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Welcoming Synagogue Led Me to Judaism

Reprinted with permission of Washington Jewish Week.

Special to WJW

My first step along the path to becoming a Jew was when I met Hannah Moore, the beautiful Jewish woman who later became my wife. But the decisive moment, the moment without which I would not today be a proud member of the Jewish people, came years later, when I entered the sanctuary of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.

It was Purim, 13 years after I met Hannah, and seven years after we were married. We had recently moved to Arlington, Virginia, after years of living in Asia. Hannah had enrolled our three-year-old daughter in the TRS nursery school. As we stepped into the sanctuary, Rabbis Lazlo Berkowitz and Amy Schwartzman, dressed in white aprons and tall white bakers' hats, were running around the bima, shouting, laughing and throwing balls of hamantashen dough at each other and the congregation, as part of the annual Purim spiel.

I knew a bit about Judaism from reading and conversations with Hannah. But I knew nothing about Purim and was quite unprepared for the exuberant manner in which Rabbi Berkowitz, a survivor of Auschwitz, conveyed to scores of delighted children the core values of Jewish survival in the face of murderous oppression.

Soon I was joining Hannah and our kids at Tot Shabbat, then at regular services, and eventually at the High Holy Days services. The beauty of the liturgy and the warmth of the congregation made me begin to wish I were a part of the Jewish people. But I was not ready to admit that I was considering conversion, not to myself and certainly not to Hannah or the rabbi.

The tipping point came with an invitation to an "Ask the Rabbi" session for intermarried couples organized by the temple's outreach committee. About a dozen couples were present. "Rabbi," I said, "Hannah has told me that her father used to bless her on Shabbat. Could I as a non-Jew say this blessing?"

"Well," said the rabbi. "It is very good to bless your children, and you could find some other blessing that you would like to say, or you could write a blessing that expresses your feelings."

"That's not my question," I said. "Could I, as a non-Jew, say the same blessing that Hannah's father recited?" (I had no idea that the blessing was about "carrying forward the life of our people," and could thus have meaning only if recited by a Jew.)

Rabbi Berkowitz repeated his polite answer. Sensing that I was on to something important, I repeated my question a third time. "Could I, as a non-Jew, say the same blessing over our children that my wife's father recited for her?"

At my third question, the rabbi's answer changed. "I think you better come see me," he replied.

I realized then, and with increasing clarity later, that the rabbi had discerned in me something that I myself had yet to recognize: an incipient desire to become a practicing Jew. I not only wanted to recite the Shabbat blessing over the children, I also wanted to lead our family seder. I wanted to be a part of the marvelous community I glimpsed. I wanted to be a Jew.

The rabbi suggested that I enroll in an Introduction to Judaism class organized by Washington-area Reform temples, supplemented by occasional meetings with him. My studies begun, suddenly I was able to tell myself and others that I was "considering" conversion.

Long story short: Eighteen months later I had a conversion ceremony, complete with an appearance before a beit din, religious court, and a dipping in the mikvah, ritual pool; two years after that I had a bar mitzvah ceremony, chanting Torah and sharing my thoughts about becoming a Jew with assembled members of the congregation.

Like other members of TRS, I'm still learning, working to become a better Jew. But I feel fully accepted as a member of our community, and am proud to be an active participant in the Jewish education of our children. During my studies for conversion, I told the rabbi I was worried that I might not be fully accepted because MacDonald is not a Jewish name. "Don't worry," he said. "It will be."

What changed? Why seven years after I married Hannah did I finally embark on becoming a Jew? In Asia--we lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Korea and Manila--the small congregations were ill-equipped to welcome outsiders. Each year Hannah would attend the High Holy Days services at a local synagogue, then visit again in December to obtain candles for her chanukiah.

The members, she told me, were unsure what to make of a young, transient American Jewish woman. There were certainly no outreach programs, no "ask the Rabbi" sessions for intermarried families.

Without such programs, my interest in becoming a Jew lay dormant. Today, I know it was there all the time, waiting to be awakened by the warm welcome that I received at Temple Rodef Shalom.

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." Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. 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. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Lawrence MacDonald

Lawrence MacDonald, director of communications and policy at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C., think tank, lives in Arlington with his wife, Hannah Moore, and their two children, Muriel and Isaac.

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