Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Why Orthodoxy?

After deciding to actively get involved with Judaism, the most logical starting place seemed to be at a synagogue.  My scant knowledge of these houses of worship was derived mainly from my childhood piano recitals, held in the synagogue my teacher attended.

I faced an unexpected array of choices, having only recently learned that there are three main denominations of Judaism: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.  Most, if not all, of the Jews I had known were Reform, and I felt comfortable with the movement on a social and political level.

Somehow I ended up in a Reform rabbi’s office, sitting across from him and his books, so many books.  I don’t remember much of our conversation except how nervous I was, and his recommendation to shop around for a synagogue that I felt comfortable in.

And so my quest to find a spiritual home began.  The peculiarity of my search was painfully obvious to me, causing me to be far more reticent than normal.  In each congregation, I would make myself as small and unobtrusive as possible, trying to look natural, nonchalant.

Mostly, I had no idea what I was doing.  I would try to follow along with a Shabbos service program, but without any context. Terrified of actually talking to a rabbi, or anyone, I would flee immediately at the conclusion of services.

When a college friend’s sister became bat mitzvah, he invited me to the ceremony, held at a synagogue I had yet to try.  The sanctuary was welcoming and full of light.  The congregants also seemed somehow more accessible, their smiles evoking support instead of inducing (much) panic.  I began attending services regularly, though I was still too bashful to attempt speaking at length with either of the rabbis, as nice and approachable as they seemed.

The synagogue’s Intro to Judaism class was not intimidating to me, however, so I signed up.  At the same time, I continued to read as much as I could on Aish.com.  I’m not sure how aware I was of any differences between what I was learning in class and what I was reading.  It took a Rosh Hashana service to put things into focus.

That lovely, airy sanctuary wasn’t large enough to hold the influx of members for the high holidays, so the synagogue rented a large space from a nearby hotel.  It seemed like there were thousands of people all trying to find their seats, draping coats and placing purses on chairs to save spaces for loved ones.

I chatted amiably with a young couple as we inched toward our places.  The wife was a convert, and we connected in that brief way one does while waiting in line.  At one point I mentioned to her,

“Isn’t it amazing how the Torah is like a guidebook for life?”  And she responded, briskly,

“But you can pick and choose.  You can pick and choose what you want to do.”

This bothered me.  The more I learned about Judaism, the more it seemed like a total system, where the most benefit would be derived when observing everything.  And while I wasn’t exactly observing everything yet, I sensed that’s where I wanted to be.

Once that realization crystallized in my mind, I knew I wanted to be surrounded by others who were also trying to observe everything.  This religion thing was going to be front and center with me, all the time, and I didn’t want to feel like an outlier.  I needed to find a community where that would be normal, even preferable.

It would be convenient for my narrative to transition smoothly to Orthodoxy at this point, but that’s not what happened.  Orthodoxy still seemed so far removed from my world that I didn’t even consider it. Instead, I started attending services at a minuscule neo-Hasidic/Jewish Renewal congregation, where the Shabbat services were accompanied by a band of eccentric instruments, including an oud.

Yet, driving through the heavily Orthodox neighborhood on Saturdays, I would see bearded men in dark suits walking on the sidewalk and feel a flash of pride in my fledging connection to these anachronistic people.

But join them?  Unthinkable.

I had been exploring Judaism for nearly a year and felt a growing need to do something concrete with all this practicing to be Jewish.  I signed up to go through with a Reform conversion.

At some point along this meandering journey, an Orthodox rabbi living in Jerusalem had reached out to me through Myspace (yes, Myspace.  It was 2004).  We had many philosophical conversations and arguments via email.  He had urged me to at least try other branches before making a commitment to one.

After I wrote a check to cover the conversion costs, I emailed this Rabbi to let him know I was converting Reform.  Why did I contact him when I knew he wouldn’t approve?  I must have needed an outside nudge to start moving in the direction of still scary (to me) Orthodoxy.

 You know what you should be doing, he wrote.  Be honest with yourself.

That November, I gained the courage to contact the local Aish branch.  Their website advertised a Shabbos dinner.  Call to make a reservation, it said.  Overcoming my extreme nervousness, I dialed the number.

“Hello, this is Rabbi ____, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to register for the Shabbos dinner, please.”

“Well, our website is wrong, but you’re welcome to come to our house for Shabbos dinner!”

