Reform Judaism, Conversion & Finding My Own Path

It is now less than two weeks ’til I go before the Beit Din, the Jewish rabbinical court, for the formal completion of my conversion to Judaism. Prior to that I had to sit down and write a statement to the court about what this means to me.

I thought I’d share it with you.

~ * ~

Nearer to two years ago a lovely lovely lady called P. was the designated meeter-and-greeter at the doors of my shul. It was also the very first time I visited a synagogue. I introduced myself to her and openly admitted that I was very nervous as I had never attended service before and was worried about doing the wrong things at the wrong times. Without hesitation, and with what I now recognise as characteristic generosity, P. asked would I like to sit with her and her husband so that I could just copy what they were doing?

I’ve been sitting with them ever since.

These days P. likes to embarrass me by introducing me to people as “their star pupil”, when, really, the truth is that they – alongside the rabbis and my fellow J-Preppies – have been star teachers; have been people I have learned and continue to learn so, so much from. I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been befriended by long-standing members of the congregation as well as newbie J-Prep students, allowing me to not only stand on the sidelines, but to feel genuinely part of the congregation and synagogue life. A true blessing.

This past year has been a big year of learning, of spiritual growth and understanding, yet at the same time I firmly maintain that my Jewish journey did not start with the J-Prep course, nor will it end with it. Certainly, this year has been different to any other year, and my life has been truly enriched by it, but rather than seeing the meeting with the Beit Din and the formal conversion as the end goal, I feel that it marks the end of the beginning of my Jewish journey.

I came to the J-Prep course having never lit Shabbat candles, never made Kiddush, never affixed a mezuzah and so forth; I had a very bookish understanding of what Judaism is. I now feel that I have much deeper insight into what it really means to be Jewish, and have discovered that the things I had connected with prior to J-Prep; my faith in the one true God, the Torah as a religious compass and so on – all the things that had brought me to the J-Prep course in the first place – have held true for me and haven’t changed. But, I now also know and appreciate that Judaism offers so much more on top of that. I have discovered that many of the core principles of Judaism hold the same moral values as those passed down to me by my parents; the pursuit of justice, championing democracy, being generous to those less fortunate and being open to those different to myself.

I have been struck by the strong sense of community, the constant strive to make informed choices and decisions – even the freedom to challenge the texts we’ve studied – and they have all added a whole new dimension to my life and to the way I think about faith and religion.

Being Jewish means, especially this time of the year, to stop and reflect introspectively, to take a long, hard and truly honest look at what I can do to better this world through bettering myself. It means doing that very difficult thing; asking forgiveness. From God, from my friends, sometimes even my enemies, and, maybe the hardest thing of all; forgiving myself for those times when I have let myself down. To, rather than simply berating myself for my shortcomings, accepting that I am not perfect and never will be, but also recognising that I have been given the blessing of making a different choice in the future.

Even my choice of Hebrew name – Emunah אמונה – serves as a reminder to keep faith in my mind and to remain faithful, not just through words, but through actions and deeds; through actively doing what I can to help heal this very precious and beautiful world we have been given, whether it be through choosing Fairtrade products over products of unknown origin, making sure I recycle things rather than just binning them, or through taking on an active role in the setting up of a refugee drop-in centre rather than leaving it for Mr & Mrs Someone Else to do. It is a reminder that it’s not enough to just tell people that I am now Jewish. I need also recognise for myself and demonstrate to others that I am Jewish not only when I attend service or say my prayers, light my Shabbat candles or study Torah (all of which are, of course, integral parts of living a Jewish life), but that I am living Judaism in all aspects of my life.

To formally convert to Judaism is the difference between looking at someone else’s photograph album and being alive and present in the very moment that snapshot is taken.

Being Jewish is not just an adjective, it is also a verb.”

~ * ~

Click here to read about my meeting with the Beit Din.

Below is this year’s film from The Movement for Reform Judaism.


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Kill It. Cut It. Use It. – Making Ethical Choices

Sitting here, thinking I really ought to update my blog, yet at the same time not really knowing what I want to write about. I’ve got that feeling where you know there is a lot of stuff buzzing around your brain, yet you can’t quite be still enough to figure out what it is. Thoughts and emotions doing this strange little dance, a bit too quick to really figure it out. So I think I’ll just write whatever comes to mind, and we’ll see where that gets us. [If anywhere!]

Have settled into my new place reasonably well by now. Still hate the shared space, I mean, there’s no getting away from the fact that the bathroom and kitchen are both minging. But I feel OK in my room, don’t actually mind the small size of it much at all.

Bought myself a small fridge the other week, because the ones in the kitchen are kind of icky and way too small for five people. And if my landlord won’t supply us with adequate fridges, I’m just gonna get my own. [It’s rated A for energy efficiency, so I don’t feel too bad about the extra electricity, since it’s about as ‘green’ as they come]. Also, being fully vegetarian, I just really don’t like the idea of my stuff sharing a shelf with meat based food. Having been vegetarian for quite a few years by now I’m a bit funny about keeping my food separate from meaty stuff. I also have my own pots, pans and crockery which have never been used for meat. This isn’t a bid to keep kosher; I just prefer things this way. I’ve no problem going to people’s house and eating from dishes that have been used for meat, I regularly get vegetarian food from places where they also do non-vegetarian food, but at home I prefer to keep things separate. There’s no logic to it, I’m the first to admit that, but it’s how I like it, so why not?

