I used to think only rabbis could serve on batei din. (That's the plural form of the term. Beit din literally means "house of judgment;" a beit din is a rabbinic court.) That turns out not to be true. In the liberal corner of Judaism where I make my home, a beit din needs to include a rabbi, but two of the three members can be knowledgeable laypeople, or student clergy. Batei din are convened for a variety of purposes. The first one I served on came together to witness and formalize a conversion to Judaism.
Giyyur (conversion) is a major undertaking, not to be entered-into lightly. Maybe that's part of why I was a little bit nervous the first time I served in this role. I wanted to live up to the responsibility of being part of that transition. I'd read the person's spiritual autobiography, but would I be able to come up with appropriate questions to ask during the conversational part of the ritual? How would I feel, listening to this person talk about their journey and the reasons for their choices? What would it be like?
In the car on the way there I reminded myself that this experience really wasn't about me, and that no one would be judging my participation. It's funny how familiar the anxiety was; I remember feeling something similar before my first wedding, before my first funeral, before my first on-call night at the hospital. Reb Goldie Milgram has written about the need for those who serve on a beit din to spiritually prepare themselves for the work, and as I drove I thought about how to prepare myself to really be present.
The rabbi who had convened the beit din created sacred space through song, through silence, through pouring mint tea into beautiful handmade teacups for all of us. I felt awe when the new Jew was enfolded in a tallit for the first time. We drove along winding dirt roads to a secluded source of natural waters -- one of the most beautiful natural mikva'ot I've ever seen. I can still hear the splash of the immersion, and the words of the bracha, and the way everyone chorused amen!
Although we never left the general region I call home, the adventure took us along an utterly spectacular road I had never before seen. That seemed fitting, somehow. There's always more to explore, more to learn, even on terrain I think I know by heart.
I drove home marveling at the beauty of creation -- both the outer world around us (the mountains that day were truly afire) and the inner world each of us inhabits (our hearts and souls can burn with just as much radiant beauty as these Berkshire hills.) The fabric of my day had been subtly and irrevocably altered, and everyone's smiles continued to radiate in and through me. What a source of blessing.