First, I want to make a recommendation:
If you have anxiety or any kind of problem that causes anxiety, do your best to have your beit din and mikveh right next to each other in terms of time. Don’t separate them by eight hours, as I did. For me, that caused a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety that, if I had had the mikveh earlier or the beit din later, I could have probably reduced, if not prevented.
We – my husband, my best friend, and I – all got up far earlier than any of us are accustomed to getting up, at 7 a.m., to be ready to leave by 8 a.m. to get to our Temple for the 8:30 a.m. beit din. The Temple is about 15 minutes away. Things seemed to be going all right – I got up, got my shower, did my meds, got dressed, had a double cup of coffee, and was mostly okay until we got to the elevator.
Of course it wasn’t working. This is the first time we’ve ever had problems with the elevator in almost two years of living here. I called the landlord and left a message about it, and then we had to go down the stairs, which was not fun and which stressed me out. We very carefully got me down three flights of stairs, with a lot of help. I don’t do stairs because my knees will not let me go up, and my bad balance doesn’t let me go down. This meant that we got to the Temple about five minutes late, and I was a little embarrassed.
Rabbi M. was waiting for us. My best friend and I came in while my husband went to go find parking for the car, but we all managed to get there within a few minutes of the start time. Once we were all seated in his office, Rabbi M. introduced us to Evan B., who is the Temple’s liaison to the URJ, and Joanne L., who is the head of the rituals and practices committee. Rabbi M. explained what the beit din was for, and then we began.
I remember Rabbi M. also asked me to write an article for the newsletter about my journey into Judaism and into this Temple. I’m sure I can do that – I’ve got so much material here already. I asked if I could move my chair a little so I could see everyone’s faces and read their lips if necessary.
I wish I could remember all their questions. Actually, I wish I’d taped the session or something just so I’d have more than memories. But over the course of about thirty minutes, I talked about the name I chose (Yaron Adam Yisrael), and this blog and its name (Shocher Adam), and how they related to my ongoing search for God (Yisrael = wrestling with God; shocher = seeker). I discussed my religious background (Catholic and fundamentalist Christian), how music was worship for me and how, if I didn’t have music, it didn’t feel like worship.
I talked about my failed attempt at the Shul Down The Street. I talked about that first Seder at my friend’s father’s house, and that first long discussion about “Fear God” not meaning “Be terrified of God.” I talked about my best friend’s input and help, and my husband’s decision to convert as well, and all the reading I’d done, and when they asked me that family question I explained that my mother was abusive but that the rest of the family was totally on board with me going through with this. I even mentioned my daughter saying “If I was going to be another religion, I’d be Jewish because they let you argue.” I talked about how the holidays were meaningful. I know I talked about ethical structure and tikkun olam. And I know that I choked up more than once, when I said “I just felt – this is my place, these are my people, this is my home.”
I talked about a couple of things Michael Doyle talked about when he did his conversion, and crediting him for the ideas – about the prophetic aspect of being a ger/JBC, and about finding my soul’s native adjective in Judaism. They understood it all. A lot of times, I apparently anticipated their questions with my answers so that when I was done, they would say things like “I was going to ask X but you’ve already covered it.”
Evan B. asked me if there was ever a time I felt ashamed of being Jewish and I said to the contrary, I make a point of being openly and obviously Jewish. I don’t proselytize, but I wear a kippah and a Mogen David everywhere, and I do not feel any shame. I said “The only time I’ve felt actively anxious about being obviously Jewish is when the three of us were driving up through Victorville last year, and we stopped to get lunch at a truck stop, and there were swastikas in the truck stop’s bathroom. That worried me.” But I was even able to tell the day of My First Anti-Semitic Slur without too much trouble.
Joanne L. wanted to know what I was going to do once this was done – and asked me if it would be very different or not, considering how much I already knew and was doing. I said I wouldn’t know if it was going to be different until it happened. She also wanted to know how to make the Temple more welcoming for Jews by Choice and I said that I thought they were already doing a great job, but that I would think about it and definitely get back to her later (which is what she wanted).
