“At that time there were faith leaders that would hold safe space for people, and some of them were rabbis,” Shortal said. “Every time the rabbis would speak I was fascinated and drawn to it because it was very open and engaging. It’s not black and white. They were wrestling with what’s real and what’s not. I was fascinated by it and would start having conversations with the people who were there and I thought it was interesting.”
On June 28, Shortal completed the conversion process working with the rabbis at Temple Israel. But long before the process started, she used her reporter instincts to research Judaism.
“I was hooked. It was amazing,” she said. “That led to me to get the courage to ask a rabbi to have coffee with me, which he did. And that turned into studying Torah on Saturdays at a Midrash, which went on for several months. There were several signs along the way that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Kind of like when you go on a date with someone you’re into. It was all clicking. I didn’t understand it all, and I tried not to get lost in ‘what does all that mean; what do I have to do now.’”
Shortal has found herself to be a regular at the Saturday morning discussions at Temple Israel Torah discussions.
“It’s like watching a press conference instead of participating,” she said. “The 30 people are reporters asking questions I’ve never heard of, or rabbis will pose a question and people just go. There’s no right. It’s a funny exercise of mind, heart, and faith.”
Shortal did quickly realize that, although she’s wired to want to learn more, she had started at a deficit. So she started taking an adult learning class at Temple Israel.
“I wanted a foundation and to really get into this,” she said. “Committing to a class or coursework that taught me way more than arguing with a bunch of Jewish guys on Saturday morning. It was so awesome, but they had foundations that I didn’t have and I couldn’t go back in time to get it.”
Shortal was raised in the “homogeneous” town of Jerseyville, Ill., which is about an hour due north of St. Louis. She was raised Catholic, but her nature led to ask a lot of questions about her faith that weren’t welcome. In her 20s, she came out as a lesbian and said nothing was driving her faith.
“I was done with it, and that was fine. I was completely at peace with it. I wasn’t a woman searching for anything faith-based or anything like that,” she said.
The conversion process, like the coming out one, didn’t really surprise her family.
“They talked a lot about it in our class, in terms of how our family might respond but I didn’t have that experience in terms of negativity,” she said. “It was more, ‘well of course you are.’ It was me seeking out or doing something different or finding something that I wasn’t exposed to.”
Shortal said she is very close with her family, and always goes home for Christmas. Last year, she was nervous because the first [Chanukah] candle was lit on Christmas Eve, but it was important to her that she begin to experience the holidays as a Jew. At Rabbi Jennifer Hartman’s suggestion, she bought a travel menorah to take home.
“I thought it was sacrilegious but she said to get over it. You’re going to do it, it doesn’t matter how much it costs or where it comes from, it matters that you start to live a Jewish life,” she said. “So I did it. There wasn’t a negative reaction. I have three nieces and they were fascinated, wondering what Aunt Jana was doing in the window facing Israel with tiny travel candles and speaking a language they didn’t understand. It was cool.”
Shortal has experienced a couple of Passover seders (“How do you make that much brisket? It’s intense,”) likes Yom Kippur (“It’s real. It’s really beautiful and oddly freeing for me”), and looks at what’s next (“This did not come with a Jewish bride which is complete crap. I thought I would totally get a girl out of it. I’m narrowing my dating pool in a way in which I would never have imagined.”) Now in her second month as being officially converted, she knew that she was Jewish long before going to the mikvah.
“The truth is, it’s a deeply personal decision and you know when you know. I’m guilty of over analyzing and over questioning,” she said. “But I became Jewish two years prior to that in my heart, in my faith, and in the way I was living my life.”