When I was in the early stages of study for my conversion to Judaism, a Jew-by-choice said something that stuck with me: “Conversion is a lonely journey.”
Back then, I took it at face value–conversion is a path that you walk alone. Part of it has to do with the fact that you are, in a sense, answering a calling from God. You are thus embarking on a very personal journey driven by conviction, and it is very difficult to get other people on that carriage. There is also the fact that you, in a very literal sense if you have a religiously observant family, are separating yourself from the world you knew before, the world in which your family lives. I knew all of that, and I knew that I had to prepare myself for a level of separation as I began to live a life that my family could not understand (at least at first).
I was not, however, prepared for a night like last night.
Two days ago, Thursday the 17th, I celebrated one secular calendar year from my trip to the mikvah. Today, I celebrate one secular calendar year from my naming at services. Luckily enough, last night was Shabbat, there would be a Torah service, and my rabbi and I had spoken about me playing a part in the service to celebrate. It all sounded great, except for a little detail: Blackhawks Convention was scheduled for earlier than usual this year–it’s taking place this weekend instead of the next. Why is this problematic, you may ask? Because some of my closest friends, some of the people I really wanted at services with me? They would be at convention, unlikely to skip evening events to come sit through a service with me.
It’s not that I don’t get it. Most of them aren’t Jewish, and going to an unfamiliar service on a Friday night is probably not their idea of fun. But this anniversary is a huge deal to me, an important milestone, and it was kind of devastating that no one could or would make it. And so I got on a cab by myself, cell battery almost drained, and told myself that it didn’t matter that I would be alone–my Jewish family would be there. I would have my community. It would be okay.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case. It turned out to be a night of very low attendance, to the point that we had to skip the Bar’chu because we didn’t have a minyan yet. As such, I led the Shema and V’ahavta, my voice crystalline despite the sore throat from earlier, in a small room that was too big for the few of us who were there. As I walked back to my seat after that moment, I felt infinitely alone. Tears stung my eyes throughout the Amidah, and it wasn’t until I was taking that last moment to say my private prayer that I felt what I can only describe as God rebuking me. Why are you making this about other people? Are you not content that you have been blessed with a year among the people you chose to join? A year where you got to attend biennial and be an ambassador for the Jewish people? A year where being Eliava has made you more comfortable in your skin than you ever have been before?
My knees gave out at the thought, and I landed in my seat before I had murmured my amen. Why was I so upset that I was sitting there by myself? The Torah service was not about a spectacle, and my participation in it was not a performance. I had been given an honor to do something for HaShem’s glory that night, and in my brain I had twisted it to be all about me. But it didn’t matter that I was sitting by myself, did it? I got hugs from other members after they knew what I was celebrating. I got to spend a quiet moment with my rabbi as we took in the year that had passed since both of our new beginnings. I made a new friend who took the train with me. And, even though getting back to the hotel was quite the trying, tear-inducing experience, I had found peace again as the elevator doors closed before me.
The fellow Jew-by-choice’s words floated back through my mind then. Conversion is a lonely journey. And when I walked out of the elevator and down the hallway to find myself engulfed in my best friend’s hug when she opened the door for me, the answer became crystal clear: Conversion feels like a lonely journey, but never forget that HaShem walks it with you.