I’m a Black Former Christian & I Feel Right at Home Here
I grew up in a Christian household. My mother is basically the most Christian person since Paul, I think. But when I was growing up, I had a few Jewish friends. I was invited to a couple of bat mitzvahs. I loved hanging out with my Jewish friends and their families. I enjoyed the insider view of the beautiful traditions I’d only seen on TV. For the majority of my life, I still considered myself Christian, but I didn’t go to any church services regularly, just on major holidays.
And I always felt like something was missing.
I initially came to my now-synagogue in early summer of 2014 because it was recommended to me by a relative of a high school friend that I met through work. She manages the building where my theatre group performs, and sometimes we would talk about how I was thinking of converting. Since she’s a born-Jewish woman, she suggested I visit her synagogue and speak to the rabbi.
I remember one conversation in particular: I had recently purchased a Star of David pendant for my necklace, but still wore a cross that my mother had given me. She asked me one day, “If you’re going to be Jewish, why are you still wearing your cross?” That’s the day I put my cross in a special place (because my mother gave it to me, of course), and started only wearing my Magen David.
When my best friend called me one Thursday and asked about my availability to hang out on Saturday, I told her I could any time after 1 p.m.
“Oh that’s right, you probably won’t be awake until noon.”
“No, I have services on Saturday.”
“Your daddy has church on Saturdays?” (My step-father is a Methodist pastor.)
“No, I’m going to a synagogue.”
“Oh Lord, you’re Jewish now?”
“Not yet, but I’m planning on it.”
When I said this, the decision started to feel more real. I stocked up on books like, “Introduction to Judaism: For Dummies,” “Choosing to be Jewish,” “Born to Kvetch,”(which I’d actually read at the library years ago), “Why Be Jewish?,” “The Bedside Torah,” “Everyman’s Talmud” (which is not something you start off with!), and the rabbi had let me borrow a HUGE book called “The History of the Jews” and an old “Etz Hayim.”
Yet there was still a huge question looming in my mind: what about my kids? Do I take them with me to synagogue?
I decided not to for a while. This was my journey. My children, who had always been raised in the Christian belief, are older (ages 11 and 13), so it’s not a decision I can just make for them. So I got up around 7 a.m. and told my kids that I was going to run errands, but I’d be back in a few hours.
When I walked into the synagogue, I was kindly greeted. There were no weird stares because they hadn’t met me before. They spoke a lot of English, thank God, but much more Hebrew. I had no idea when to stand or sit, sway, or bend my knees, but I watched, and some women that I was sitting near helped me stay on the right page (there were English translations in the siddur and a few transliterations).
After service, was the Kiddush luncheon. I hadn’t planned on staying, but some of the older women insisted that I did. It was lovely and communal, friendly, delicious, and comfortable. I found myself sitting next to a rabbi (the former presiding rabbi of the synagogue), who was a wise, sweet, gentle, and extremely intelligent older fellow. At some point, I remember saying, “I’m not Jewish yet.”
He smiled and said, “Not yet. That yet is operative. You are well on your way. It seems you may already be Jewish in your heart.”
Because of that, I started going to services regularly, every Friday evening and Saturday morning. The synagogue sponsored my entry into the High Holidays services; I attended the rabbi’s classes. Eventually, I started bringing my children—but it was a hard sell.
“So I’m going to take you to synagogue on Saturday with me, OK?”
My oldest: “OK. I guess.”
My youngest: “What do you do there? How long is it? Am I Jewish now?”
“You’re not Jewish…yet. That’s a decision you have to make. If you were younger, I’d probably make the choice for you, but y’all are too old for me to choose that for you. You’ll like it. You even have your very own kippahs.”
My oldest: “My what?”
I showed him these two black kippot a man in my conversion class gifted to us.
My youngest: “Oh! A yarmulke! Why didn’t you just say that?”
Religious services, in general (and anything that keeps them from their video games), are not typically exciting for my kids, so when they’re not the most enthused about getting up on Saturday mornings, I can’t be too upset. Of course, it helps that our synagogue is very active and fun, as there are movie nights, parties, youth services, a great Hebrew school program, a talented cantor, an intelligent, young rabbi, and the helpful staff. No one treats my born-Christian children any different—no one even bats an eye when my youngest passes out during services (and trust me, there is not a religious service that boy cannot sleep through).
I’ve read a lot of articles about issues people experience at other synagogues—ways people are made to feel unwelcome if they stray from what people think of as the “norm”—but let me tell you, there’s no kosher inspection police coming to my house! There’s no one waiting at the door to collect my dues so that I’m allowed to pray. I know other interfaith families who belong to the synagogue and I have yet to hear anything negative. My black-born-Christian-mom-converted-kids-still-on-the-fence family is more than loved, nurtured, and accepted here.
I remember after I converted (this past August, a little over a year after I began my journey), one of the many people who came for my ceremony said to me, “We are so proud of you. You worked so hard. So Jen, what’s next?”
What’s next is that I live as a Jewish woman and Jewish mother, finally feeling at home.