It wasn’t about her, it was about how it felt to learn and be pulled towards a faith that was both ancient, new and different.

Even now, most of the Jewish activity in our home is because I’ve wanted it. The mezuzah’s on our doors most surely wouldn’t be there I hadn’t hung them. We wouldn’t light candles on Friday nights and we most certainly wouldn’t have a pseudo kosher kitchen. Even as my drive to attend shul slightly wanes, the pull to go, to pray, to continue to learn comes from inside of me.

Of course, it’s helpful for a wide variety of reasons that she’s a Jew. In fact, the other day on our front porch she looked over to me with a loving smile and said, “I’m so happy you’re Jewish.” I am too.

As always, if you’d like to ask me a question you can do so by emailing me: blackgayandjewish@gmail.com

 

Hi Erika,

I’ve been reading your blog since I decided to convert a year ago. It’s been really helpful as a person who is black and will be Jewish if all goes well.
 
I dunno where to begin, so I’m just going to begin.
 
I started dating a guy that I’ve known since I was 19 (I’m 22 now) this past January. When we started talking this past December, he asked me what my religious beliefs were, and I told him that I’d decided earlier that year to convert to Judaism. He’s Jewish and he likes me, so I think that sealed the deal for him.
 
About a month ago, we went to a Conservative synagogue for a Shabbat morning service. I convinced Mr. Boyfriend to go- he hadn’t been to synagogue since he was younger. The people that I interacted with directly were really nice to me- I was certainly not expecting that. There was staring too- I had expected that. It took a few weeks for us to make it back, but last week we returned and we went to breakfast after and two people- the rabbi and the VP of the congregation officially invited us to join them in the future. 
 
The VP offered to put me in touch with people who could help me through the conversion process, and he did. He emailed me today (just before I emailed you, in fact) and told me that I should meet with the senior rabbi. 
 
I’m surprised at how kind helpful people have been and I feel a little confused also. Were they only really nice because they think I’m getting married? I am not planning on getting married any time soon, and what if I don’t marry my current boyfriend (likely, I AM 22)? It also bugs me that everyone assumes that he got me to go, but that’s another thing entirely.
 
I also started with this synagogue because I wanted to see what it’d be like. I haven’t visited any other synagogues. How unwise would it be of me to choose this one so early on? What if there’s another synagogue I like more? Or a rabbi I like more? Granted, I don’t feel I have too much choice- I live in Atlanta. 
 
And then there’s the (mostly silly) issue of Mr. Boyfriend’s tallis. It’s at his parent’s house. I’ve told him to pick it up more than once. He refuses to go get it unless I go with him. Problem is, he made the mistake of telling me that his parents disliked the idea of me. I assumed they would, but that hasn’t left me eager to hang out with them. He’s close to his family, which is actually something I like about him, but I feel the time on my avoiding-Mr.Boyfriend’s-parents game is running out. 
 
This is the longest email I’ve ever sent anyone. I need some help.
 
Thanks & best wishes,
 
I
_____________
Hi I,

 
Thanks so much for reading my blog and for reaching out to me! Sounds like a whole lot of interesting happening in Hotlanta 🙂
 
First and foremost, I definitely agree that you should synagogue shop as much as possible and focus on you and your journey without your boyfriend or his family’s influence. It absolutely has to be what you want and on your own terms. I don’t think you necessarily need to let the rabbis know that you’re with a Jewish person when you’re exploring new communities unless it’s the reason you’re converting-and it sounds like that’s not the case.The two shouldn’t be and aren’t mutually exclusive and the rabbis should know that you’re pursuing a conversion because you’re drawn to the Jewish faith/people/etc.
 
Secondly, you’re sure to get looks of curiosity, wonder, and more as a JOC. There are great organizations online that will connect you with other Jews of Color. I would suggest finding Jewish Multiracial Network, Be’chol Lashon, and Jews in All Hues on Facebook if you haven’t already done so. You can also join some of the many Jewish Facebook groups-the only two that I trust are JOC Plus https://www.facebook.com/groups/331526440239854/ and Jews of Color United https://www.facebook.com/groups/jewsofcolor/ others tend to attract the Israelite contingency which sometimes gets messy.
 
Lastly, do what’s best for you without thought of your BF’s family, the congregants and people at synagogues. People have an idea of what a Jew is and it’s mostly always personally focused. They have a hard time seeing or identifying with Jews who look different from what they’re used to, even though Jews have always been a diverse people. Try not to let it detour you.
 
All the best and Shabbat Shalom,
 
Erika
If you have suggestions for I, please leave them in the comments.

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