I am what many (including myself) refer to as a “Jew by Choice.” Several years ago I decided to start exploring the option and process of conversion: I was in a committed, long-term relationship with my now husband who was raised Jewish and who felt strongly about raising any future children in the same faith he was raised in and identified with so closely. I come from a historically Catholic/Protestant family background, but what little church I did attend growing up was Unitarian Universalist.
Religion and faith did not play a huge role in my life or in how I identified myself, or in how I related to others. When I converted to Judaism in 2018 one of the things the rabbi with whom I worked said to me, and that stuck with me, is that practicing Judaism is about coming together in community to worship and observe, and about sharing that community with others.
This was a far cry from the type of “individual spirituality” I had always labeled myself as having. But I made a commitment early on in my Jewish journey to ensuring that it always involved an active and vibrant religious community life. When I moved to Baltimore that meant joining my synagogue—an institution that has a practice of welcoming and embracing converts like me, as well as interfaith couples and families. I developed comfort in that space; listening to and learning from others about the what, why, and how of practicing Judaism in the Reform tradition.
But it wasn’t until I joined the ICJS as a Congregational Leaders Fellow that I had to grapple more seriously with my discomfort of being a representative for my more newly acquired faith. In our meetings, I am sometimes the only Jewish person in a Zoom breakout session. Or I am put into a room with many other Jews who I perceive as having much longer Jewish histories than I, or much more “traditional” experiences: growing up going to synagogue, having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, etc. One thing I have struggled with is how to convey my experience with Judaism as also being a distinctly Jewish experience.
Of course when I step back to reflect on my discomfort, I realize I don’t expect, for example, my Catholic cohort fellows to speak on behalf of all other Catholics. Indeed, when our Christian fellows did their joint faith presentation, it reflected a multitude of beliefs. I know treating any religious group that reductively—i.e., expecting one member to speak on behalf of the whole—is anathema to the point of us all gathering in the first place to share our diverse views and experiences across faiths.
But still there is a disclaimer I always felt compelled to offer in these spaces: that I am “new, relatively speaking, to Judaism,” and that anything I say about the faith should be understood within that context. I am working to embrace this disclaimer through my participation in this fellowship as something that is as much a part of my Judaism as someone’s experiences being raised in the faith are a part of their Judaism.
Studies show that my experience isn’t unique. One estimate suggested that 1 in 6 American Jews are themselves converts and that the racial demographics of American Jews are slowly becoming more diverse too. I sense among my cohort that this type of plurality of experiences within a religion is not unique to Judaism. It makes me think that as people of faith it is incumbent upon us to reimagine more expansive and inclusive ideas of what it means to be people of faith. This value is becoming a part of my Jewish identity and it certainly goes hand in hand with our Jewish concept of welcoming and caring for the stranger, as we were once strangers in a strange land.
The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.