At the end of the last installment, I’d decided to give Judaism one more go. The closest congregation to my home is actually Reform, so I figured I’d try them out first.
While they seemed like nice people, it just didn’t feel like home. By then I’d been around this merry-go-round enough times to realize there was no point in trying to force anything (good advice in all areas of life, by the way). I’d just have to suck it up and drive a little further to a Conservative congregation.
There are 3 Conservative congregations within a distance I’m willing to drive. I figured I’d start with the closest one and work my way out as needed. I chose to visit a Friday night service at Congregation #1, which is unusual for me, as I tend to prefer Saturday morning services. But this congregation is quite large, and Friday night services tend to be more intimate, thus increasing my chances of getting to talk to somebody.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
To clarify, I was right about the Friday night service having a smaller turnout. But the only person who talked to me was another visitor wondering why everybody bolted immediately after the end of the service. This did not leave a good taste in my mouth. But whatever, I had two more congregations to try out.
This time I figured, if nothing else, I should at least get lunch out of the deal, so I visited Congregation #2 on a Saturday morning. There was a bar mitzvah that day, which made for a great lunch but not so good for opportunities to talk to regular service-goers. I did at least have a nice chat with one of the bar mitzvah’s relatives. I wasn’t sold on Congregation #2, but I wasn’t prepared to rule them out yet.
For reasons I can’t recall, several months passed before I visited Congregation #3. It’s only a couple of miles further than Congregation #2, but for some reason, it seemed much further than that. By the time I’d committed to visiting Congregation #3, I decided this was going to be it. Either this was going to be my congregation, or this Judaism thing just wasn’t meant to be for me.
As you can probably infer from the title of this series, I felt very much at home with Congregation #3, almost from the second I walked in. People were participating; in fact, nearly the entire service was lay-led, which I really like. I chatted with the rabbi briefly after services, and we clicked right away, which in itself is unusual. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t have a great track record with ordained religous leaders in any tradition.
During lunch, I sat with a table of mostly older men. Everyone was chatty and receptive to my questions. As we were starting to wrap up, one of the men asked me, “How are you at bentsching?” This is what we call saying the blessings after a meal. Yes, Jews have blessings both before and after a meal.
“I’ve never done it before,” I replied.
He tossed a small book my way. “You’re about to learn.”
I only got through a handful of words in the whole thing, even with the transliteration (depicting Hebrew sounds in the Roman alphabet). But it was still fun and gave me something to work toward.
A little over a year after that first service, I finally made it to the mikveh, which is a ritual bath that serves, among other things, as the final step in the conversion process. My conversion paperwork says something to the effect of, “She has cast her lot with the Jewish people without the benefit of immersion,” which I really liked. It felt like a fancy way of saying, “She’s already one of us. Let’s just make it official.” Which we did.
After the ceremonial portion was over and the other rabbis had left, my rabbi and I talked for a bit. He was due to leave our congregation shortly, but he said, “I hope in some sense I will always be your rabbi.” Indeed, he will.
In fact, it took me some time to adjust to the current rabbi when she arrived. Not because there was anything wrong with her (there isn’t), but I’d gotten so used to the way things were under the previous rabbi that I handled the transition poorly and actually stopped going for a while, even dabbling in some other spiritual practices (although I never stopped identifying as Jewish, which probably should have been a clue). Then a classmate from my conversion class invited me over for Shabbat dinner and I came to my senses.
Now I get along great with the current rabbi. In fact, I look forward to harmonizing with her when we bentsch every week. It’s amazing what a little adaptability can do.
No other place is home. I can’t not be part of this community.