I DID THE THING, YOU GUYS–I went to the mikvah today, immersed three times, and walked out a member of the House of Israel.
I’m not going to pretend the entire thing wasn’t nerve-wracking. I was so nervous all day at work that I ended up asking Renata to drive for me. We picked up Shane by our apartments, I got some Starbucks, and we headed up to Wilmette. My rabbi was already there, punctual as always, as was one of the other members of my beit din, the one I have met before. We waited a bit for the other one, and I found myself pacing around the lobby of the synagogue, looking at the Hebrew on the ceiling. My rabbi came over and quizzed me a little, grinning the entire time, but it did little to put me at ease. And then I met the final member of the beit din, my congregation’s previous rabbi. After a nervous goodbye to Shane, Renata, and Laurie from tample, the “mikvah lady” led us to a private room to speak.
As we began talking, my rabbi reminded me of what he said on the phone when we set the date: “it’s not a test, it’s a schmooze.” I started telling the story of my conversion journey with a nervous sigh and, because I haven’t discussed it here, I will relate it in brief:
I grew up in a fairly religious family, and I was very involved in my church community throughout my adolescence. However, even then, I knew that I was doing it for the wrong reasons–I was there for community, for an escape from my troubles at home, for acceptance from my family and the church in general. In my heart, the New Testament never made sense to me, and God always wore the face of a father, beard and all. And, while I thought Jesus was a cool dude, I was never sold on him as the Son of God. But I’d been taught that thinking so was heresy, and I was afraid of what would happen if I admitted my doubts–so I didn’t.
It wasn’t until I came to Loyola that I met someone Jewish for the first time. What little I knew about Judaism was outdated and not particularly positive, but as I spent more and more time at Hillel, hanging out with Jews, I realized that they were regular but also awesome people. In the meantime, my crisis of faith continued–despite a determined search, I was not able to find a church community in Chicago that reminded me of the one at home, and my faith was shakier than ever. My junior year, a friend and I wanted to take a class together before she graduated and we both needed a religion class, so we took Introduction to Classical Judaism together–that was spring 2010, so over three years ago now. I sat in the front, I asked questions… and Rabbi Edwards was my professor.
The next two-and-a-half years were spent in soul-searching and study. I tried to talk myself out of it for so long because I was so scared–it felt selfish, and a bit like I was turning my back on my family. Last summer, I even went to a Messianic service, trying to see whether I just wanted to incorporate Jewish traditions in my life… but the same theological issues that plague my relationship with Christianity were still there. So I prayed, I said to God, “I want us to have a good relationship again. I will go wherever you want me to go. Just tell me where that is. Tell me what you want me to do.” And there I was–I felt called to Judaism, and I did the only thing you can do… I said “Hineni” like Samuel did as a child. God called, and I answered.
Because I don’t do anything halfway, I searched for Rabbi Edwards, found the synagogue he leads, and bought tickets for the High Holy Days. I called my mother and my grandmother, told them that I was answering God’s call and doing what felt right. My mom was hesitant; my grandmother supportive. My aunt and uncle were also on board, and so everyone who could have talked me out of it wouldn’t do so. I then showed up the Shabbat right before them, greeted, and told him I wanted to talk about conversion. I attended services, continued observing mitzvot, and we met for coffee in November. We had a long conversation where I recounted all of this, and I will never forget his response: “We’re not going to the mikvah just yet, but…”
I read more, practiced more, and realized that I already felt Jewish. It felt natural, and… like coming home. When Rabbi and I met again this past June, I’d prepared this whole speech to bring up the mikvah, but he did it first and kind of threw me off and I hesitated… but I said I’d pray about it, and I did, and all I could think of was, “This feels right. This is right. Go for it.” So I called him, and he called the mikvah, I talked to the “mikvah lady,” and now here we are.
There had been nods, and smiles, and laughs throughout my little speech, and then there were a few questions about what I’d read, what I’d learned, whether there was anything that I didn’t agree with in Judaism. I was also asked whether there was anything I would do differently if I had the chance. I’d kept my tears at bay until then, but it became too much at that point. “I would not do anything differently… if I could, I would do the process all over again, whether it takes two years or twenty. This is what I must do. This is where I need to be.”
Tissues were distributed, nervous laughs were exchanged, and I was asked the most important questions of my life:
- Do you choose to enter the eternal covenant between God and the people Israel and to become a Jew of your own free will?
- Do you accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices?
- Do you pledge your loyalty to Judaism and to the Jewish people under all circumstances?
- Do you commit yourself to the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge?
- If you should be blessed with children, do you promise to raise them as Jews?
I answered each one in the affirmative with a smiling “I do,” seeing the smile reflected on the faces of my beit din–and then there was a knock on the door, and we realized we’d been in there for longer than planned. As we left the room, I sped up in order to give them some privacy to speak, and I walked over to my friends, wringing my hands. “Don’t congratulate me yet–it’s not official until they tell me we’re heading next door to the mikvah. As if on cue, my smiling beit din asked me if I was ready to go next door, and I think my relief was obvious all the way on the moon.
The “mikvah lady” (as she described herself) explained the process a bit more to everyone, and then walked us through what it would be like. I took a brief but thorough shower, trying not to freak out, and then walked out to the actual pool-like area in my towel. After I was in, I realized I’m too short to stand in the middle and immerse, so I ended up standing on the last step and kind of jumping off it for each immersion, which made it way easier.
First immersion, a decided kasher, and I took a deep breath before reciting the blessing. Second immersion, another kasher, and a few moments to pray silently. Mine was full of thanks, and a quiet Shema carried me through the end of it. Third and final immersion, the last kasher, and a shaky shehecheyanu spilled from my lips.
The next few minutes are a blur. There was something indescribably beautiful about standing in the warm, embracing waters of the mikvah while the crowd choruses mazal tov and sings joyfully in your honor–and being completely surrounded by the presence of God. It was like a firm hug, and absolute peace descended over me. I stayed there for a few more instants, reveling in it, before remembering that I needed to get dressed and returned to my entourage.
There were hugs to celebrate, and smiles all around, and we signed the paperwork. And then it was official–the Hebrew had my chosen name written in carefully by my rabbi, and their signatures in cursive Hebrew at the bottom. My rabbi handed me the folder, grinning, and we stepped outside. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” he said quietly, and I remembered with a start that this Friday, the Friday I will be officially named in front of my congregation, will be our new rabbi’s first service. A new beginning for both of us.
For the first time in three and a half years, my rabbi and I embraced, and I carried that hug with me as I got back in my car. We got Puerto Rican food to celebrate, and the taste of home enhanced the peace I was already feeling. Now, hours later, my skin is still tingling a little, and I am still, simply, joyous. I am nervous about Friday, but so very, very content.
I am home.