Beit Din, Mikveh & Conversion – My Big Day

It has been nearly two weeks since my formal conversion to Judaism, and I have been meaning to post an update about it ever since, knowing full well that I will never be able to find ample words to describe what the day was truly like.

I was incredibly nervous on the day, much more so than I had thought I would be, and I am really glad that I had both Dev and my friend D. with me to help keep nerves in check [or at least be on hand to make sure I was where I needed to be, when I needed to be there].

True to form we arrived ridiculously early, meaning we had time for a stop at The Bagel Café before my appointment. Not sure if this was a good idea or not, really, as I had a Twix, and sugar-rushing myself just before going before the Beit Din may not really have been the wisest of things to do.

Having all but choked on my Twix we made our way upstairs to where the Beit Din convenes and had a bit of time to wait around before it was my turn. The person going in before me happened to be one of the women from my J-Prep group, so that was quite nice.

Then all of a sudden [or so it felt] it was my turn. Rabbi D. escorted me into the room and slipped me a “They are going to love you” on the way in; a really kind and warm touch.

Was a little jolted by the fact that this was an all-male Beit Din. Not because I mind male rabbis, or because I felt strongly about having a mixed Beit Din, but because I simply don’t do well being alone in a room with only men, regardless of who they are. Had to take a moment to steady myself and mentally focus on the fact that this was a completely safe setting and that there was no real danger, regardless of my internal warning bells going off like crazy.

I really wish I was able to remember who was on the Beit Din that day, but honestly, I haven’t a clue. Well, that’s not entirely true, one of the men was someone who I sort of knew, or at least have met previously, only I was far too nervous in the moment to recognise that.

My meeting with the Beit Din is all a bit of a happy blur, but I do remember one of the rabbis starting out by saying that this wasn’t really one of those tests where you pass or fail, and although this was of course something I had been telling myself over and over in the past few hours, I found this exceptionally reassuring coming from someone other than myself.

What did they ask? Well.. I’m not entirely sure. I know that there were a lot of questions, many more than I had expected, and that they asked about how I had found my way to Judaism, [why not Islam or Christianity?] and that I gave them a run-down of that, including why, for me, Reform Judaism was the natural choice.

I was also asked if there was anything I had struggled with or found difficult, and I explained that I had had a conversation with one of my rabbis about the exceptions to the principle of Pichuach Nefesh, because I was unsure if I understood it correctly and was finding some interpretations I had come across somewhat hard to stomach. I also mentioned how I find the somehow socially acceptable interdenominational slagging off quite offensive, because although I could never be anything other than a Reform Jew that doesn’t mean that I think of other denominations as somehow lesser. That, just as we work on interfaith matters, perhaps some work is needed on intrafaith dialogue.

I only had one properly ‘factual’ question, and that was to talk to the Beit Din about the festival of Simchat Torah which was starting the evening after my conversion. Had no problem with that, since I had pretty much assumed they’d ask about that, and also Simchat Torah happens to be one of my absolute favourite holidays.

The other more precise question I was asked was regarding my own observance; I decided to talk about making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat and also how I had made a special Havdalah upon leaving Drayton Park, to mark the transition between going from this very very difficult period, to something more positive. As a follow-on question, or perhaps to check I wasn’t just making this up, one of the rabbis asked could I recite the blessings for Havdalah? My immediate reaction to that was to panic as I normally use my siddur when I make Havdalah, but then I just firmly told myself that I do know these blessings without reading from the siddur and went on to recite them by heart.

I also talked about how, for me, action is a very important expression of faith; that praying and going to shul are only two ways of being observant, that I think that social action is every bit as important as other more conventional ways of practising religion. Talked about tikkun olam both in terms of green thinking and in terms of looking out for others less fortunate than myself.

I have a feeling that my reciting the Havdalah blessings, may have been the reason why I was not asked to read anything in Hebrew to the rabbis. I was, however, asked what I would have read, so I told them that I had decided just as I stepped into the room that I would like to read the Modim part of the Amidah, since that seemed appropriate for the occasion, and – really – there is no time when the Modim isn’t appropriate, in my opinion.

Was asked to step outside for a moment while the rabbis conferred, so I did, being greeted by Dev, D, and rabbis D and H outside. Have no idea how long I had to wait, not too long though, I think, and then we were all filing back into the meeting room, crowding it somewhat.

My conversion certificate was read out to me, but in all honesty I was still buzzing so much I can’t say I really remember much of what was said. I was mainly just really moved by the occasion and only truly remember the moment I was called by my Hebrew name for the very first time. That felt like a very powerful moment.

Following the meeting with the Beit Din we made our way down to the mikveh for my ritual immersion. Rabbi H. was my Jewish witness and came with me as I immersed in the water and recited the blessing for tevilah and the Shehecheyanu, marking my entry into the Jewish people. I have to say that I’m not great with people seeing me naked, especially my various scars, but it still felt OK. The mikveh at the Sternberg Centre can, admittedly, not by any stretch of the imagination be accused of being a particularly serene place [think septic tank meets oversized foot bath..], but making tevilah still felt deeply spiritually moving.

After I got out of the mikvah Rabbi H. asked how I felt. I had to take a moment to feel it through before answering that I felt like I was exactly who I have always known I was, yet everything was different.

I know this has been a bit of a blow-by-blow account of my big day. There is so much more I could write about it, and chances are that I will, but for now I think this is what I can offer.

All the very best,

xx

PS. If you are interested in reading my letter to the Beit Din, please click here.

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My siddur (prayer book) - complete with nail varnish flowers..

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Freedom

Today is my day to go before the Beit Din. But,

Today belongs to Gilad Shalit.
And freedom.
And the value of human life.

