Last month, I was eating dinner alone at a neighborhood pizzeria when I overheard a conversation that made me stop mid-tongue burn.
“I’ve never dated a Jewish man,” a waitress on break said.
“Really?” said her friend. “You should try it. In fact, I’m becoming a Jew.”
At that point, I had to interrupt.
“It’s none of my business,” I said, “but, in a way, it kind of is my business.”
I took out my card, offered it to the woman converting, and told her she had to write her story for our new issue of TRIBE. She said she would, and now Olivia Gingerich’s personal essay is on Page 30.
The truth is, I am somewhat obsessed by conversion journeys.
My mentor and forerunner in this is Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. A pioneer in so many areas of Jewish life, Rabbi Schulweis was among the first mainstream rabbis to accept and welcome converts. He broke the taboo against appearing to proselytize — a taboo, he pointed out, that is based on myth, not law. He led services for converts and, more importantly, integrated them into the shul’s larger congregation, making sure they were offered a warm hand instead of the all-too-common cold shoulder.
Rabbi Schulweis even wrote a book about it, which has just been re-released.
“Not our births, but our becoming defines our being,” he writes in “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker” (Ktav). “Not the origin of ancestry, but the character of our progeny, defines us.
“To the spiritual seekers who would enter the gates of Judaism, let the synagogue open its portals wide and welcome our growing family of inherited history and faith.”
Much of the rabbi’s book is devoted to converts telling their stories, and for all the differences in the details, the stories have much in common. At some point, the convert, pushed on by an inner need, a mysterious leaning, makes a choice. It is never easy. It requires leaving behind what is comfortable, acquiring new knowledge and new habits, swimming against the tide.
The reward is a new way of understanding the world and one’s purpose in it, a new community, a new heritage and tradition.
That trade-off is at the core of the convert’s journey, but, to be frank, isn’t it at the heart of each of our journeys? In a world that doesn’t force us into ghettoes or brand us according to our faith, in a society that wholly accepts us, welcomes us, and allows us to pick and choose from a marketplace of traditions and beliefs, we, too, must choose. We must feel in our hearts and know in our minds the tradition that speaks to us, the rituals that move us, the values that matter to us. And then we must decide, for ourselves and, as Rabbi Schulweis points out, for our progeny, if, and how, we are to live our faith.
In that sense, Olivia Gingerich is hardly alone: We are all converts.