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A Tale of Two Immersions

August 14, 2009

My first visit to a mikveh was for the conversion of my children. Though I attended synagogue regularly for three years before we married and lived a Jewish life, I was not Jewish when our children were born. Since my children's father is Jewish and they were always raised exclusively as Jews, they would have been considered Jewish by the Reform movement. But we had always affiliated with Conservative congregations that did not consider my children to be "Jews by birth."

Boulder mikveh
This beautiful modern mikveh, or ritual bath, is in Boulder, Colo. Photo: Flickr/Rose770.

When our children were 5 and 2 years old, Josh made arrangements to formally convert them. I remember the day as filled with anxiety. We had trouble getting to the synagogue where the mikveh was; we could see it from the freeway, but couldn't find the right exit. This was before we had a cell phone, so we had no way to let the rabbis know that we would be late.

Then I felt awkward because we did not know the details of what needed to be done before using the mikveh. I was very grateful that the kind and understanding "mikveh lady" had extra new toothbrushes that she could give us, even small child-sized brushes.

I could only wait as Josh showered himself and our children, because I wasn't going into the pool. During the immersions, the rabbis were in the observation gallery above the mikveh. I was allowed to be in the area of the mikveh itself, but I could only watch and not help.

First Josh took our 2-year-old son into the mikveh. He held Joel under the water for longer than I would have, and Joel came up crying. The blessing for immersion was said, and then two more immersions were required before the Shehechiyanu blessing. Joel's distress was disturbing to me, of course, but even worse, it was frightening to our older child, Rachel.

As a pre-schooler, Rachel had been so averse to having water on her face that she screamed when her face was washed. She had been attending an after-kindergarten program at the local Jewish Community Center where she had swim lessons and play in the pool twice a week, and was gradually losing her fear, but she was still reluctant to put her face in the water. However, she was old enough to understand the purpose of the immersion, and she really wanted to do it. She walked down the stairs of the mikveh pool until just her head was above the water, then no amount of coaxing could get her to put her head underwater. My heart sank: Would we have to postpone her conversion? Rachel wanted to be able to put her head underwater, but she was terrified. And then came the calm voice of the mikveh lady: Under the circumstances, it was sufficient, she explained, if Rachel immersed past her chin. Rachel was able to be converted.

The rabbis signed the conversion papers and offered their congratulations. "Mazel tov!" said one of the rabbis as he shook my hand, but then added condescendingly, "Do you know what that means?"

I thought to myself that many, if not most, non-Jews in this country know the meaning of that phrase. I thought about whether I should answer back in Hebrew. I had studied Hebrew in Israel for a summer in a municipal ulpan, an intensive government-sponsored Hebrew class for new immigrants. But my Hebrew ability was rudimentary at best, so I worried that I would make a grammatical mistake or that the rabbi would reply in Hebrew that I couldn't understand. And so I simply put on a smile and told him that yes, I did know what it meant.

It was clear that that particular rabbi thought I was simply "giving in" to allowing my children to be raised as Jews. The rabbis had only asked if I was willing to allow my children to be converted and to be raised as Jews, not about my own feelings about Judaism. That rabbi probably assumed that I would have converted if I had any real interest in Judaism. Even the rabbi who had known me for four years as a regular participant at our minyan services and events could not have known how much I longed to become Jewish myself and how much I wanted to give my children the Jewish identity that I could not yet have.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Rachel became a bat mitzvah and willingly affirmed the conversion that had occurred before she could understand its full implications. My son has been preparing to become a bar mitzvah next year. I asked him recently if he understood that when he turned 13 he would have the opportunity to reject his conversion. "Sure, mom," he replied, "but why wouldn't I want to be Jewish?"

A decade after I visited the mikveh for the conversion of my children, I visited it again for my own conversion. Things went much more smoothly the second time. This time my husband and I both knew the way to the synagogue very well. We had each driven there hundreds of times in the years that my children attended Hebrew school there, and it was where I met with my sponsoring rabbi, Rabbi K., for the better part of a year.

Because the mikveh date had needed to be rescheduled, there was a slight misunderstanding about the time--but this time we were 30 minutes early. My friend, also named Debbie, was there to support me. Chatting with her, I forgot to be nervous.

When all three rabbis of the beit din had arrived, they took my husband and me to a room for my conversion meeting. This time I knew all the rabbis and I was confident that none of them would say anything demeaning.

Not only had I come to know and trust Rabbi K. in our many meetings, but I had also found him to be the most sensitive and compassionate person I had ever met. I had known the second rabbi, Rabbi S., as a regular member of our lay-led minyan for 13 years on a first-name basis and as the director of my children's Jewish camp. The third rabbi, Rabbi M., was the associate rabbi at Rabbi K's synagogue, where my children attend Hebrew school. He too was gentle, kind and understanding.

Although I had expected to be asked many questions, Rabbi K. started the proceedings by asking me to tell my story. I told them that I hadn't converted earlier because I feared that my parents would think it was a rejection of them. I touched on some of the highlights of the last 25 years that formed my Jewish identity. I explained that I had come to feel conflicted as a non-Jew because I felt personally bound by the mitzvot, even though I knew that most were required only of Jews.

When I finished, Rabbi K. asked the other rabbis if they had questions. Rabbi M. said I had already answered all of the questions he had, including the question he had planned to ask about observing the mitzvot. Rabbi K. then asked how I thought I would feel after conversion. I said I would feel more "honest," which is how a woman in an article described her post-conversion feelings.

Then I was asked to sign a "Statement of Faith." Rabbi K. had thoughtfully crossed out the statements about raising any children I should have as Jews, acknowledging that I had already done that. So the meeting was finished without any of the quizzing about Jewish history that I had worried about.

At the mikveh, I was well prepared with not only a new toothbrush, but also my own shampoo and soap for sensitive skin. The "mikveh lady" was the same woman who had been there when my children were converted. She assured me that the blessings were posted on the wall in both Hebrew and transliteration. But I had said similar blessings hundreds of times before. The blessing for handwashing differs from the immersion blessing only in the last few words, and I've had many joyous occasions to recite Shehechiyanu.

Since I am a woman and had to be completely naked in the mikveh, this time the shutters were closed in front of the gallery where the three male rabbis stood. I was not afraid to put my head underwater as my daughter had been 10 years before. My only concern was doing the special immersion technique correctly so the immersions would be "kosher." My long waist-length hair swirled above me so that I had to part my way through my hair as I surfaced. An immersion, a blessing, two more immersions and the Shehechiyanu and, finally, I was a Jew!

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew term for a school or institute for the intensive study of Hebrew. Primarily found in Israel, "ulpan method" Hebrew classes are found around the world.
Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).

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