“Why” is the question that we either hear too many times, ask to many times or refuse to ask at all, for whatever reason.
Being brought up in a certain setting, it was imprinted on me not to ask the question “why”. Because, why should I, how could I? It wasn’t my place to question G-d and that concept run vehemently against my inquisitive nature and analytical mind. But I was afraid to step out of the circle and not only look different, but also be different. So instead, I learned to ask the question how? If this is what I was given, how do I proceed from here? “How” was the only question I asked until I learned that asking “why” isn’t actually offending G-d in any way, but I only asked this question recently and this is why we, myself and Elisheva, embarked on this project writing the Guide to the Convert. How many articles this will take, we do not know, but going through the system for various reasons, seeing other people going through tremendous upheavals, the general performance of the system and helplessness of everyone subjected to it led us to wanting to voice out what people in our situation feel and experience. I have read many articles stating how enriching the experience was and each time I thought to myself: really? Enriching? Most of the time I wanted to take something heavy and throw it against the wall. Break every object made of glass. Scream in my pillow. But, as it got more and more difficult, I grudgingly needed to admit to myself, that there were some things that I have learned about myself that I wouldn’t have had otherwise; that I am where I am because I had to “exercise” myself in order simply to make ends meet and invest in my future. Getting out of myself and the continuous process of pushing my boundaries was what helped me keep my head above the water. Was it an amazing and enriching process? Erm… I really don’t know it yet; was I just trying to imagine how beneficial it was for my development so I just simply wouldn’t lose it? Was it frustrating? Oh yes.
We bring to you the Guide to the Convert – without whitewashing, straight-up truth and on-ground experience, but also an honest assessment of ourselves in presenting this, we hope, balanced account of the last few years of our lives.
How did I get here? My story begins with a fairly average, middle-class, American family. We were a family of modest means: modest educations, modest employment, and most notably – modest faith. My parents raised us – myself and my three other siblings – to be Christian. The family has through various incarnations of just what their Evangelical, Protestant classification may be, but we grew up knowing that everything we really needed to know about life was in the Bible, and that Israel and the Jewish people are to be protected. But we also grew up with major challenges that have run the gamut from learning to live with mental illnesses to financial instability. It wasn’t always easy.
Given that family life wasn’t always the best, it’s no wonder that I found myself struggling with my adolescence. Those struggles brought about much soul-searching, which included whether I even believed in G-d, and how on earth people who claim to care about children and the poor could be Republicans. All this introspection brought me to several conclusions: I believed in G-d; I had no qualms with the Torah (what the Christians called the “Old Testament”), Israel, or the Jewish people; and I still don’t have a good answer for the Republican thing – but now I also don’t understand how people who call themselves Democrats can be so Anti-Israel.
From the end of high school, I knew that Judaism was the direction in which I was heading. I became involved with my university’s Hillel organization and began to consider religious communities to which I might approach for completing a conversion. Mind you, I had NO IDEA what it meant to ACTUALLY BE Jewish. I just knew that was the road I wanted to follow. And then I fell in love with a non-Evangelical Christian man, and in my youth I chose love over faith. I resolved to find comfort in a life devoid of official religious observance, though I kept kosher-style and fasted on Yom Kippur; religiously-speaking I was essentially nothing and I grew to hate it. It chafed not having a religious identity, not having a relationship to G-d.
So I found a reformed, but traditional, religious community that was interested in working with me despite my marriage to an avowed non-Jewish man. I studied for a year, learning much about the Reform Jewish movement in addition to the Jewish faith, and was embraced by that community. My conversion even culminated with immersion in the mikvah 10 years after I initially decided Judaism was my North Star. And I thank Hashem every day for this connection, because it was this religious community that supported me through my divorce a year later. Watching eight-and-a-half years of marriage circle down the drain threatened to kill something inside me – but my community of friends and religious family saw me through.
Those same incredible, supportive group of people encouraged me when I first visited Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip, and again when I returned again to Israel to volunteer with MASA for 10 months as an English teacher. That group of friends supported me once-more, though they were a bit bewildered, when my soul was sparked by the incredible connection I felt with the Dati (religiously observant, Orthodox) community in Israel and I found myself pursuing an Orthodox lifestyle.
I followed my heart and soul’s call to take on a fully Torah-observant life. It began with studies in the United States, and included Aliyah to Israel via the right of return. I suppose it’s fitting that the call to Israel led me here before I finished my Orthodox conversion, since it was the pull of Israel that brought me to my current level of religious observance. So now I find myself in an interesting place in life as a religiously observant, left-leaning, Israeli-American. And the word-order isn’t an accident: first and foremost, I am a halachically observant Jewish woman, which sometimes comes before my political leanings; and while the “old country” is the United States of America, I am first an Israeli. Simply put, this is where I belong.