Essentially, they got it. They really got it. It didn’t take nearly as long as I thought, and it wasn’t like my dissertation defense at all.
Then Rabbi M. asked the three of us to leave (while they rearranged the furniture so it wasn’t so crowded). We went into one of the classrooms and admired the artwork there – a big puzzle made of pieces that were hand-painted by different families in the congregation back in 2002. When we came back in, Rabbi M. had some paperwork for me. I mentioned that my husband wanted me to mention that I intend someday to be a chazzan (cantor) because everything went so fast that I forgot to mention it before, and he’d scolded me a little for not mentioning it.
The main thing in the pile of paperwork was the Declaration of Jewish Commitment, which he said I would read through silently to make sure I agreed with it (I did) and then I would read aloud while holding a sefer Torah.
He told me that my story was not one of change so much as emergence, which they found profound and wonderful (that made me blush).
Then, holding the sefer Torah, he told me that the Torah is our connection to all Jews before us and that after this, I would also be connected to all Jews both now and before, l’dor vador. And that this particular sefer Torah had been commissioned by the congregation, so that it would also connect me to this congregation. After he told me all this, I asked whether I should wear my tallit before taking the Torah, and he said yes. My best friend got the tallit out of the bag it was in, held it out to me so I could see the prayer on the atarah, and I recited it, only stumbling a moment over “vetzivanu” for some reason (Rabbi M. prompted me):
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mizvotav vetzivanu l’hitateif ba’tzitzit.
Then I put it on, and took the Torah from Rabbi M. for the first time.
When I wrote about this during the break between beit din and mikveh, I said that to that point, this was the most profound moment for me today – when I actually took the Torah into my hands. It was lighter than I’d thought, but also slightly awkward. I’d studied Rabbi M. while he held it so I’d see what to do – dominant arm around the Torah with my hand between the two scroll holders on the bottom, and then non-dominant hand wrapped around the other side bracing my wrist – and I was able to hold it without too much trouble. I read the entire Declaration without any faltering, reading all the English-written names as Hebrew names, although I did choke up a bit a time or two.
In reading the Declaration, I said that I stood before God, with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob, with Moses, and with the prophets of Israel (for various reasons and in different ways) in my intentions to become a Jew. I stated that I accepted the Torah and committed myself to a lifetime of its study. I stated that I am part of God’s covenant with Israel. I pledged to give to time and resources to supporting the Jewish community, strengthening Israel, and helping bring about justice and peace in accordance with the vision of the Prophets. I pledged to establish and keep a Jewish home, with certain definitions of what that meant; I pledged to deepen my Jewish observance by active participation in a synagogue (not necessarily this Temple, either), and that I recognized that my embracing Judaism was part of a life-long journey dedicated to tikkun olam, or the healing of the world.
I’ve paraphrased it here, because Rabbi M. wrote it, and I don’t want to publish his copyrighted information.
Below that, it had my Hebrew name (without nikkudim/vowels, so I didn’t recognize it at first!), and stated that I dedicated myself to God’s ways and to honoring all of creation, and then said the Shema to affirm the oneness of God.
Everyone present said the Shema with me.
Then they all signed a number of certificates: certificate of hatafat dam brit, certificate of conversion, and the Declaration. All three had the Hebrew name I’ve chosen: Yaron Adam Yisrael ben Avraham v’Sarah.
In Hebrew letters, that’s:
ירון אדם ישראל בן אברחם ושרה
Rabbi M. also had the check for the mikveh people (our Temple subsidizes the cost of the mikveh for new converts), and a certificate for them to sign there, for me to take with me. He also had a letter from him, on behalf of the Temple, offering me a year’s paid membership, and whom to talk to about that.
My husband choked up several times, and cried both during and after. My best friend videotaped me saying the declaration and holding the Torah, as did Evan B. from a different angle. I will post stills from these at some point soon, when I get copies.
