Previously, I’d walked into a synagogue at Pearl Harbor (one of the few dedicated synagogues on a military installation, by the way) and felt at home spiritually, possibly for the first time in my life. Originally I had planned to lie low and assess the situation after I’d got back home. But I could feel in my bones this was where I needed to be. So after the service, I walked up to the service leader and asked what I needed to do to convert.
A bit of clarification here: the service leader was a layman. There was a Jewish military chaplain assigned to the base for part of my time there, but he was deployed for most of that time, so I never met the guy. The service leader told me that in a few weeks he would be teaching a class that could potentially lead to conversion at a local Reform congregation.
I suppose this is a good time to talk about the main denominations in Judaism. The vast majority of Jewish congregations fall into one of three groups. Without getting into details, I’ll just say that Orthodox tends to be the most traditional, Reform tends to be the most progressive, and Conservative is somewhere in the middle.
Not long after I started attending services at the military congregation, they began offering Hebrew lessons before their Friday night services. Everyone there was incredibly supportive of my journey and recommended books for me to read, which I gobbled up.
I enjoyed my class at the Reform congregation, but if I’m honest, it didn’t feel like home. The teacher had suggested to all of us that we visit a Conservative congregation at least once, and there was one that met next door to the Reform congregation, in the library of a Unitarian church. In fact, that whole stretch of highway was like a buffet of religious diversity – there was also a Buddhist temple not far down the road.
But I was hesitant to visit a Conservative congregation. I think the name put me off, and I thought they would expect more stringent levels of observance than I was comfortable with. Also, if I was going to convert under the auspices of this Reform congregation, I thought it made sense to try and build some connection with that community.
For reasons I can’t entirely fathom, I never clicked with that Reform congregation, although I really liked some of its individual members. When I first studied Judaism, the Reform movement seemed the most appealing to me. I tend to have a progressive outlook on things, and one of the reasons I couldn’t stick with the religion of my upbringing was that I couldn’t stomach the rigid gender roles expected of me. So it would seem natural that if I were to find a spiritual home in Judaism, it would be in its most progressive branch. But for whatever reason, I never felt at home with that congregation, nor have I with any Reform congregation since.
After about six months, I finally dragged myself to a service with the local Conservative congregation. I immediately fell in love with the service itself, despite understanding almost none of it (a typical Shabbat morning service is almost entirely in Hebrew). I also felt welcomed by the Conservative community in a way I hadn’t at the Reform congregation. However, like the military congregation, the Conservative congregation was lay-led, so there was no rabbi there to convert me. But going to the services regularly helped me practice my Hebrew, and I eventually got to a level where I could get through most of the service.
Although I completed the class with the Reform congregation, I never got around to meeting with the rabbi to make things final. Part of it was because this was still a contentious issue with my husband, but part of it was also that I felt no connection whatsoever to this rabbi, and the feeling appeared to be mutual. After a service one Shabbat, I went up to ask him something, and he said, “Have we met?”
Um, yeah, dude, I was in your Torah study an hour and a half ago. And not for the first time.
If he had forgotten my name, I would have understood that, but I couldn’t help but see it as significant that I’d made no impression on him at all. I later found out that he was struggling with health problems at that time that would eventually lead to his resignation, so it’s possible that affected either his memory or his ability to deal with people.
So as much progress as I felt like I’d made, I would leave Hawaii as Gentile as I was when I arrived, albeit one much more knowledgeable about Jewish practice. Could I make things work upon my return to Texas?
What frustrations have you encountered on the path to an important goal? Talk about it in the comments!