A Sense of Belonging: My Conversion Story

lisa-merLisa Mer originally told her story in a speech delivered at her synagogue, Shir Tikvah. A modified version of that speech is printed below.
Growing up, I didn’t have a spiritual or religious community. I peered into the windows of the Methodist church in my neighborhood in suburban Chicago, longing to be on the inside, to go horseback riding, roller-skating with the youth group…I actually had no idea what else they did there; it was like some secret society.
I grew up in a silent spiritual world, the seed of what was yet to come, planted so deeply, it took years to sprout. But when it did I discovered healing, wholeness, a sense of belonging—to my synagogue, Shir Tikvah, and Judaism. But it took a long time, and required a lot of help, to get there, to get to this moment.
My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Ehrlich, redhead and Jewish, taught a unit on Judaism and Israel that I remember to this day. I adored Mrs. Ehrlich and I think she enjoyed me as her student. One day she pulled me aside to share her disappointment in me because I had joined in with others in treating another classmate very badly. No one had ever taken the time to tell me in such a caring way that she expected more from me. It was life changing at 12 years old. Mrs. Ehrlich was a mentor for me on the path to integrity. She was my spiritual guide before I had words for it.
In high school, I played Anne Frank in a readers’ theatre group. Her story gave me a desire that I still have to read and learn about the unfathomable Holocaust. It is so important to bear witness, tell the stories, not forget, and take action. I am drawn to hold up the lives of those who are gone from us. The suffering and resilience of the Jewish people, all the ancestors and allies call me to stand up for myself and others, and make change in the world.
Landing at a place like Shir Tikvah, I can pick up my shard of glass from the divine, shattered, vessel and help put things back together for a more right and just world. Social Justice is part of the air there. Jewish ancestors, allies, and everyone at Shir Tikvah are spiritual guides for me.
In my 30s I became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, housed where Shir Tikvah is now. Ironic. It was my very first time affiliating with any religious congregation. The learning, the openness, the social justice endeavors, and the ministers opened a new world of what it meant to be in a community.
But after a falling out between the ministers and the board, it felt as if a rug had been pulled out from under me. I fell away. But the experience of being a part of that congregation was a fabulous spiritual guide.
Much of the last 20 years has been filled with building community in my work as a middle school teacher, and doing professional development in and outside of my school. This work, and the people I’ve met through it, have all been amazing teachers of what it is to belong to a spiritual community.
I met, perhaps, the biggest teacher, spiritual guide, and catalyst for arriving at Shir Tikvah and Judaism when I met Grief. My former partner, the biological mom of our sweet twin babies, Cat and Finn, ended our relationship and has totally denied me access to them. We brought them into the world together, with intentionality; we chose the sperm donor together, I was present at their birth, the first one to hold them. It was the six of us: my partner, my two older kids, and the babies—a family, in every extraordinary and mundane sense of the word, except (at the time) legally.
I had a lengthy custody case, two days of a trial—came close, it seemed, to having parental rights, but lost. Now my older children and I have not been able to see Cat and Finn (now seven) for almost four years.
Betrayal on so many levels. Can you imagine being told you will never see your kids again?
The pain was excruciating. Filled with such incredible heartache, living seemed optional on many occasions. Grief defined me.
Well, what do you do when life falls apart? How do you go on?
I have tapped into many resources to get healthy, to find resilience. One of the first books I picked up was Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path from Grief to Healing. The book outlines the amazing Jewish rituals for dealing with loss and death. When a friend agreed to attend a healing service at Shir Tikvah with me almost four years ago, the pull to belong began.
Seated in a circle, Hebrew chanting all around, caring people, having come together for sustenance, I felt a cracking open as I heard others’ stories of pain. I sobbed the entire time, spoke no words, and felt a shift. What amazing spiritual guiding angels were present that night! Grief is a spiritual guide.
High Holy Days services 3 years ago, I felt a huge draw to belong, some mystery tugging at me. Peering down from the balcony, looking on jealously at the beautiful community, the history of a people; I felt such a longing to be a part, but believing that was impossible.
Each successive year I became a little more involved: sitting on the main floor, joining the choir, learning to sing the salve of Hebrew that had initially brought me in the door, and learning I could become part of this community. Technically it’s called a “conversion.” I think it’s a “becoming.”
lisa-mer-shir-tikvahI appreciate the way I feel when I’m at Shir Tikvah. I enjoy the people who share, who sing, who listen, who talk, who raise consciousness, and who make connections. I feel drawn to learn, be creative, give, and receive here.
I am emotionally moved at every service I attend. The words, eternal light, prayers, and song speak to my heart and open my soul in a way that is mystical and tender. The tears soften me so I can bring more compassion to the world and myself. Giving gratitude, offering healing, singing Mi Shebeirach and saying Kaddish give me a feeling of being part of something so much bigger than me, but also including me. Hearing Hebrew spoken, sung, and chanted continue to bring me pause and praise as I listen and join in.
I love this story that Rabbi Latz has recounted before, a Hasidic tale where a disciple asks the rabbi, “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. so we place them on top of our hearts, and there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in….” 
My heart arrived at Shir Tikvah broken, and has now broken open. These words have fallen into my heart and I carry them with me, and share them with you, so we can see our vulnerable humanity together in joy and sorrow and presence—which brings compassion, gratitude and courage to do the work the world needs.
Such a gift.