Been watching “Kill It, Cut It, Use It” on BBC iPlayer this week. For those of you who haven’t seen it it’s a series about how animal by-products are used in things we use every day. I personally think that to a large degree it’s better to use waste products from the meat industry, rather than to just chuck it, and have found it really interesting to learn about how there are animal products in just about everything. I was never a vegetarian because I felt that it’s wrong to kill animals [although I’m all for treating animals with respect] so I’ve no real problem using washing powders, cosmetics etc which contain ingredients derived from animal by-products. That said, if I have one hand cream which states “suitable for vegetarians” and one which doesn’t say either way, I’m much more likely to go for the former. Again, no logic – but it works for me.

What I do take issue with are products made from things where the primary reason for killing the animal was to get the “by-product”. Think ivory and fur etc. Or cosmetics which have been tested on animals. [Still undecided on how I feel about medicines which have been animal tested]. And although my knowledge and understanding of these processes is undeniably limited I do try to make ethical choices when shopping.

There are lots and lots of things that I don’t know about, and reading ingredient listings often feels like trying to read a foreign language – especially with the industry being very very good at masking ingredients – but I try. I try to educate myself, try to do what I can to make good choices, and I guess that’s all I can really do.

At J-Prep someone crowned me “eco-warrior princess” because I would always carry my empty bottles and cans back home with me, to make sure they went in the recycling bin in my borough [it’s a very good borough for recycling compared to the one where my shul is], and although my classmates would give me a bit of friendly stick about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I know that what I do won’t change the world, but maybe, just maybe it makes a tiny little bit of difference, just the same.

And if you think I’m a bit OTT – well, you should see my sister!

xx

Clip from “Kill It, Cut It, Use It”

The End Of The Beginning

It’s been a little while since my last post. Guess I just needed a bit of down time to myself to feel things through without writing things down. I’ve also been quite light on the journal writing, so it’s nothing personal. It’s not you, it’s me.

Had my final regular J-Prep session on Wednesday, including a lovely Havdalah [separation] ceremony to mark the transition between being on the J-Prep course and continuing our Jewish journeys on our own. There were hugs, tears, well-wishes, all the things you’d expect at a graduation of sorts.

I have mixed feelings about the course coming to an end. There were no tears on my behalf, but – as I said to my classmates – I think I was emotionally shielding myself from the idea of J-Prep being over by focusing on the fact that next Wednesday we’re all going on a walking tour through Jewish history in the East End, so goodbye wasn’t really goodbye.

This course has been different to any course I’ve ever taken. I’ve learnt a lot, but even more than that, I’ve grown as a person. I’ve had a place to explore my own beliefs and an opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings with other people being on a similar journey, and that’s been one of the best things with this course.

I came to the course having – naturally – read quite a lot about the religion, but it was a bookish kind of knowledge. What the course has given me is a more real way of relating to things. Also, throughout the course, I’ve more and more discovered how Judaism is about so much more than just religious beliefs and studying the Bible; how the emphasis on tzedakah [charity,  fairness, justice] and tikkun olam [healing or repairing the world] really fits very well with my own way of thinking, and the values I was brought up with.

Spent a good part of Friday’s therapy session talking about J-Prep and what it’s been like to be on the course, and one of the things I realised, sitting there talking about it, is that while I have really enjoyed being part of my particular J-Prep group, I’ve also got to know a lot of the people in the other J-Prep groups, as well as being fortunate enough to have been welcomed into the community by some long-standing members of the congregation, who have been very generous in answering my questions and sharing their knowledge and experience with me.

That I’ve been able to form relationships with people in all the different parts of synagogue life, and so, even tough the course is now ending, I will still be as active in my new community as ever.

Though I feel sad that J-Prep has come to an end, I also feel ready to take the next step; going to the Beit Din to formally complete my conversion and to move on to truly being a part of the synagogue community.

All the way through the J-Prep course I have said that my Jewish journey didn’t begin with joining the course, nor will it end with the completion of it, and that feeling has not change. This really is just the end of the beginning.

All the very best and more,

xx

PS. To read a lovely little blog post by one of my rabbis about her experience of J-Prep please click here.

To learn more about Reform Judaism in general, click here.
Or here to learn about how Reform Judaism views conversion.

About Converting

It’s been a while, I know. That pneumonia thing knocked me for ten, I have to admit. But, I’m here now, freshly manicured [silvery black with white swirls and flowers] and ready to blog!

I was thinking the other day that I’ve really not written much about my conversion and how that’s going, despite it being such a huge part of my life. In fact, to say that it’s a part of my life feels like an understatement in the extreme, considering that it’s a life change, rather than something which affects only a partof my life. It’s not something which can be kept separate from everything else, or even separate to who I am.

