When surprises turn out just right: a conversion, though not as I planned
May 23, 2018
Two years ago, before Shavuot, my friend Rabbi Brent Spodek asked me to serve on a beit din -- the rabbinic court of three who preside over Jewish legal matters -- for the purpose of taking part in welcoming a new soul into the Jewish people. Rabbi David Markus was the third member of the beit din. We gathered at Isabella Freedman before that year's Shavuot retreat, met with the prospective Jew-by-choice for meaningful conversation, then accompanied him to Lake Miriam for his mikvah immersion.
One year ago, before Shavuot, Rabbi David convened the same trio for the same purpose. We met again in one of the yurts beside the lake at Isabella Freedman; had a deep and rich conversation with the woman who was choosing Judaism; then accompanied her to the same lake before that year's Shavuot retreat. Both of these were extraordinary experiences for me as a member of the beit din. We joked last year that since each of them had brought someone now, it would be my turn in 5778.
At the time I truly thought we were all kidding. I've been a rabbi since 2011 and no one had ever sought to study toward conversion under my auspices. And then two people independently came to me seeking study toward conversion to Judaism. I wanted them to have an experience of community, so I opened up a class and encouraged others to join. And it became clear that this year it would actually be my turn to be em beit din and to convene my colleagues for this humbling and holy purpose.
I had a lot of time to plan how I wanted the beit din and the conversion to flow, and I had everything all planned out. The beit din and immersion would take place at a beautiful spot: Surprise Lake, the lake at the Hudson Valley summer camp of the same name where our three congregations were convening for a Shavuot retreat. My whole Journey Into Judaism class signed up for the Shavuot retreat and made plans to come down early to support their classmates who were taking the proverbial plunge.
And then storms and tornadoes tore through the area and Surprise Lake lost power, and the retreat was canceled, the day before the beit din. Some scrambling ensued. My rabbinic colleagues moved heaven and earth to make a Plan B possible, including helping us find lodging in a region where every hotel and motel is booked solid with folks still taking refuge from storm damage. And on Friday afternoon, my whole Journey Into Judaism class (plus family members) drove down to the Hudson Valley.
We met at the mikvah in Poughkeepsie, which is housed in an Orthodox shul. The shul was opened just for us, and a mikvah attendant showed us around. My students gathered in a classroom, and the beit din gathered in the shul library, and one by one we met with the candidates for conversion. Then we met with them together. And then we held a tallit-chuppah over their heads and sang Reb Zalman's mother's niggun (which we had sung often before class) as we walked down the hall to the mikvah.
The mikvah attendant (colloquially known as a "mikvah lady") helped us ensure that the immersions were kosher to her usual standards. The men on the beit din stood outside the door of the mikvah, listening for the splash and the sound of our voices from inside. Each of my three candidates stepped down into the water, immersed and made the blessing, and immersed again, and immersed a third time, and emerged reborn as a woman fully in the living flow of Jewish spiritual and national identity.
And then we returned to the library to sign their documents and bless them, and then we all drove to Rabbi Brent's shul in Beacon. There we were awaited not only by a celebratory potluck Shabbat but by a large crowd from his congregation who welcomed our new Jews into the room with a rousing chorus of "Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov." (I don't think they expected that -- to be so heartily welcomed by a room full of strangers -- though of course they weren't strangers; they were fellow Yidden.)
It wasn't the day I had spent so long planning. We weren't outside in the sanctuary of nature, immersing in a natural body of living waters surrounded by trees -- instead we were in a windowless interior room in a shul none of us had ever seen before. There was an unfamiliar woman inspecting them for stray hairs before their immersions, and giving them a lace doily to cover their heads to make the immersion bracha. And because all of this was in God's hands and not mine, it was absolutely perfect.
We'd talked a lot about how when one joins the Jewish people, one is joining the gantze mishpacha, the whole clan: not just my shul, not just places where the practice and custom matches what we do in our small-town Reform-Renewal community, but the whole thing. When one joins the Jewish people, our Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructing and post-denominational cousins become one's family too. The Jewish family is big, diverse, complicated, sometimes exasperating, and sweet.
I couldn't have dreamed up a better example of that truth than arranging to immerse on 24 hours' notice at an Orthodox mikvah. Some of my students had never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue before (there isn't one in Berkshire County). But the wonderful people at Schomrei Israel opened their doors to us without hesitation, because that's what you do for fellow Jews. And then we showed up at an independent synagogue served by a Conservative-ordained rabbi and we were welcomed there too.
No matter how broad our conversations in our Journey Into Judaism class, they couldn't convey the experience of being part of this multifaceted people -- of being welcomed into this multifaceted people, with our wide range of customs and practices, modes of dress and styles of observance, melodies and prayerbooks. I couldn't convey in words what it feels like to walk into a strange synagogue in a strange city and feel like kin even when we differ, because our Jewishness connects us.
Last week's storms and the damage they caused threw a giant monkey wrench into my careful plans, and the way the day turned out was exactly what we needed. It taught my students something I couldn't have taught them on my own. It gave two communities the opportunity to enact the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It gave us a lived experience of feeling welcomed and cared-for and part of something much bigger than even the trio of shuls that had planned a joint retreat.
I'm endlessly grateful: to the folks at Schomrei Israel and Beacon Hebrew Alliance for welcoming us, for my hevre on the beit din for joining me in this holy work, to the members of my class for driving down to support their classmates, to the three who entrusted me with their journey, to Soferet Julie Seltzer for lending us her apartment for a night, and to the Holy One of Blessing Who ensured that the whole day unfolded exactly the way it was meant to, with surprises that turned out just right.