This is the essay that I sent to the Bet Din (per instruction from my rabbi) stating my desire to convert to Judaism and describing my journey to Judaism.
Desired Hebrew Name: Jonathan, יְהוֹנָתָן
Why I Want to Become a Jew
I was raised a Southern Baptist. As a child I never questioned our religion because it did not interest me very much. Church was boring, and the beliefs did not seem all that interesting. When I was thirteen I had what the Baptists call a “born-again” experience. Looking back, I can see that it was induced by dim lighting, the emotional music, and the charismatic preacher, but at the time it motivated me to take an interest in religion. I began reading the Bible and pop-theology, like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis introduced me to the notion of the Trinity. This was something that was never discussed in depth by the Baptists. I knew from my life-long indoctrination that there was one God, that Jesus was his son, and sometimes someone would mention the Holy Spirit, but it never occurred to me to ask how God could be one if there were three of him. Lewis’s unconvincing attempt to rationalize the doctrine was the first time I ever thought about it for an extended period of time.
My interest in the Trinity and the role of Jesus in Christian theology led me to Catholic sources. They were much more systematic in their thinking, and for a 14 year old, much more convincing. I ultimately joined the Catholic Church shortly thereafter, however, I continued questioning and studying. By the time I was 16 I had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and any deified version of Jesus as a violation of the unity of God. I began researching other religions which taught monotheism, including Sikhism, Baha’i, Judaism, Islam, and Unitarianism. This was the first time that I became interested in Judaism, but due to my age and where I lived, I did not pursue conversion. I drifted in and out of liberal Christian churches for the next few years, but I could not put up with a liturgy that expressed a belief system I no longer held.
When I made it to college, I began to practice Buddhist meditation and Eastern mantra meditation. Although I found these practices spiritually effective, I never sought out formal conversion to any Eastern religion, and I ended up giving them up as time went on due to a lack of time and a lack of community. When I was twenty-two, after having dropped out of college and begun to work full time, I once again found myself drawn to Judaism. I liked the pragmatism of Jewish practice, the focus on good deeds rather than a set of beliefs. I was drawn to the theological freedom of the Reform Movement which did not demand adherence to any one belief about God and encouraged free thought and critical engagement with Jewish tradition. I also found myself attracted to the focus on social justice and ethics. I found the liberal Jewish authors and theologians engaging, nuanced, and sincere without being dogmatic or condescending. I began taking classes at the Reform temple in Charlotte, NC and attending the local Reform temple in Gastonia where I lived in late 2009, early 2010. The Hebrew chanting of the prayer service was meditative and spiritual like the Buddhist meditation I had engaged in in college, and the fact that it was done in a community with holidays and Jewish culture was a beautiful and touching experience.
Ultimately, however, I stopped the conversion process. There were too many factors holding me back at the time. I found that I did not believe in the literal chosenness of the Jewish people or that the Torah was the literal word of God, I was not sure if I would be able to circumcise a son if I ever had one, and being the only Jew in my family or circle of friends would have been too difficult to handle at the time. I was also working at a restaurant, and the schedule for the classes often clashed with my work schedule, and the temple was simply too far away to conveniently attend once a week. I withdrew from the program and did not practice any religion for a long time after that.
I began dating Josh in January 2011. Josh comes from a Conservative Jewish background, however, he is a secular Jew now. Our relationship became serious, and I moved to Anderson, SC in March 2012 for us to live together. When I moved to Anderson, I wanted to establish a circle of like-minded friends, and I happened to know, because of one of my trips to the area, that there was a Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Clemson. I began attending the fellowship and became a member shortly after.
Unitarian Universalism is a theologically pluralistic liberal religion. Their principles encourage ethical living and spiritual exploration and growth within a communal context. Of course, during my time at the UU fellowship I was celebrating Jewish holidays with Josh and his family, especially Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah. I also hosted a Passover seder at the UU fellowship in 2013 with the Jewish members there, and every year, the minister would have a service which reflected on the meaning and role of Yom Kippur on the Sunday closest to the holiday.
For two years, Unitarian Universalism served my religious and communal needs by allowing me to explore my beliefs, make friends, and become a community lay leader. However, Unitarian Universalism was incapable of meeting my spiritual needs, and this was one of the things that I learned about myself at the fellowship. UU churches hold a very “low-church” free-form liturgy. Each Sunday is different in content and sometimes even in structure. Comparing this liturgical form with the Catholic Church of my teen years and the temple from Gastonia, the UU liturgy was sorely lacking. I realized that I needed and wanted liturgical structure, chanting, prayer-books, and well-known songs. The reliance of the UU fellowship on the sermon to carry the service meant that there was a need for a constant stream of interesting and compelling topics, and often they ended up being a disappointment. By Easter of 2014, I was beginning to think I was wasting my time on Sunday mornings.