The way I look at this goes something like this: being on the Jewish preparation course [J-Prep for short] is neither the beginning nor the end of this journey. This journey began much much earlier. I know I’ve previously said that it started three years ago, following a particularly difficult time, having survived something I really ought not to have survived and deciding that the time had come for some serious thinking in terms of what really matters to me, but – although this certainly made me set out on this journey in quite a purposeful way, I’d have to say that drafting the subconscious mental map for this journey probably began many many years earlier, perhaps even as early as when I at 14, told my priest – the night before taking first communion – that, actually, I wasn’t so sure that the core of the Christian canon was really something I wholeheartedly subscribed to, that I felt very unsure about some quite major parts of it. I’m not suggesting that I was, at 14, forming the idea of converting to another religion, but I do believe that questioning things in the way I did, was a definite step away from one thing and towards something else, even if I didn’t at all know what that something might be.

I met with my rabbi a few weeks ago for an end-of-term meeting [although time wise it was more of a beginning-of-term-two meeting] and we talked about what my experience so far has been of being on the J-Prep course and starting my Jewish journey. We also talked about how, initially, the rabbis had asked me to wait a term to start the course, because they felt unsure of how possible it would be for me to fully engage in this process while still living in a therapeutic community. At the time I was very disappointed by this request, because I felt that it was based not necessarily on their knowledge of me, but on their idea of what a therapeutic community is and what sort of people live there. At the same time, this setback wasn’t going to put me off pursuing this path in any way, because – as I said at the time, and reiterated in my end-of-term meeting – this is a life decision, and waiting a few month to start the course wouldn’t really make much of a difference. As eager as I was to set out on this more formal stage of the journey, this was never a race to the finish line and I always felt very strongly that my conversion was never going to be about the J-Prep course in and of itself, but about something much bigger. Something which started before, and will carry on after my formal conversion. The J-Prep course gives me the tools, or at least some of the tools, to help me lay the first few bricks, but this is the sort of building work that can be infinitely added to and has no final form.

Anyway, I will try to write more about how my religious construction work is coming along, but I think I’ll stop here for now.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more about reform Judaism (the denomination I am converting with), you might want to check the Movement For Reform Judaism website out.

All the very best,

xx

Elections, Shame & Paper Cranes

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am usually very proud to be Swedish.
Not so tonight.

Today general elections were held in Sweden, and I feel utterly ashamed to say that it looks reasonably certain thatSverigedemokraterna [Sweden Democrats (SD)] will make the 4% threshold to enter Riksdagen [the Swedish parliament]. I’m guessing that to anyone not from Sweden this might not sound like much to be ashamed of. Sweden and Democracy – how bad can it be, right?

The answer is “VERY”. (SD) is the Swedish equivalent of the UK’s British National Party, and much like the BNP they win voters through sheer scare mongering, using, what they call “severely restricted immigration” as their main manifesto, and, again, much like the BNP, they prey on people’s fear of the unknown, to gain voters. They market themselves as not being a racist party, despite the fact that many of its members and frontline politicians have backgrounds in both neo-nazi and white power movements. An early SD campaign poster [not used in this year’s campaign] read “Bevara Sverige Svenskt!” – “Keep Sweden Swedish!”

So, in short: I feel absolutely disgusted with the outcome of this election.

It looks like Alliansen [the allied, ie the conservative parties] will be the ones to form the new government, but, sadly, it’s not at all impossible that they’ll need to work with (SD) to push new policies through.

As it currently stands Moderaterna [the Conservatives (M)] is set to be the biggest party, with Socialdemokraterna [Labour (S)] second. Miljöpartiet [the Green Party (MP)] is having their most successful election ever, coming in as the third largest party, surpassing Vänsterpartiet [the Left Party (V)], who have traditionally been the second largest party in the Red/Green block. At a guess, I’d say that a fair few voters have given their vote to (MP), in the hope that they, would agree to work with Alliansen, in order to shut (SD) out.

Now, I’ve never been one to root for any of the conservative parties, but, honestly – if the choice is for them to work either with (SD) or (MP) – I’d be happy for (MP) to take a step to the right, to make that happen.

To counteract my rather dejected mood, I’ll end this entry with something a bit more positive: Had a really good day today. Had soooo much fun at the Special Event we ran at work today. Such an experience. So rewarding. I feel honoured to be part of it.

Also had a blast at my J-Prep class this evening, learning lots and making decorations for the sukkah at my synagogue. Had a go at making apple, orange and lemon decorations, but failed miserably. Luckily there was also origami paper to make paper cranes, and, having taken part in a project to fold a thousand of them for the Sadako Sasaki peace monument in Hiroshima at age 11, this is something I feel a lot more at home with. In fact, I ended up running an impromptu crane folding tutorial with my fellow J-Preppers, and I really enjoyed it. Funnily enough, I’d actually done something quite similar earlier today at work, with a very different group of people.

All the best,

xx