People begin to form a Jewish identity in a myriad of ways.
מַה טּוֹבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov; mishkenotekha Yisrael
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).
My work with people who have decided to become Jewish regularly alerts me to the mystery of how it is that people begin to develop a Jewish identity. I’ve met many different sorts of people who are on the path to Judaism. Some have discovered they have Jewish ancestry—often even a Jewish grandparent—and this leads them on a personal journey of self-discovery and, in the end, a reclaiming of Judaism. These spiritual seekers talk about never having felt at home in the religion in which they were raised (usually Christianity); never having been able to feel the connection to that religion’s central faith story, which so clearly moved others; never having been able to “believe,” thus feeling fraudulent when uttering words that professed a faith they did not have.
Others have no Jewish DNA, but still strongly resonate with Judaism. I was moved by the story told by one woman who knew with every fiber of her being that she “was Jewish” after a single synagogue experience. She was drawn to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood and finally got the courage to attend a Shabbat-morning service. She sat in the back and wept throughout the entire service, a service that was completely unfamiliar to her. As she sat there, she was overwhelmed by anger—the kind of anger, she said, that you irrationally feel at someone you deeply loved who has died. All she could think as she wept at the back of the full Sanctuary was this: “Why didn’t you come and find me?” Perhaps we all should have been weeping, too. We didn’t know how diminished we were without her in our kehillah (community).
In my experience, people often develop Jewish identities before they walk into a synagogue for the first time. They take online tests and discover that their best spiritual match is Judaism. They read and research, consult websites, follow blogs, subscribe to podcasts and find online groups of others who, like them, are seriously exploring conversion. They mostly do not have a Jewish partner. I typically ask people who approach me for conversion to send me a list of the books they’ve read to help me gauge their experience. In response, one woman asked me: “Should I just send you a picture of my bookshelves?”
Yet those who seek to become Jewish do need those of us who already are Jewish in order to move from “having developed a Jewish identity” to “being Jewish.” Judaism is a communal religion. And while the flaps of our “goodly” tents are wide open, in order to join us, those who have come to “feel Jewish” must step inside and join the kehillah (community), rather than adhering to some sort of auto-didactic “do-it-yourself Judaism,” a not-uncommon phenomenon in my experience. We are waiting in our goodly tents, arms and our hearts wide open to those who want to be Jewish, as well as identify as Jewish. To them we say, Berukhim haba’im … Blessed are all those who come.
Rabbi Sarah Newmark, a graduate of RRC, lives an hour south of Seattle in Gig Harbor, Wash. Under the rubric of “Locally Sourced Judaism,” she performs handcrafted life-cycle events, does pastoral counseling, accompanies those on Jewish journeys, does interfaith work and teaches in adult-education settings.