I attended a wedding of one of Josh’s Jewish friends in Charleston the summer of 2014. The service was beautiful and officiated by a Hazzan from Josh’s childhood synagogue. The Sunday following the wedding, I visited the UU church of Charleston because its architecture is known for its beauty and historicity. The service there was beautifully done as well with choral singing and all the things I thought my fellowship back home was missing. After going back to the fellowship in Clemson after that trip, I knew that I needed to find a better alternative or work to change the church I was in.
At first, I attempted to think of ways to incorporate more liturgical elements into the service at the UUFC, however, I soon realized that it was a futile task. Liturgical outgrowth would have to be a natural product of the community based on their experiences and beliefs. But the beliefs of Unitarian Universalism are too broad and ambiguous to give rise to meaningful rituals. I thought that a return to certain Christian rituals like communion may be capable of reinterpretation for UU use, but my aversion to Christianity turned me away from that option as well as the fact that most UUs would also not want such a thing.
Because of the close ideological ties to enlightenment values like personal autonomy, reason, and the historic link between the Unitarian rejection of the trinity and Reform focus on ethical monotheism, I thought that perhaps the incorporation of certain Jewish rituals may be possible. But once I considered this, I realized that it did not make any sense to try to turn one religion into another, especially since appropriation of Jewish customs by UUs would be wildly inappropriate. If I wanted or needed something that UUism was not able to provide, then I should do what it took to fill that need. Ultimately, my “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” led me back to the religion that I wanted to convert to years before. While I retain affection for the UU fellowship in Clemson and the UU principles, I withdrew from membership in the UUFC in order to convert after I contacted Rabbi Master in November 2014, and I began studying and attending the temple in Anderson, SC. Unitarian Universalism helped me to gain an understanding of myself, my beliefs, and my religious and spiritual needs which directly led me to seek conversion to Judaism.
Over the past year of studying and practicing Judaism, I have begun to incorporate different Jewish practices into my life. In addition to the normal holiday celebrations, I try to observe the Sabbath in some form or another. Sometimes we have Shabbat dinner and light candles and say the blessing over wine and challah. I go to the temple as much as I can, and we perform Havdalah after sunset on Saturday. I have attempted to incorporate the morning prayer service into my life as much as possible, and over the past few months, I’ve been using Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings for Shabbat morning and weekday morning or evening prayer. And while my giving of tzedakah is not what it should be, in part because of my financial situation, if I manage to make it to Publix for challah on Friday, I donate something to whatever charity they are helping at the time.
One major change in my thinking since I began studying was my view of the Jews as a people. I entered this process with the idea that Judaism was primarily a religion, but after encountering the thought of Mordecai Kaplan, I have come to appreciate that being Jewish is as much about joining a religious civilization as it is about religion itself. This view of the Jews as a nation has also changed the way that I see Israel. After studying the history of the Jews and gaining the understanding of the Jews as a people, I better understand the need for Israel as a national home and safe-haven that I could not understand before my studies.
The understanding of the peoplehood of the Jews has also affected the way that I view conversion. Rather than seeing my conversion simply as my adopting the Jewish religion, I see it as becoming a member of a family or a nation. This has been facilitated through the gradual growth of relationships that I have had with Josh and his family and our celebration of Jewish holidays and Shabbat. Because of this extended family situation which reinforces Jewish practices, I have come to identify much more fully with the Jewish people than if I had simply converted as a single person. My attendance at shul, while not as regular as I would like it to be, has also helped me to identify more with the Jewish people, although nowhere near as much as my family situation has.
I have noticed my growing identity with the Jewish people most clearly in my response to the rising antisemitism that has been seen in Europe, the Middle East, and America. While before I began this process I saw antisemitism as a clearly bad thing, I did not see it affecting me directly unless something were to happen to Josh or his family. Now, however, antisemitism scares me as a very real threat to my survival, that of my family, and the Jewish people and the state of Israel. But despite my fears about possible antisemitism, my connection to the Jewish people and the Jewish future is stronger than my fear of bigots. Dealing with the possible threat of antisemitism has been the real test of my commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people, and my consistent response has been to reaffirm my commitment to my partner, his family, and the larger Jewish community that I have joined my life to.
My journey to Judaism has been a long and complicated process. It began with my interest in Judaism as an idealistic teenager, and culminated in my integration into Jewish family life and a search for a meaningful spirituality. I love the beauty of Jewish traditions, the spirituality of the Jewish liturgy, the comfort and joy of Jewish holidays, and the exemplary ethical values of the Reform Jewish tradition. This process of study, reflection, and religious observance has led me to anticipate my official adoption into the mishpachah and my future life as a Jew.