After that we left the office, and while Rabbi M. was photocopying my documentation I went into the sanctuary for a minute to be alone. I said the Shema in front of the Ark and read the words on the Ark doors: Mitzvot Adonai raba: meyirat eynaim. (Adonai’s mitzvot are pure: they give light to the eyes.) I said thank you. I said “These Jewish hands and this Jewish soul are here to serve you.” And I cried a little bit.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the gift shop window with the tallit around my shoulders, and I gasped. It was kind of a shock to see it. I think that’s when it hit home: I’m a Jew now. Even before the mikveh, it was still profound. I am a Jew.
I went over to the Temple office to talk to the secretary about High Holy Days tickets, and she said to just come in next week to pick up the paperwork. Joanne L. was there and I gave her my email so that she can email me about the rituals committee. I also told her that I want to teach classes at the Temple, and that I had talked to Sharon (the Temple’s education director) about it, too.
When we got into the car, my husband had the CD from our Hebrew teacher, who also sings. He forwarded it to her version of “L’Dor Vador,” and then he cried with hearing it. Those tears were a precursor for some long conversations later in the day. He was profoundly affected.
Then we went to brunch. I called the apartment management and they called back to tell me that the elevator was repaired and working fine. So we came home with about an hour to kill before leaving for the mikveh. I wrote down what had happened up to this point and then tried to calm down a little bit. It mostly worked, although I melted down at my husband simply due to stress and worry (which is a far too common thing for me, sadly).
Half an hour or so before we were planning to leave, I took out my temporary earrings, which have been in since last Friday since I can’t remove captive bead earrings on my own, got my deep-scrub shower, scrubbed my teeth, and got into clean clothes before we left for the mikveh. I took a bag with just my toothbrush and my deodorant and a comb in a small pouch, along with a pair of flip-flops, as the mikveh people had directed. I also had the certificate for them to fill out for witnesses, and the check my rabbi had given me.
The drive up was not bad. We went to the Skirball Center first to purchase a mezuzah – because now that there was actually a Jew in this home, it was fitting that we finally have a mezuzah inside the doorway. We picked out a nice one. My husband also bought a CD of music. We stopped and had a soda, and my husband stumbled his way through the prayer for installing the mezuzah – which we’ll do tomorrow sometime, probably after services. My best friend and I were elated that his Hebrew is coming along so well.
Then we went to the university where the mikveh was, about 45 minutes before we needed to be there. Sitting outside, we saw Rabbi M. arrive early too. He went inside to check us in, and I stayed outside with my husband and best friend, feeling nervous and anxious. I knew that as far as the Reform movement was concerned, I was already a Jew, but for me the rituals of brit and mikveh are so important that I didn’t feel like I was completely a Jew until they were done too.
I gave my wedding ring and my Mogen David – the only jewelry I had left on me – to my husband and asked him to hold them safe for me.
Rabbi M. came back out after a few minutes, and we made conversation. My husband said he was considering October 1st, and Rabbi M. said “Whenever you feel ready, just let me know.” Then we also asked if, once my husband had finished his process, we could do a renewal of our wedding vows as proper Jews, with a Jewish service led by Rabbi M., but the non-Jewish calendar date falls on Shabbat this year (Saturday), so it wouldn’t work. Rabbi M. then suggested we use the Hebrew date for our one-year anniversary, which is 7 Cheshvan (October 20), and that looks like what we’ll be doing. Later, my best friend offered the use of her tallit for a chuppah. We are still discussing this, of course, but it will probably happen just that way. Then Rabbi M. went back in to see what else was going on. There were two groups of people ahead of us when we first arrived, and only one had emerged.
We finally went in about five minutes after the four o’clock appointment. Judith, the mikveh attendant, took us on a short tour of the facilities, showing us all the mikveh pool, which is tiled in blue tile and has seven steps down into it. It didn’t look very deep or very wide, and I was very worried about hitting my head. This is when I found out that immersion in a mikveh is not the “lie back and get immersed” way that we’re all so familiar with from many movies that feature Christian baptism. Instead, it is a straight-down-from-standing movement, almost like crouching down into the water into a fetal position, pulling your feet up so that you’re not touching anything at all – so that you’re floating free. Once I understood that, it became less scary.
