On the third night of Chanukah, a crowd of about 20 gathered at Beth Shalom for a panel discussion called Choosing Judaism.
The event was co-sponsored by the local Moishe House, a national organization with a branch in Squirrel Hill that aims to connect and develop programming for Jewish 20-something leaders, and Derekh, the new programming arm of Beth Shalom also geared toward the same demographic.
Following a group candle lighting and recitation of the Chanukah blessings, opening remarks were given by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh, who talked about the controversies, challenges and overall requirements of becoming Jewish.
Rose Eilenberg, a resident of Moishe House in Squirrel Hill, had the idea for the panel when she learned that a friend was in the process of converting. “I attended a similar panel at a synagogue several years ago, and I found it really thought-provoking, particularly because it is a topic that is not often discussed,” she said. “Conversion is a deeply personal decision, but it does tend to prompt a lot of questions.
“I wanted to do something similar here: create a program that would allow people to ask questions and hear personal answers from a variety of people with different experiences in a way that is respectful of their journey,” she continued.
Eilenberg moderated the discussion, asking the panelists to weigh in on what prompted their decisions to convert, their journeys to Judaism, how their decision impacted their relationships with friends and families and the joys and the challenges of converting.
The four panelists, two men and two women, were between 23 and approximately 40.
No two stories were alike, as the panelists all came to Judaism in unique ways.
One powerful message from the panel was recognizing how important it is to be welcomed and how central it needs to be to how we construct our communities. To me, it was significant that education, challenge and commitment to long-term growth were central to each of the panelists’ experiences.
Take C.B., a 23-year old graduate student who converted as a teenager. With humor rivaling that of a stand-up comedian, C.B. recalled how her atheist father might have Jewish lineage but was still labeled a Jew when he lived in the former Soviet Union. C.B. connected to Judaism at a young age, attending Jewish summer camp and becoming active in Jewish youth groups.
Another panelist, Anne Claire, had a Jewish father and a Quaker mother; she was raised in the Quaker church. However, she said that her father’s Jewish family “hovered in the wings,” and she felt her Jewish ancestors on her shoulders.
A spiritual quest led to her belief that she needed a religious environment that included music, a far cry from the silence of the Quaker worship services. She said it was a 15-year voyage of learning and immersion in community until she was ready to call herself Jewish.
Max, 23, is a second-year fellow with Repair the World and is in the process of conversion now. He hails from a Catholic family and attended a college with a significant Jewish population. It was while teaching farming at a Jewish girls’ summer camp that he had an epiphany about Judaism.
The final panelist, Chris, 40, said that he was always a skeptic about his religion of birth. “Santa Claus seemed sketchy,” he joked.
His wife is Jewish, and he had worked with several rabbis over five years on his journey toward Judaism. He said he began to wear a kippah after his daughter was born to show her that conversion does not stop at the mikvah.
Despite their divergent paths toward choosing Judaism, the panelists all shared the notion that they arrived at Judaism thoughtfully and at a timetable that suited their own needs.
Most reported that they enjoy the Jewish prayers, another saying that he appreciates the peace on Shabbat. Although one person said that he has not yet told his extended family, most reported that their families were accepting.
For C.B.: “The hardest part was that I had to convert at all because in my heart, I felt so Jewish,” adding that there was a disconnect between how she saw herself and how others saw her, which led to an audience discussion on “imposter syndrome.”
Both Eilenberg and Markiz felt that the discussion achieved its purpose.
“One powerful message from the panel was recognizing how important it is to be welcomed and how central it needs to be to how we construct our communities. To me, it was significant that education, challenge and commitment to long-term growth were central to each of the panelists’ experiences. This too is a part of a Derekh’s mission, and it resonated deeply,” said Markiz.
Perhaps the sentiment that summed up the feelings of the panel regarding their collective journeys toward Judaism was when one said, “Any time you enter something out of free will, you have a stronger connection to it.” PJC
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.