Conversion: A Black Jewish Can-Do Story
How one woman went from having no idea what Shabbat was to celebrating it every week.
Why would you want to do that?!
You do realize that no observant Jewish people will ever accept you, right?
Those are some of the questions/comments I heard when I shared the news that I would actively be working on the process to convert to Judaism.
This was never a whim or a spur of the moment pastime, I configured while my internet was down! It was the energy, spirit and or thing that filled my thoughts continuously for years after celebrating Shabbat for the first time at a friend’s house.
I had no idea what Shabbat was, but after experiencing it I wanted it in my life. I envisioned, candle lightings, blessings and maybe even a family to do all that with in my future.
I just didn’t know how or if I could make that happen.
Better yet did anyone who wasn’t Caucasian practice Judaism?!
I hadn’t met any or ever even heard them spoken about! Well the quickest way to find answers is to research and I did. There were Internet searches, book excerpts and many a documentary/online video watched. And oh my goodness, I found that there are Jewish people of color and in abundance who are happily observant, attending shul and planning Shabbat weekly.
What a blessing to discover! That is when I started aggressively wanting to make a Jewish life for myself. Yes, I knew observance was hard and I thought briefly that many may not be happy to see my brown face when I wanted to attend religious events but I was doing this regardless.
I wanted and needed Judaism and ultimately as I worked through my studies, I realized it was meant to be. Once I made this decision, there was no turning back and I was nervous — dare I say scared — at times. However, when have I ever let my skin color stop me from doing something NEVER!
One of the more commonly known acts within conversion is the denial of your mentoring rabbi three times. This is still something that occurs depending on who you’re working with, it may happen in person or via email/phone. The replies you do or do not get are based on the individual rabbi you may encounter. I knew that despite how busy a rabbi may be, I needed the journey to be personalized and based in encouragement. Choosing your rabbi is as intense as choosing your friends or maybe even your partner for life.
Which is why my journey became even further intensified!
In addition to figuring out which rabbi to work with there were lots of other questions. Where to go to services? What should my affiliation to a movement or sense of tradition should be? I was very overwhelmed and decided to just immerse myself because learning by doing is the best for me and integral to this process. Well, up next was meeting with at least eight various rabbis/organizations, writing more emails than I could count, leaving so many voicemails I think I was hoarse for a day or so.
All to minimal reaction, assistance or direction and frustration ensued. Mind you, I started in 2012, imagine trying to get someone to just want to talk to you or take you under their wing so you can learn for a full 2 ½-3 years.
What?! Why?! That sounds absurd! Yes and No, because we’re talking about finding your spiritual home and family so you have to weed through all the possibilities. I wanted to find an all soul experience and that meant for me, being able to have a rabbi who understood that as tough of a person I can be, I needed my journey handled with kid gloves. I didn’t want a kind welcoming rabbi with a not so enthusiastic congregation or vice versa. See folks, I’m an all in person so joining a synagogue meant that I would embrace the learning, holidays, other congregates and tradition. However, what I wanted and was encountering was not falling into place. Which is how you end up meeting about 8 rabbis and having to continually retell your story- sometimes to deaf ears.
Feeling like a little progress was made only to hit a wall because you may not have been what was acceptable, your finances were constricted at the time or just simply ignored.
My goodness, the level of defeat and sadness when all you want to do is live the life that brings you joy.
Derekh Torah class (an Introduction to Judaism course) was the first suggestion and requirement to me initially so I could get my bearings/basics on what Jewish life according to Torah is and would entail for me.
Things began to progress after starting the Derekh Torah class, trying to learn Hebrew and meeting other Jewish people who were warm, welcoming and helpful. Now I had reason to be even more excited and that’s what I led with, excitement because prayers, blessings and everything I learned brought me to such a place of serenity and simcha (joy).
I couldn’t wait for class, to learn with others and attend events. Then those “other” feelings started popping up, why when I went to shul was I stared at like a circus act? Why didn’t anyone want to come chat with me after Kiddush? Why were other people invited to religious celebrations after services but I wasn’t?
This is where you have to be real with yourself and realize not everyone knows how to handle a person of color being part of the Jewish faith. Now, to me it seems perfectly fine! You encounter a journey that brings forth positivity in you, then go for it! Immerse yourself and be the best you can be at it.
Doesn’t unfortunately work that way from others perspective, they know one vision of Jewish and you’re not it. Which is when you start to feel like that stranger instead of included in this beautiful faith you felt was such a good fit, your fit!
I soldiered on but with a lot less excitement and then the second guessing stepped in!
Maybe they are right? You don’t belong? I wondered, what if no one is going to accept you, or if you’re never going to form friendships or even love based in a Jewish life? After much contemplation I decided to take a break and just weigh it all. It took almost a year of stepping out of my learning and Jewish practice to immediately realize, I missed it! I was sad things came to that point but sometimes the goal at hand needs to be reevaluated and that can entail literally taking a timeout.
Not participating in Shabbat caused some anguish, not going to shul or saying blessings felt like something was missing. Well then I told myself, Stephanie, you need to decide if you’re going to figure out how to make it work and reroute this journey so it can come to fruition.
I did and in 15’ came back to finish the goal that I set forth and make it official. This time I sent out an email to a shul and received an instant response, an invitation to the community Shabbat dinner and the introduction to the rabbi. The rabbi saw that Judaism was in my heart and wanted to help me fulfill my dream.
The road to and through conversion was long, winding and even defeating but I did it! I am so proud of myself and that’s more important to me than anything else. I made my dream come true and the knowledge, nurturing and assistance I acquired during it all has made me a better person.
That person is Ahava Malka (which is the Hebrew name I took on) she emerged from the mikveh on April 7, 2016 as an official member of the tribe! She may still encounter frowns instead of smiles when she attends an event or possibly passed over in trying to find a suitor but it hasn’t stopped her before and it may possibly deter her but she’s here to stay Baruch Hashem!