“Um, thanks, sure.  I should probably tell you that I’m not Jewish.”

(silence)

“Then why are you calling?”

He listened patiently as I recounted my rather convoluted story, which was yet to be streamlined in my mind.  As my rambling trailed off and my feelings of vulnerability escalated, he responded,

“Well, you can come anyways and see what you think.”

I arrived at their townhouse slightly before sundown on Friday night.  The rabbi headed out for the Shabbos prayer service and I stayed with his wife and two small boys.  I have no recollection of our conversation, but I do remember how comfortable she made me feel.  She was down-to-earth, funny and not that much older than I was.  She hadn’t grown up Orthodox, but chose to become more observant during college.

When her husband returned from prayers, they began the Shabbos rituals that are now so familiar to me.  There were songs and blessings and a lot of Hebrew and an enormous and strange two-handled cup that we used to wash our hands – without soap.  They kindly explained all these new and foreign practices.

That Friday evening in their modest townhouse, I caught a glimpse of a path where Judaism was front and center, all the time.  The next week I went back and stayed the whole Shabbos, sleeping in their guest room.  I haven’t missed a Shabbos since.

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27 thoughts on “Why Orthodoxy?

  1. Rivki! Love that you are sharing more of your story. So many of us were surprised to learn you’d converted to Judaism. Thank you for sharing! Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson Writer • Artist • Hat Enthusiast

    Blog: http://rasjacobson.com >

  2. Such an intense story, truly amazing! It’s funny, while we both come from different places in life, and we came through different paths to Orthodoxy, at the end when we made the decision it was in the same way! I also stayed once for Shabbos and have kept Shabbos ever since. You have a beautiful story and I thank you for sharing it!

  3. The conversation you had with the woman in the Reform synagogue is sooo interesting. The very thing you didn’t want in your Jewish experience was the very thing that most appealed to her about hers! I think that this is true with so many things in life.

  4. While telling your story, you make everything sound so easy and smooth, like it was just the most natural thing what you did, which happens to be your style in general to make things SEEM easy when they are not necessarily so. I don’t know if that makes any sense but that’s my perception. :). Thanks for sharing!

  5. Wow, I resonate so much with this post. I am still in the part of the journey that asks me to confront how deeply I want to be observant and how much I feel it’s obligatory. I would wear my Judaism like a Chassid but for the value I treasure of believing that no size fits all. I am picking and choosing as I’m growing into my level of observance with the intent of eventually fully embracing all mitzvot. But I also respect the call others have to only take on what feels good and right to them.

    I think I mentioned this somewhere on Hevria: it takes a hefty dose of courage to be able to dive into religious life! Brava for your guts to follow your heart’s call. I really love this post.

    1. Thank you, Bonni! I feel like part of our lifelong spiritual task is to confront our relationship with Judaism and constantly reassess our observance, you know? The details are different for everyone, but the struggle is there.

    1. I really don’t think about this story so much (the laundry and dinner and carpool etc. tend to dominate my thoughts), but it’s really been a nice trip down memory lane! What a ride!

  6. This gave me chills– your whole story does. It’s incredible when something just fits like that. Very inspiring and good for you for taking such brave steps to follow your curiosity. I still wish you would write this up for Tablet. I can give you the editor’s name. I have never had luck myself, but your story is compelling, I think.

    1. It truly was incredible. I think it’s fair to say that no one expected for my life to take this route! I’ll consider writing it up for the wider world – will be in touch.

  7. What a gift–to share insights into your personal journey.

    You are a giving, awesome person. May we all seek to grow and Live Judaism and the Emes of Torah as you strive to do.

  8. I have tears! I don’t know why everytime I read a story of someone connecting to emes I get so emotional. I don’t know what this means but in a million years I never thought you were a convert. Perhaps because of your wholesome approach to blogging, it seems to me that you don’t have a chip on your shoulder that you keep bringing up over and over and OVER :-)) I truly enjoy reading your blog!

    1. B”H. I’m so glad to not have a chip on my shoulder! And I feel like this is in large part to learning about (and trying to apply) middos and mussar and all that good stuff that Judaism contains.

  9. So I had read this, but I loved reading it again. I know there is truly so much more to the story and maybe you don’t think people would interested in the tiny particulars between that weekend Shabbos and not missing one since. But I think people would be! I know I am! :)

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