We were in the sitting room of the mikvah. There were the required three rabbis for the beit din, the husband of the woman "converting," and the convert herself. Since I was the rabbi who had been the teacher, my job was to stay in the background while the other two rabbis asked questions to make sure that she knew what she was doing (and that I had taught her well). At first, the conversation was about the usual details--when do we light candles, blow the shofar, and what are the outlines of keeping kosher. Then, one of the rabbis asked her why she wanted to be Jewish at all. Her answer was something like this: "I am a smart woman and I am choosing Judaism as the spiritual path I want to walk. This gives me two wonderful opportunities. The first is to show my non-Jewish family that Judaism is a wonderful thing and not to be feared. The other is to show the same thing to those who were born Jewish."
I was deeply moved by this answer and realized why I as a rabbi always feel so close to those Jews who have chosen Judaism as adults. The response of the other two rabbis, when she had gone into the inner room to prepare for her immersion, was to continue to wonder why someone would choose to be Jewish at all. I wondered why they had chosen to be rabbis.
In the same room, with a similar cast, at another time. Now the rabbis wanted to know what the potential convert would do if her family invited her for dinner on December 25th. They wanted her to refuse the invitation. Instead she said, "If the meal is kosher, then of course I'll go." They did their best to convince her to refuse the invitation, arguing that even a secular Christmas still had its origins in an exclusive Christianity which had no place for Jews. Again, I thought her response was wonderful and had the unintended effect of completing a process of my own.
Until quite recently, it was dangerous and even illegal to "convert" from Christianity or Islam to Judaism. It made perfect sense, then, that the rabbis would be very suspicious of someone wanting to become Jewish. After all, why would anyone want to join a persecuted community, no matter how wonderful its spirituality and values might be? Perhaps the potential convert was really an informer seeking to infiltrate the Jewish community in order to seed the next pogrom. The only way to protect themselves against this possibility was to insist that the convert break all ties with his or her family and friends and come completely inside the Jewish community.
Now, thank God, things are very different. Those who choose Judaism as their path and Jews as their people serve as bridges. They are links to our non-Jewish families and inspirations to Jews by birth, who so often fail to see the richness and profundity of their own tradition. Nor is there a need for new Jews to deny their families of origin. Instead, there is a new opportunity to bring a tolerant and respectful Judaism into the homes of our non-Jewish relatives. Remember that our tradition has always claimed to believe that "the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world to come." What a wonderful moment this is when we can actually practice this teaching, learning to model a strong commitment to Judaism while recognizing the beauty and depth of other traditions and paths at the same time.
The end of this particular part of my own journey was to stop using the term "conversion" to describe this process and ritual. In the days when it was impossible for a person who chose Judaism to continue interacting with his or her family of origin, perhaps it made sense to speak of a conversion. Now, however, a person who chooses Judaism both can and should continue to be connected to his or her family of origin. Further, since Judaism has never laid claim to sole possession of "truth," there is no need to use this word "conversion" any longer and I have come to prefer "initiation." Full initiation into Judaism and the Jewish family means the conferring of all the benefits and responsibilities of membership in our people. These include financial commitments, being included in a minyan (the count of 10 people needed for public worship), and being called to the Torah. Today, there are many non-Jews who like to be around Jews and synagogues. Without initiating, however, we usually don't include them in a minyan or ask them to come up to the Torah and say the blessings ("who has chosen us...and given us the Torah"). To decide to "take the plunge" and be immersed in the living waters of the mikvah, is to become an initiate, one who is a full participant in all the rituals, joys, and responsibilities of this wonderful people.