She said that once I was ready to get into the mikveh, I should knock on the outer door and then go into the mikveh room, put my towel on the rail, and go down into the water. There was a screw-in plug in the wall that allowed communication with the natural spring and the water already in the mikveh; she said to unscrew it and set it on the side of the pool, then put it back in when I was done. A few minutes after I knocked on the wall, to give me time to get situated, she would come in (behind the curtain) and ask if I was ready. She pointed out the disposable kippot, and the plastic laminated stand that held the prayers for those whose brains might fail them in anxious moments.
Apparently they usually dim the lights down to almost nothing and just let the electric candles light the room when you’re done, if you want, but I did not want. It was already dim and I had a fear of being in the dark and the water without some visual cues. I don’t want to do sensory deprivation, so I said please, no dimming of the lights – they were plenty dim already.
So after we got that all sorted, then I asked if my husband could be with me in the prep room before and after, as my arthritis makes it difficult for me to remove and put on my shoes and a couple of other clothing items. They said no problem. So he was also in the room in front of the curtain with Rabbi M., my official witness, when I did my immersions.
Since I’d already scrubbed myself until I squeaked, I just took a very quick rinse-off shower in the prep room. It was hot outside, so I did need it, but I was glad I was already pretty clean, as the shower was one of those “rainfall” showerheads and it didn’t feel like it had a lot of water pressure. I dried off just as quickly as I’d rinsed, grabbed the towel they’d provided to cover myself, knocked on the door, and went out into the mikveh room in the towel. I hung the towel on the rail and got down into the mikveh with a little help from my husband. It was extremely buoyant water, and very warm – not like a swimming pool at all, and not even like a hot tub. This had its own unique sensation. I couldn’t – quite – touch the floor with my toes, and the water was brushing the bottom of my (trimmed) beard. It was very disconcerting. It was much deeper than it had looked from above. Now I understood why you had to leap up to immerse – you needed the downward momentum to drive your body completely below the surface, or it wouldn’t happen.
My husband and I moved the small laminated plastic stand with the prayers in it to a place I could get to easily, and he took my glasses (which I had to have to see my way into the pool – I’m blind as a bat and have zero depth perception without them, although I can read close up without them on). He unfortunately set them on a black table, and with their black frames, they blended right in, which was a little problematic after the whole thing was over and he couldn’t remember where he’d set them down. He then sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the curtain, and we waited for Rabbi M., and my best friend and the mikveh attendant, who would be behind the curtain as second and third witnesses since they were female.
It felt like a long time, but it was probably only a couple of minutes before the mikveh attendant said, “Okay, Adam, are you ready for the rabbi?” I said yes. Then she asked if I was calm, and I said no, because honestly, I was so anxious about doing it all correctly that I couldn’t really be calm. I was trying, but I was just too anxious and I still didn’t feel like I was going to avoid hitting my head, or pulling my back, or doing something else incorrectly. I wanted kavanah (the deep, spiritual feeling of connection), but what I ended up with was keva (ritual and memorized prayer). But as Michael Doyle said when it was his time in the mikveh, keva is enough to get the job done.
In any case, once I made sure Rabbi M. could see what he needed to see to say whether my immersion was kosher, I took a couple of deep breaths and then let go of the side of the pool. I made sure that I wasn’t near the stairs, so that I wouldn’t touch them when I pulled my feet upwards, and then Rabbi M. said “Whenever you’re ready, Adam.”
I took a deep breath, leapt up a little bit, and plunged down. I made sure to duck my head down too, so that I would be completely underwater. It felt kind of like when you do a cannonball into the deep end, except that I didn’t touch my hands or arms to my sides. But I knew for certain that that first one would be kosher – I wasn’t touching anything and nothing touched me but the water.
I came up, wiping the water out of my eyes and slicking my hair back, and heard Rabbi say, “That was kosher.”
Completely forgetting to don the disposable kippah (d’oh!), I read the first prayer for immersion:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu al ha-tevilah.
