I grew up in a non religious home in a small, rural southern town in Alabama…population 2,000. I became interested in religion while in high school when I was taking a comparative religion class. I studied what I could at the local public and university libraries. At some point I became interested in Christianity and Paganism but never really made either of them a personal path.
As time went by, (primarily in the 1990’s) I became deeply interested in biblical customs and culture and I studied as much as I could about it. I would often visit various churches but as mentioned before, I was always somewhat detached from religion in general. I loved to hear about others beliefs but I didn’t really know what I believed. And to be completely honest, I’m pretty sure I never really searched for my own belief system.
Then in 2001, I moved to Illinois and it was there that I became interested in Judaism. It was not the same interest I had for Christianity or Paganism. This was different somehow, although it is unclear, to me at least, what provoked the interest. I remember learning about Judaism on a website and something just clicked in me. The next thing I know, I had this strange desire to go and speak to a Rabbi. I cannot even describe the desire. It was kind of like when one becomes so thirsty that all they can do or think of is getting that drink of water. I felt so compelled to talk to a Rabbi that I could not focus on anything else.
When I was finally able to meet with him, I remember only two things he told me: First, he told me about an account in the Talmud (although I had no idea what that was at the time) when a non Jew wanted to convert to Judaism but only if the Rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while the perspective convert stood on one foot. The other thing was he gave me a book about Shabbat, the High Holy Days, and other basic information and told me to attend services for a year. After which, if I was still attending services, we could discuss possible conversion at that time.
Soon after this though, I had to return to Alabama to help care for my dying grandfather. I began attending services at a synagogue about 30 minutes away and after several visits, I began asking some members about talking to a Rabbi about possible conversion. One lady, who was a convert herself, pointed me into the direction of a Reform Rabbi two hours away…or she said you could speak to a Rabbi from Chabad. You would LOVE Chabad but don’t let their beards scare you. Oh! And if you choose Chabad, you will have to move there. Good luck!
I did not want to move for a few reasons…the main one being because of financial reasons. So I chose the Reform Rabbi, although he strongly insisted many times that I move to a Jewish community, he did not require it for conversion. I was eventually able to take some Judaism 101 classes over the next several months and met with two separated Rabbis and a Cantor on several different occasions. The whole process took about a year, in which I also had a personal tutor to help me read Hebrew…and I also had to attend services at a synagogue for a year, but I was already in the process of doing that.
Just before my conversion ceremony, I was required to go into the mikveh…I think I had to dip under three different times…well, actually four, because one time, I still had my hand out of the water, holding onto the side when I dipped under…
But anyway, I was nervous and excited all at once up until the ceremony was over and then it hit me…I felt as though I was at a funeral. Grieving the loss of a life that I could never get back. I didn’t really know how to respond to it so I called a Jewish friend who was kind of like a mentor through the whole process. She said: You should mourn because you just traded 10 commandments for 613.
Once the mourning period was over for me and I was getting used to it all, I suddenly realized what the Rabbi meant when he told me I should move to a Jewish community. It was like I was wandering around with no sense of direction. I had no clue as to what I was supposed to be doing or even how I was supposed to be. I was clueless about kosher labels on food, how to kosher a kitchen, davening, etc. Lucky for me, an observant lady who was raised Orthodox became my mentor and guide for several months until her and her husband moved to south Alabama. I continued to attended Shabbos services at the synagogue 30 minutes away as often as the doors were open but I could not rely on them for any information or guidance as they were pretty much non observant.
Chabad became my lifeline. Everything I learned about Judaism beyond my 101 class came from the Chabad website. They have a complete storehouse of guides, how-tos, and classes on any subject imaginable. Since that is where I received much of my information, especially in the early years when I was still a newbie, it shaped my thinking tremendously. And its philosophy became my foundational belief system.
Unfortunately, the small synagogue of 30 people that was 30 minutes away from me, closed its doors for the final time in 2010. I did attend another synagogue in another county about the same distance away but it seems to be heading toward a similar fate as the former one. Then now open their doors about 10 times a year and fewer than 20 people attend.
So I stopped going and relied on live streaming Shabbos services from the temple where I converted. Which sometimes causes an internal conflict…should I use or not use a computer on Shabbos for the sole purpose of participating in Shabbos services? It is forbidden on Shabbos but at the same time, this is being used to celebrate Shabbos…that is a dilemma for another post…
…and so that it how it all began for me. But the journey after all this? That was an entirely different story and I would never be the same again…