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.”
“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.