Much love,

xx

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.


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.

Independence, Community & Cyber-Kiddush

The week spent at my ex’s flat is drawing to an end. It’s been an indescribably luxury to have a place to myself, to be able to come and go as I wish and to have to justify to no one my need for solitude, which I am aware does not exactly fit in the House I am currently living in.

Some time ago I gave my notice to my house mates, saying that I’ve decided the time to leave has come. That said, I gave my notice quite far in advance; I’m  still going to be living in the house for a while – I’ve said I’m leaving at  the end of May. The reason for this is that I didn’t want my moving out to be seen as a direct response to things that were going on in the house at the time, but a decision in its own right. Naturally, things going on in the house is part of my decision, but I think there is a difference between something being a part of a decision and somehing being the cause of it. Also, I felt I needed the time to mentally prepare myself for moving. Because it is a big deal. I’ve been living in this therapeutic community for over two years, and although I am the first admit that I’ve not opted to entirely be part of this House in the way that perhaps people feel I ought to have, moving out is still a big step.

Staying at Dev’s flat, the second time this year, has been helpful in terms of testing the waters, of seeing how well I can cope on my own, to check that I am able to find a good balance of allowing myself time to myself, yet keeping myself from completely shutting myself off to the outside world. While staying here I’ve been taking part in my J-Prep course, I’ve gone to therapy as usual and – as an added extra – I’ve had friends over. This added extra, seeing my friends in the comfort of my home, has really reminded me of how much I have missed it. Back when I was still with Dev and we had our flat that was the place where my friends and I would meet. And I always loved that. While meeting in town, as I have been doing these past two years is fine, it’s simply not the
same as having people round to your own place. It just isn’t.

So, staying at the flat has made me feel very strongly that I am definitely on the right track with moving out. Whilst I’m unlikely to be able to get a place of my own, even just moving out of where I’m staying is a step towards that sense of independence. As much as I don’t regret moving into the House, it has also made me see how much I value my independence, and how much I struggle whenever I feel that that independence is under threat. I’m not a child, and while valid points have been raised regarding my need to keep separate from my housemates, I do feel that safeguarding my right to living my life the way that feels right for me is more important than a lot  of other things.

On to something entirely different.
This Shabbat I wasn’t able to make it to Shabbat morning service owing to ridiculous problems with public transport and an incessant dry cough which I would rather not pass on to the people I normally sit with in shul. Felt quite sad about not going, since it’s such a big part of my Shabbat routine. I love sitting in synagogue, listening to E. leading the choir and congregation in song and praying together with my community. Somehow the idea of saying the prayers and singing the songs on my own felt just not enough to truly celebrate Shabbat the way it should be celebrated. So I had a think and remembered reading about how some synagogues stream their services online, so that housebound congregants can still be part of the service.

Now, I don’t normally use the internet over Shabbat; this is my personal choice, my way of making Shabbat different to the rest of the week when I am always available and always hooked up to some techie-gear or other, but having given it some thought I decided that switching on the computer to be part of Shabbat morning service would enhance my Shabbat experience rather than detract from it.

My shul doesn’t yet broadcast the services online (although it’s apparently in the pipelines) so I had a look on the MRJ website to find a synagogue that does. Found one and with the click of a button I found myself virtually joining another of the reform synagogue congregations for their Shabbat morning service.

This turned out to be a really interesting experience. Having not really visited other synagogues it was really cool to see how in some ways things are very similar, but how each synagogue has its own little tweaks. One thing I really liked about the service I was joining was how the rabbi leading it at one point turned around and asked the members of the congregation to share their thoughts and hopes and prayers out loud, asking what their week had been like and so on. It felt like a very nice touch to make the congregation feel like a real community.

I was amazed at how I really felt I wasn’t just watching the service, but actually being part of it, joining this little community. The angle of the web cam allowed me to feel
like I was sitting in one of the pews of the shul, and – siddur in hand – I stood and sat with the congregation, just as I would have at any other service.

So, I guess my conclusion is that although people sometimes say that technology gives us a way to cut off from the world, it can also be used to do the exact opposite.

That said, I am already looking forward to seeing my J-Prep friends on Wednesday and my Shabbat service gang next Saturday. Somehow cyber-kiddush just isn’t quite the same thing as the real deal!

xx

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

Paths and Journeys – An Entry About Life

I’ve got that Friday feeling. Well, really, it’s more than that, but for now, let’s just call it that. I’m feeling quite at peace for the moment, despite having had some very sad news recently. It’s that knowledge that sometimes bad things happen, and we can’t possibly understand why, we can’t find a reason no matter how hard we try. But, just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Managed to finish two mini-essays for my course. They’re not fantastic by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, I’d be surprised if I even make a pass grade. But right now, where I’m at, somehow that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point is that despite having had some very difficult things to deal with in the last few months, I did manage to write them. I could have just said that Nope, this is too much for me to cope with on top of everything else, I’m not even going to try. But I didn’t. I gave it a go. It may not actually be quite enough from an academic point of view, but, from a live-and-learn point of view this is really important.

I think these Big Things I’ve been talking about in previous posts have helped put things into perspective. But also, I have made slow and steady progress, even these Big Things aside. Just through staying alive and learning as I go.

I see life as something of a journey with many different paths. Life is not a race to get to the finishing line; sometimes you choose a path which is more winding than another, but even so, it’s still heading in the same general direction. Also a path is about the knowledge and wisdom you pick up along the way, and sometimes the longer, more winding paths will teach us more than the ones that run neatly ahead.

Just a thought.

All the very best and more,

xx