Then I took a few deep breaths, leapt up and plunged down again, and heard Rabbi say “Kosher,” as I came back up. I took a minute to collect myself, put the kippah on my head this time, then read the Shehecheyanu. Yes, I read it. Why? Because my brain was frazzled and I just needed the help.
The last immersion took me a little longer. Like Michael Doyle, part of me was thinking, “When my head clears the water again, I’m a Jew for all time.” And part of me was thinking “Don’t screw this up, you want this to be done in three so you don’t have to re-do any of them.” And part of me was, sadly, saying “And move it along because you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t hurry up.”
But then I just cleared my mind, took a breath on a count of five, leapt up, and plunged down one last time.
When my head cleared the water, I heard Rabbi M. say that all-important word: “Kosher!” I wiped water and tears out of my eyes, went to the side of the pool, put on the kippah, and sang out the Shema for all that I had. It echoed on the tile and I was convinced I was off key, and I know that it was obvious that I was crying while I sang it. But then it was done, and Rabbi M. was telling me what a profound thing I had done, and welcome to the Jewish People, and that they would see me outside when I was ready.
And just like that, she’asani Yisrael. I am a Jew.
Then he and the other two witnesses filed out, and my husband asked me if I wanted to get out yet.
Oddly enough, I didn’t. I needed another minute or two to assimilate what I’d just done. I hadn’t hurt myself – a relief – and I had done it all correctly, except forgetting the kippah before the first blessing, but I was shaking and in tears and still trying to process. I asked him to wait a minute while I wept, until I got myself together. Then I wiped my eyes with wet hands, and went to the bottom of the steps. I said, “My tears are in the mikveh now.”
My husband was there with my towel when I got to the top, and helped me dry off. There was a bit of a frazzle moment when he couldn’t find my glasses, but then he did, and went out into the prep room to get my flip-flops – the tile was much more slippery after being in the mikveh than before. He brought them and my glasses to me and made sure I didn’t slip while we went back into the prep room.
There was a bench in the prep room. Once I had my hair combed, my own kippah back on, and my clothes on, he sat at the foot of the bench to help me get my socks and shoes on. He handed me back my Mogen David, which I put on immediately, and put my wedding ring back on me, saying, “I marry you again.” We had a private moment which I’m not going to talk about, and then it was done. I packed up my bag, and he took it, and we went out into the reception area where I was congratulated by everyone there. My best friend hugged me, elated, and said “Welcome to my people! Welcome to my family!”
Judith said she and the mikveh’s rabbi had a gift for me, and offered me a choice of one of five knitted kippot. I chose the green one (green is my favorite color, and I can rarely find a good kippah in that color) and wondered whether to switch my Mogen David kippah for it. They said it was up to me. I decided to hold off on that as the one I was wearing was chosen for the day.
Then my husband made the decision to schedule his mikveh appointment and his beit din. He will be going on October 1st. That’s five weeks away. So we’re not done yet!
Rabbi M., Judith, and my best friend had all signed my mikveh certificate, which I added to my paperwork file. Then we went out, and driving home took two hours plus, and for most of the drive we sang Hebrew songs off my playlist until my phone died, and my husband talked about his own path to his conversion and how it was different than mine. We went to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner, and then we finally got home.
Somewhere in there, I realized that something had changed. It wasn’t like my friends’ reports of suddenly looking down and seeing Jewish hands. It was more like a tightly coiled spring, that had been far too tightly wound up inside me for far too long, suddenly uncoiling, relaxing, fading. Like something that had been incorrect or out of place for years was now, finally, set right.
I had to update this before I forgot the important things. I know this is one of the longest posts I’ve done on this blog, but I hope that it’s helpful to everyone. If I’ve forgotten things, look for follow-up posts.
Also, today was the 12th of Elul, and the theme for today was “forgive.”
I think that in finishing this milestone, I forgave myself for a lot of things I’d been and done over the years. I’m the same person, but I feel lighter. I feel easier in myself and in my mind.
I hope that’s what I was supposed to feel.