June 10, 2009
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of JVibe, the magazine for Jewish teens. Reprinted by permission.
I had always thought about going to synagogue. But it wasn't until a year-and-a-half ago that I stepped foot in one for the first time. I was 12. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., was warm and spacious--not like the cold pews I was used to sitting in during services. That night I stayed for the Shabbat service, and when it ended, my dad introduced me to the congregation. We joined them for Kiddush, and met some of the kids.
Being in a new environment was a scary thing. Everyone had obviously known one another for a long time, and I was just meeting them for the first time. I was shy about starting new chapter in my life, but I decided that I would come back and give it a try.
Michella Ore (far L) and friends.
You see, I'm Catholic. My mom is an African-American Christian, and my dad is a mixture of Nigerian, Native American, Russian and German--and is Jewish by birthright. After years of attending a Catholic school, I realized that Judaism allowed me to question things in ways that Catholicism did not. Judaism offered me the opportunity to learn from the Scripture but also to question it. During my elementary years in Catholic school, I had always questioned whether Jesus was the son of God. I felt that we are children of God and that no one person should be singled out as more God-given than the rest.
After more than a year, I still learn new things at synagogue every week. When I'm not able to go to services, I read the weekly Torah portion. I have also been attending a bat mitzvah prep class on Sundays in which we discuss Jewish women and their influences on the Torah.
In the beginning of my process of conversion, I had to learn how to read Hebrew. It was tough at first, but not being able to sing along in services was motivation to learn. I got help from a friend at Netivot Shalom, who taught me the basics. I also studied on my own, and now I can keep up with services and sing the psalms and prayers myself. But the most difficult thing has been studying religious texts and balancing my regular schoolwork. Add to that my extracurriculars and social life, and you have a pretty busy 14-year-old!
There were times when I was frustrated with Hebrew and days of religious observance when I had to decide whether to go to school or to synagogue. When I decided to go to school, I was questioned about what's more important. I have since learned that religion and education are equally important, and I need to find a balance so I can get what I need from both.
The process has not been smooth sailing. People have sometimes called me a "fake Jew." Because of my mixed heritage, I've been told I don't look Jewish--I've even been questioned about how I could possibly be Jewish. To me, stating that I'm a Jew should be enough information. I believe there's no such thing as a fake Jew. The term is usually directed toward converts and those whose mothers aren't Jewish, but I feel as much of a Jew as anyone. If you are a Jew at heart, you're Jewish--period. As future generations are born, fewer Jews will still look like the "stereotypical" Jew.
Converting is important to me because I want to officially be confirmed as a Jew. I want to be acknowledged throughout the world as a Jew, without a doubt from anyone. Converting will state on paper what I have felt all along. Being Jewish is more than a religion to me; it's a way of life. People say that being Jewish is just a religion, but it's more than that. I know atheistic Jews who don't believe in God but still consider themselves Jews. I have learned that Jews don't just read the Torah, they live by it. And this is one of the reasons I was drawn closer to the religion and the culture.
It's My Life
I hope the conversion process teaches me what it means to be a Jew, including the many devastating events Jews have experienced so I can share that pain and support with those who need help. I want to have a Jewish household when I grow up and pass along the teachings to my children. Along the way, I may even gain a thicker skin--after hearing that I don't "look" Jewish, I hope to learn how to ignore negative comments and instead focus on my goals.
In January, I flew to Boston (my first time on an airplane!) for an event run by The Curriculum Initiative (TCI)--a Jewish educational organization serving independent high schools. I was uneasy about the people I was going to meet during the weekend. From what little I had heard, East Coast Jews aren't that tolerant of "diverse" Jews. So when I arrived and saw that the event was being led by an African-American Jew, I was pleasantly surprised. While I was in Boston, I met many types of Jews from different ethnicities who had diverse views on politics. The trip stripped me of my ignorance and reinforced my decision to convert.
Throughout this intense process I have learned that we must follow what we know is best for ourselves, even if other people don't see it that way. I haven't had everyone's support, but I know it's the right answer for me.