But I’ll tell you, none of this was as simple or easy as I made it sound. Choosing this life, moving away from my friends and family, and putting myself through the rigors of Orthodox conversion studies was no less than the most extreme of extreme sports. The naked vulnerability inherent in my process was staggering. And if we’re being completely honest here, it’s not as easy as it could or should be standing on this side of the mikvah.
My story seems to be complicated, but it actually isn’t. It’s just a bit unusual. Each time anyone asks me where I’m from they look at me incredulously when I answer that I’m from Poland. “Yes, I know”, I answer to their blank stare. “You know, you just don’t look Polish” they answer. If I’m in a good mood then I will actually answer that I’m a product of a cocktail between my mum who’s of Polish-Jewish origin and my dad, who is of Nigerian-Christian origin. The dayan asked what kind of children one can have from such crazy union. My answer was: normal. Slightly insane, but absolutely normal.
When I was younger I wanted to be like everyone else around me, now that I have matured I realised what kind of a gift my family has given me and I am so grateful for it. I am proud of my family and I wouldn’t change them for anything else. They have given me the best upbringing I could imagine as a child and the greatest support when I was going through difficulties in life. The reason that I am always standing outside all possible boxes that people may wish to put me in, I count as strength, not difficulty.
The fact that I found out about our Jewish heritage only around my late teens was a surprise, but didn’t change anything in my life until I, unwillingly, moved to England. I thought that I will just do what my parents told me to: finish university and come back home. I didn’t realise then that my home was somewhere else. I finished my degrees, worked, made both good and bad life-choices, but in the midst of this, an seemingly insignificant thing happened – I met some Polish immigrants, one of whom was a man who was Jewish. I didn’t know what it meant that my grandmother was Jewish. I thought it made me one-eight Jewish. I knew nothing about halacha until he explained it to me. I remember feeling an odd feeling of realisation that something was happening, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “You mean, that makes me Jewish”? – I asked. “Yes” he said. “Well, what do Jews do?” – I inquired. “They keep Shabbat” – he answered. With my personality being that of not leaving any stone unturned, I simply bought books on halacha and as a result of my law degree, treated it as the most fascinating literature I ever read. By then I didn’t have any connection with the Jewish community. First, I wanted to know what the whole thing was about. What was that in me that I didn’t realise had always existed.
I am bypassing certain personal misfortunes here and delving into what I consider the actual steps that accelerated my decisions. I moved to the Jewish community and, following certain events, I joined krav maga classes. Through those classes I met Adam, my Hebrew teacher, whom I approached about learning Hebrew because I knew that I wanted to do my PhD in Israel (why in Israel at that point having never visited the country, I really don’t know). The fact that the majority of academic publications are in English also escaped me.
Within a month he asked, if I wanted to come to Beit Chabad in Hendon for Rosh Hashana. I agreed though I had no idea what I was getting myself into. By then I followed halacha to the letter as it was written, but I haven’t exposed myself to the Jewish community. Probably landing in Chabad as a first-timer could be overwhelming. I remember struggling through the prayer because I refused to read it in English. I remember facing thousands of years of tradition and feeling the weirdest mixture of fear and excitement. Later on Adam asked me what I thought and only one statement that escaped my mouth was: when do we go again? I think I dragged him with me for the consecutive several weeks until he put his foot down saying that he wasn’t religious and didn’t want to go every week. I found another victim until they said that they didn’t want to be there every single week. Then I pulled myself together, went alone and met a girl that is my friend to this day – Lea. That’s how it started.
Fast forwarding, I was supposed to do a krav maga training course in Israel and two weeks before the flight I fractured my foot (which is not unusual considering how many hours per week I kicked different body parts of my training partner). I pulled out from the program, not without heavy opposition, but still was left with the ticket to Israel and booked leave from work. I sat down at my desk shaking like a leaf and deciding what I was going to do. A friend of mine then helped me with living arrangements and I got on the plane constantly asking myself what exactly possessed me to stray so much from the norm.
The moment I landed in Israel I knew that I was home. I didn’t know why and how, it was just obvious. I refused to use English with strangers. When asked by my friend’s dad, if I wanted to make aliyah I said that of course. He jokingly asked me for the time frame and I gave him a year, which even I knew was insane. Then I went to the kotel and had a “chat” with Hashem, came back to London and my entire world collapsed. Everything fell apart and several months later I realised why – in order to fall back into place. I was on the plane going to Israel. I sold everything in England, sent the rest to my parents and, after a legal fight, joined a MASA program. I was going to teach English as a volunteer forsaking my life of a London professional with a great job, good pay, community in knew and stability.
During that time it transpired that I may have had to convert, if we didn’t find documents proving the Jewishness of our family. Well, we didn’t. I was however already on the roll. If anyone knows me, this is the worst moment to try and stop me because I bite.
This is, in short, how I got to the point when I approached the Beit Din asking them to solve my situation. The answer was – conversion. Perfect, I said – how?