Ellen Bernstein is a mother of three children, ages fourteen, 12 and ten. She is the office administrator at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Mass., a small Reform congregation of about 170 families. She converted to Judaism “officially” in November 2003--“officially” because she and her late husband began their Jewish family back in 1989 and she has been practicing and learning and teaching her children since then.
I Am a Jew
This address is the result of two invitations. After the Union for Reform Judaism Regional Biennial, Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Massachusetts, invited those who had attended to share their thoughts on it. Then, Combined Jewish Philanthropy invited anyone in the Jewish community to enter an essay contest on what it means to be a Jew. My reflections on that amazing Biennial weekend and the words of Daniel Pearl helped me to shape my thoughts. I was one of the CJP essay contest winners and read my essay to about 900 people in January 2005.
I am a Jew-by-choice. Having said that I would like to tell you what being Jewish means to me.
It means studying and discussing and exploring what it is that meant so much to my husband as we made plans to start our life together. What was it that gave him such a depth of feeling in his Jewish self that he was adamant that we would not be married unless we agreed to raise our children as Jews?
It means standing in nervous fear as my first born is being circumcised in the same room, yet never thinking anything but this is right. This is where we begin our journey.
It means searching for that depth of feeling as I raise our Jewish family and feeling outside the fence and looking in with yearning and fear of not being worthy.
It means being told, "I am so far over that fence and so a part of this community." And knowing yes, I am.
It means forgetting to breathe as I look with awe at the wonder and beauty of God's creations. The infant in your arms, the leaf that has fallen from the tree and left its image etched in the cement, the vastness of a star-filled sky, the drop of water.
It means walking in to sit before a beit din (rabbinic court) on the foggiest of mornings and seeing that same fog has moved back upon walking out. Just slightly, but back so that I may see the trees that were hidden when I entered, as if to say, Welcome into your new world. It will become clearer everyday.
It means the incredible experience of the mikvah (ritual bath used for conversion). The complete acceptance of the water, enveloping, bringing you down into its embrace. It swallows you in, in its welcomed warmth, and yet sends you back up to the surface with a push as if to say, "You may go out and join your people".
It means the gift of Torah. As you hold it in your arms like an infant, to be protected, to be cared for, to be nurtured, and to be cherished. That infant that must never be left alone, that holds such promise and potential. As you nurture it, Torah nurtures you and helps you reach your potential.
It means watching as your child reads Torah for the first time as he joins the circle.
It means watching the faces of the congregation as if a movie star were going by. We all strain our necks to see Torah. We want to touch it yet the act of reaching out our hand is all we need to do. We reach, and we are touched. We are in the presence of Torah, but more importantly, Torah is present in us.
It means sitting at Kol Nidre service for the first time after the death of my husband and looking next to me and seeing him with a smile of absolute joy and pride in the knowledge that I am with him and generations of Jews of the past, and the present, and the future, in this moment, across the world, across time.
It means that "Each generation will praise your deeds to the next." Psalm 145.
It means I AM A JEW.