Choosing Shalom

This post is adapted from a drash given at Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, on October 8, 2010

Late one Wednesday afternoon in July, in a little house in the Highland neighborhood of St. Paul, something wonderful happened to me that without a doubt has changed my life forever. It started very simply. I was greeted by Rabbi Michael Latz on the front porch, and invited inside to sit in a simple living room with two other rabbis, a rabbinic intern, and my friend and witness, Phil. This was to be a time of examination and discussion, so that all could understand why I was there that day, what I had learned and experienced over the past months, and what I hoped for my life to become. At its essence, this conversation was prescribed by Jewish law and tradition. The fact that the rabbis were friendly and obviously supportive did nothing to stop my heart from racing. The examination seemed to pass in an instant, although I am sure that it lasted at least 15 minutes. At its conclusion, I was invited to wait outside. This time, the moments seemed to drag on forever, but no more than five minutes had passed when Rabbi Latz opened the door and invited me to enter and to take the next step of this ritual. A few minutes later, in a physical and emotional state as unadorned and vulnerable as the day I began life, I stepped into the warm, welcoming waters of the mikvah.
I walked into this little house a ger, a stranger, and with the pastoral care of my rabbis, the validation of the beit din, and the witness of my trusted friend, I joyfully entered into G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people.
The last 15 months have marked a period of my life that defies a complete description.  And yet, I will attempt to describe how I ended up at the mikvah, and what I have experienced along the way as I asked to join the Jewish people.
Where I started.
I was raised in a Christian, Roman Catholic family in a beautiful small town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. We were moderately observant, and I completed the typical religious lifecycle milestones that would be expected. For the most part, I enjoyed religion and I grew up comfortable with my identity as a Catholic. However, as I grew toward manhood, so much in my life seemed to change. By the age of 18 I came to the full realization that I am a man who loves men. Almost immediately, I understood that in the Church’s eyes this makes me “intrinsically disordered.” Those are literally the church’s words, not mine.
Yet, I also knew down to the core of my being that I was made in G-d’s image and that this means being true to my nature is far from disordered, Rather it is the way I have been created to serve G-d and keep G-d’s commandments. To do otherwise, would be to dishonor G-d and to bring harm to myself and others. In accepting this truth I became estranged from the religious tradition of my birth.
During my 20’s and 30’s, I engaged in a long journey of spiritual discovery and maturation. I spent many years affiliated with two liberal Christian denominations and – quite significantly – as a self-guided student of Buddhism. Very gradually, in almost imperceptible increments, I realized that many foundational elements of my Christian belief were no longer a fit with my understanding of G-d, creation, humanity and myself.   I was conscious of having journeyed so far from my Christian roots that I could not imagine ever again practicing Christianity with authenticity. I became, to use a contemporary term of the moment, “spiritual but not religious.”
Religious discovery, of course, does not occur in a vacuum. In 2006, while a graduate student working to complete a Master of Social Work degree, I was assigned to complete an internship at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS). This was a pivotal experience. Over a period of about two years, both as a student and later as a part-time staff psychotherapist, I learned and worked in a distinctly Jewish context. I became familiar with the Jewish community, served Jewish and non-Jewish clients, and developed strong relationships with many Jewish colleagues. I was warmly accepted and quite contentedly made myself at home.
My friends and family expressed curiosity about my work at a Jewish agency. If anyone thought it was an unusual choice for me to make, I never heard about it. Mostly, people were interested in hearing about my experience of working with clients, as well as what I was learning about Jewish holidays, and my attendance at the bat mitzvah of a colleague’s daughter.
In what I see now as a little bit of foreshadowing, I remember my mother e-mailing me one day to ask if I could get her a good brisket recipe! I had no clue, but did my best to find a recipe on the internet, and sent it off to her. Later, I related this story with some degree of laughter to my supervisor, Carole. She got why I was amused. I remember her suggesting that while some people are Jews by Choice, perhaps I was sort of a “Jew by job!”
In 2008 I started a new full-time position at another agency and left JFCS. At first I viewed this transition as simply leaving a job, something I had done several times in the past. My colleagues and I said our goodbyes, we committed to stay in touch and I went on my way. Immediately I was aware of how much I missed the people and environment of JFCS, but I chalked this up to leaving a great situation for a good reason. Over the months that followed, this experience of missing JFCS evolved into a realization that there was something missing inside of me; that I had left behind something I hadn’t realized that I had found.
It took a while for me to give myself permission to acknowledge what was clearly happening to me. I hadn’t merely completed a rich professional development experience with the added benefit of close personal relationships. Rather, I was beginning to see that there was something about Judaism and the Jewish people that I was being called to explore. I wrestled with this for many months, reading just about anything I could get my hands on that might help me understand Judaism. I struggled to discern whether this was merely an intellectual curiosity, rather than a spark of the Divine catching fire within me and leading me to wholeness. I came to understand that Jewish life and practice takes place in community and I knew I could no longer do this alone.
So I asked Phil to lunch and I told him my story. I recall the butterflies I felt in my stomach. In many ways, this was another coming out, no less significant to me than when I came out as a gay man twenty-five years ago. The butterflies, while a natural reaction, were unwarranted. I remember my friend’s kind attention and effortless words of support. And he invited me to come with him to Shir Tikvah for a Friday evening Shabbat service. How fortunate for me that this synagogue’s door was my entry into Jewish community life! I was received with great hospitality, and was quickly able to find my place among the congregants.
Why I became Jewish.
The process of learning and preparation for conversion represented a significant amount of intellectual and emotional effort, yet it has felt like one of the most natural endeavors I have ever undertaken. Along this journey I have found a religious practice that permits me to connect with G-d in a way that I thought I had lost forever. Last week’s parsha, Noach, includes the story of the Tower of Babel.  We’ve heard this story our whole lives: humanity works together to build an enormous tower in order to reach the heavens and thus find G-d. In a response that seems difficult to understand (at least to me), G-d intervenes to stop construction by confusing the languages of humanity. Unable to communicate with others outside of their immediate communal groups, humanity ceases building the tower and proceeds instead to build separate societies with distinct languages and cultures.
When I became estranged from the religious community of my birth, I lost the language I needed to be with G-d. The language of my heart and my intellect could not comprehend what I was hearing. The words I had to express what my soul yearned to say were not understood by my religious community. In the Jewish community I have found a place where I can be my whole self, where I can give and receive and grow to become a better person. In Jewish life, I have found a way to integrate my inherent values and capabilities with those of countless other Jews, who have come before me and will live after me, to endeavor to repair and perfect the glorious creation of humanity and all that is.
It has been written that Albert Einstein, a brilliant theoretician, philosopher and lifelong agnostic, once said that he was sorry to have been born a Jew because he was thus denied the opportunity and personal satisfaction of independently choosing Judaism. It would be ludicrous to compare myself to this profoundly wise man; however his statement resonates with my mind, heart and soul. In choosing Judaism, the Jewish people, and Jewish life I have found a wholeness, shalom, I have never before experienced.
On that afternoon at the mikvah, I felt as if I had come to the culmination of a life-long process. In many ways this was an appropriate sentiment at that moment. But now I understand that day as new beginning.
I have so much for which to be grateful. To my family, my friends, and to this kehillah kedoshah, sacred community: I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Todah raba!
(Image: Boulder Mikva by rose770)