My choice to become a Jew was not a political act, but rather the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
The search for an authentic faith has been a constant in my life since childhood. Separated from my mother and two brothers because of economic necessity, I grew up living with my grandaunt and granduncle in a Christian home in Jamaica, West Indies. My grandaunt and uncle were born-again Pentecostals who believed in all the tenets of their faith and in adhering to rigid rules on how to live their lives. I was baptized at age eight and taught that Christianity was the only path to “righteousness.” Aware of other faiths, as my mother was Anglican and my grandmother was Baptist, I began to wonder: what if my grandaunt and uncle were wrong? What if, upon my death, at the moment of judgment, I discovered that Pentecostalism was not the true faith? Thinking that I would be very angry, I decided to withhold my total commitment, to wait before choosing a religion until I could fully understand the implications of that choice and thus avoid the chance of discovering later that my absolute belief might have been misplaced.
At the age of nine I immigrated to the United States to live with my grandmother. We attended church on occasion, but she was less passionate about religious practice and did not impose any demands upon me. Although I remained unsure of my religious path, I did reach two conclusions by the age of thirteen: first, I acknowledged that a greater power, one connected to the teachings of goodness and love, was essential in life; and second, that it was vital for me to be connected to something greater than myself, but at the same time to have a personal relationship with God. Growing up separated from my mother, and never really knowing or having a father, faith in God became my means of comforting myself during many lonely and painful moments. I recognized, too, that throughout history, worship and prayer have been at the core of the Black experience in coping with slavery, oppression, and injustice.
In 1988 I met Shelly, we fell in love, and I was married for the second time two years later. As our children grew to school age, both Shelly and I knew we wanted them to have the benefit of a religious upbringing. The question was, what religion? I still had not made peace with Christian teachings and did not wish to join a church; Shelly had not been raised with a religious background. Eventually I took them to a Baptist church Sunday school.
Several years later, a friend of Shelly’s from graduate school invited us to attend a family service at Temple Emanuel in Worcester. The reception we received there, the warmth of the members, was overwhelming. As a person of color who’d had to deal with a lifetime of prejudice and bias, I did not sense even the slightest discomfort about us among the temple members. In fact, we were asked if we wanted to be on the mailing list to receive information about worship services and family events. In the coming weeks we returned several times for Shabbat worship, and even attended High Holiday services.
In the beginning I felt somewhat odd in temple. I tried to sort out a number of questions. As a person of color who had focused on issues of racial equality throughout my life, was this really my path? As the only Black worshiper in the sanctuary, did I really belong? How could Judaism speak to me as a Black? Since I then held a variety of leadership positions at organizations of color–including serving as CEO of the largest multicultural social service organization in central Massachusetts–how would continuing on this Jewish journey alter my role in the Black community? How would I feel about being defined as a Jew by others–predominantly White others?
And yet, the more I learned about Judaism, the greater was my desire to go to services and to be part of this way of life. The singing of the Shema brought tears to my eyes. I felt uplifted and connected, touched in a way that I had always desired and dreamt about. The rabbi and cantor articulated ideas and thoughts that had echoed within me since my boyhood in Jamaica: the relationship we establish with God changes and is redefined during the course of our lifetime; the biblical texts are not a rigid dogma but a sacred roadmap for life in today’s world; compassion, equality, and justice are not empty terms to be preached about, but are to be actualized and modeled in the acceptance of those who are different from us. In the siddur I read words that reflected my own prayers for a better world, “a world without hate and oppression, a world of peace.”
Over time, I forged real, sincere relationships within the congregation and became less of a stranger. And with every Shabbat my connection to Torah grew stronger. I now had a specific framework for my relationship with God, one that was both intellectually stimulating and spiritually uplifting.
After attending services for three years in this manner, I felt a yearning to belong, to commit to becoming Jewish. I had found the place where I could realize my lifelong dream–a place where I could be listened to and heard by others as part of one people, one heart, one God. I had awoken every day of my life in America carrying this dream–but never before had the experience of actualizing it. And so, with a mixture of emotions–sadness, joy, elation, and humility–I began to make my dream real. My wife and I joined Temple Emanuel.
Two years later I was ready to commit to becoming a Jew. Rabbi Sigma Coran and I met weekly for six to seven months, then bimonthly for another five months. I read, we studied, and we talked. I was comforted by her guidance and teachings, and I began to appreciate the shared experiences of the Jewish and Black communities in America. Many congregants became resources, helping me understand Jewish text, history, and current issues, and modeling their love of Judaism.
Outside of the temple’s doors, I began to inform relatives and friends of my decision to become a Jew. While my family was understanding, others seemed puzzled or confused. Yet ultimately my decision did not affect any of my relationships or my effectiveness as an African American community leader. Once people realized that being Jewish did not change my character or my values, they felt no dissonance.
Following my conversion, I became more active in temple life. I served on the worship committee, joined the board, led services, and on occasion offered a d’var Torah. Asked to take on greater responsibilities to preserve the temple’s financial footing, I led a visioning task group addressing Emanuel’s financial health and served as vice president of finance. In June 2003 I was elected temple president. It is a humbling and sacred responsibility to be working with synagogue leaders in the effort to assure our congregation’s continued vibrancy and sustainability.
Looking back on my ten years at Temple Emanuel, I am proud to say that not once, not for the briefest moment, have I experienced overt or covert mistreatment, hostility, rejection, discrimination, or prejudice. I have been treated, always, with dignity and respect, judged by the content of my character and my actions.
My impassioned love for my congregational family grows deeper every day. While much more work needs to be done–oppression is not eradicated, hate surrounds us, and I often find myself wondering why the reality I have found in my congregation cannot be the reality of the broader community–I take pride that at my temple Black families, Asian families, interracial families, interfaith families, gay and lesbian families, families with disabilities, and all others are treated with honor and respect for their contributions to our peoplehood. Judaism can provide the model for humanity. Given our history–replete with suffering, slavery, exile, oppression, and injustice–we can open our arms and our hearts to validate the spectrum of people that encompasses Diaspora Jewry and be as beacons of light to the world.
Carlton Watson is the president of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts; the executive director of the Henry Lee Willis Community Center in Worcester; and a diversity trainer with the National Conference for Community and Justice. He has four children; his second youngest, Michael, became a bar mitzvah on December 6, 2003.