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March 21, 2011
My conversion ceremony began by chasing snakes out of the temple sanctuary. But, since it took place in Florida, that wasn't the strangest part. Nor was it the fact that I made my own conversion certificate — after all, I was the only one working in the temple's office that could write Hebrew. It wasn't even that odd that my conversion celebration included being taken out to dinner by the rabbi — who sheepishly asked me if it was okay if he enjoyed a dish of pasta and shrimp. Perhaps the only odd thing was choosing to convert to Judaism when my rabbi, my family and myself already considered me to be Jewish.
I was raised in an interfaith family, a fact that I'm proud of. My parents, whose own spiritual and personal enlightenments were influenced by the free spirit of the hippie times, raised both my sister and I with an appreciation of all religions and faiths.
When I began searching for my own path, I spent a lot of time looking for answers and clues about religion in slightly unconventional places. I heard whisperings of faith in the folk songs of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I learned every single word of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and Jesus Christ Superstar. Each year, my dad and I trekked downtown to attend the Christmas Eve showing of Chicago's Adler Planetarium's Star of Wonder show. We looked up at the shining lights and ritualistically learned about the potential scientific explanations and historical records of the star that lead the wise men to Jesus in Bethlehem. It was after one of these shows that I made what I thought to be a quite brilliant connection: could the Joseph with the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat be the very same Joseph in the story of Jesus? (One bachelor's degree in religion and one master's degree in Jewish leadership later, I still find this to be an amusing, but forgivable, confusion.)
When I entered college, my knowledge of religion was enough to keep the multitudes of Josephs straight in my mind, but I still craved much more knowledge. As I learned more, I began to identify with the Jewish traditions. The songs of Shabbat, the rituals of the candles and challah, the teachings and questioning all appealed to me. I drank in knowledge of Judaism, and funneled my own questions of identity and purpose through the conduit of Judaism. Yet one question remained and, like a proverbial thorn in my proverbial paw, caused me to constantly slow, pause and reevaluate my path. Was I Jewish? Or rather, was I Jewish enough?
My father was Jewish, my mother was not. I kept hearing about the problems of interfaith marriages, and worrying what this meant. Was I a problem? Was I unwelcome? Was there such thing as "half-Jewish", and would that ever be "Jewish-enough"? After five years in college (including one semester in Israel), a degree in Religion & Biblical Literature, a minor in Judaic Studies and a thesis on Theodicy (or, why God allows bad things to happen to seemingly good people), I felt I had a good grasp on Judaism. I left college surrounded by a core group of friends who also valued being Jewish, yet I still found myself unsure of how to answer the simple question of "are you Jewish?"
For better or for worse, my journey took me next to a temple in Florida (the aforementioned one with the snake problems). Fresh out of college, I took my soul-searching to the next level, and turned to my rabbi for advice. I asked him about a conversion ceremony, and he countered with an offer of his own.
"Jordyn," he told me, "I don't feel comfortable with a conversion ceremony when you are already living in a Jewish home and leading a Jewish life. How would you feel about an affirmation ceremony?"
My affirmation ceremony turned into everything I could want, due to the fact that I found a rabbi who understood my own personal journey.
We looked at the text of a conversion ceremony and tailored it until it fit. We cut out parts that seemed irrelevant. We added pledges that felt right. Some parts of the ceremony were easy to come by: There was no need to ask if I was ready to turn away from my old religion to a new one, but instead we celebrated my decision to stand up and shout "I'm Jewish!"
On the other hand, certain questions proved difficult. For one, I did not feel comfortable pledging to find a Jewish partner or raise my children solely in the Jewish faith. There was simply too much uncertainty at the ripe old age of 22 for such a definitive statement. Instead, I felt comfortable holding the Torah and standing in front of a congregation of my peers and pledging to live my life Jewishly. I affirmed my desire to keep Jewish thought and tradition at the forefront of my philosophy and to use Judaism as an inspiration for doing good in the world. And I made an internal promise to myself, and an external promise to my tradition, that I would raise any children I might one day have with a keen appreciation and knowledge of the Jewish faith and traditions.
When asked now my reasoning behind my affirmation ceremony, I usually point towards future children. Judaism teaches us not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind, and, in many ways, I was hoping to remove that stumbling block of identity and confusion from any future children I might have.
I struggled to find my own identity. I still hope that there is questioning in store for my potential offspring, because grappling with our identity brings us to who we are. In this sense, my affirmation ceremony was more than a piece of paper or a stamp of acceptance into the Jewish fold. It was an affirmation of my own decision to struggle, to not give up, to figure out what being Jewish meant to me and to hold the Torah with my feet planted firmly on my own history.