It's been several years now and I still remember vividly the night that she celebrated her coming to Judaism and joining our congregation. Simcha is a grandmother who has been a practicing Sufi (celebrating the Dances for Universal Peace) for much of her adult life. She was raised Catholic and can remember the day she left the church and headed into the world in search of some other path toward relationship with God. It was her Muslim Sufi guide who recommended she find a tradition with a regular discipline and, since she was already studying Torah with me and some of her colleagues and regularly attending services at the temple, he suggested that she had already found it. Simcha came in with a full heart and a great big smile on her face. It was a clear and straight path to the beit din (rabbinic court) and mikvah (ritual bath), the final stages of conversion.
The night of Simcha's "welcoming in" ceremony was magical. In preparation for that night, she learned to lead the Sh'ma and to read the passage from Ruth that often inspires cleaving to Judaism: "wither thou go-est . . . " Simcha asked if it would be okay to invite friends and family, and as usual the answer was "yes." The sanctuary was full. Her friends in the congregation outweighed her invited guests, but only by a handful.
In the middle of the service, the place where some rabbis give a sermon, I invited Simcha to the center of the room, where our bimah (podium) is, and asked her to lead us in Sh'ma. The ritual is simple. There are blessings of welcome offered by me. Then the "newly welcomed one" teaches us about the name she chose and why it fits her. Simcha had a Sufi name that also translates as "joy" and it certainly suits her. So "Simcha" was an easy choice. At the end of this ceremonial welcoming, the Priestly blessing is given. This is where the fun began.
My tradition, as handed to me by the generations of rabbis that have come before me, is to wrap the one to be blessed in my large tallit. Then, I offer some words to help her relax and center herself, to focus inside and out, to feel the warmth and loving embrace of the tallit as it embodies Jewish history, Jewish living, Jewish community, and the presence of God. But this time, instead of placing my hands on her shoulders, I invited her family and friends, regardless of religious orientation, to encircle her and place their hands on her shoulders. There were more people standing than seated. They closed their eyes and took deep breaths and repeated after me; "Yivarechecha Adonai V'yishmarecha…" (May God Bless you and guard over you).
I am a rabbi who has a strong connection to Torah and our Jewish teachings. I come to my role with the understanding that holding all people sacred, first and foremost, and inviting them to experience, first hand, the power of Jewish ritual is the greatest invitation to be a part of us.
The choice to covenant with the Jewish people is a personal one. The art and act of invitation into ritual can be one piece in that journey and is also relevant simply as a means to celebrate the sacred nature of all human beings who enter the synagogue.
That evening with Simcha present in the midst of our community was one of the most moving and connective community prayer services I've experienced in my eleven years in the rabbinate. Not for the sake of what I offered, but for the open and accepting nature of our ritual, tradition, and community, did the congregation also connect. To be blessed by a rabbi speaks to the nature of hierarchy and separation and is sometimes appropriate and meaningful. In this instance, with everyone permitted to use their God-given right to offer blessing to the people they love, the sacred nature of being diversely human was elevated by the ritual, rather than separated from it.
No one left saying, "if anyone could do it . . . why bother being Jewish?" Rather, we received many comments about how valuable Judaism is and how much it has to offer. Since that night I have seen and talked with others from Simcha's community at events and services in our congregation. And since then, every time a church group or party of guests are in our sacred space, I make sure to let them know that our ritual and prayer is open to them as well. We teach that lesson with words and, more importantly, with experience.