How My Jewish Boyfriend Resisted My Desire to Convert

By Angela Garber


October, 1999

It was Adam, my boyfriend, who “started it” with that conversation so long ago–on one of our very first dates, no less. No, it didn’t matter to him that I was not Jewish, but it would be “more convenient. I want to raise my children as Jews,” he said.

It’s been more than four years since we had that first conversation, and about two-and-a-half since I realized I wanted to make my home within Judaism. But it hasn¹t been until now that Adam has been ready.

I knew from my parents’ failed marriage that it was naive to say “religion doesn’t matter.” Maybe it doesn’t have to, but it can. My Mormon father had always held out hope that he would be able to convince my mother, a Methodist, to convert. And when it became clear to him that neither she nor we (my sisters and I) would be attending services with him every week, fasting the first Sunday of every month, going on “missions” (or, for that matter, living with him throughout eternity), he saw no real sense in working to save an ailing marriage.

My mother decided when I was eight years old that our church was becoming more of a political organization than a religious institution, so that’s where my formal religious training ended. As a teenager I went to church services, with varying degrees of regularity, with friends and boyfriends–Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mormon, Episcopalian. I enjoyed the structure of the services, the stained glass windows, the architecture. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing in the sermons and reading in the prayer books. Friends told me I was going to hell because I’d never been baptized. Relatives wrote my mother letters to tell her they were praying for our souls–not only were we not attending church on a regular basis, but when we were, it wasn’t the right church. I couldn’t believe that my God was more interested in where I prayed than in how I treated other people.

So, there I was, this small-town girl from Virginia who’d come to think of herself as an agnostic with no use for organized religion, trying to find out if I’d really be able to “raise my children as Jews.” I had never considered myself a Christian, so that wasn’t an issue. And if Adam had wanted to raise his children as, say, Catholics or Muslims, the answer would have been quick and easy. But I knew very little about the beliefs and practices of Judaism.

Having always loved learning new things, and having always been fascinated by different cultures, it was with excitement that I began to explore Judaism. And, given that Adam had said that thing–“I want to raise my children as Jews”–I assumed that he would be excited and pleased that I wanted to learn.

Bewildered, yes. A bit anxious, yes. A little scared, yes. Excited and pleased, no.

Yes, Adam wanted to raise his children as Jews, but making that statement was about as much commitment to Judaism as he was willing to make. He had hated Hebrew school. He hated all the mind-numbing responsive reading of services. His religious education had started and ended with Bar Mitzvah, and his religious observances were limited to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. Adam’s idea of Judaism centered more on community than beliefs, and if he wasn’t interested in learning or doing more, why should I be? He couldn’t figure out why I would be interested in this religion for which he felt great ambivalence.

The disconnect Adam and I were having was this: While Adam knew on some level that he wanted to raise his children as Jews, he could not communicate to me what he meant by that. And further, he figured it was something that we could address later in life, like when we bought a house and actually had children. I felt this was one of those fundamentals that needed to be addressed sooner rather than later, and I felt very strongly that it was something we needed to address together. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t agree.

Religion is an emotionally charged issue. I had explained why I was interested, and why I thought his involvement was important. It frustrated and upset me that he continued to ask why. Wasn’t he paying attention? Didn’t he realize how important this was to me?

For his part, he was a little bit unsure of my motives. Did I think I needed to do this for him? And he was a little bit worried that I would try to turn him into “Super Jew” and insist on going to services every Friday night and keeping kosher. And he was probably a little insulted that I thought he could stand to learn more about his own religion. “You can go to class if you want to,” he would say, “but why do I have to go? I’m already in the club!”

This went on (and off) for four years. Adam was willing, and perfectly happy, to read together and discuss books about Jewish beliefs and practices. And he even suggested a three-session “Taste of Judaism” class (though he jokes now that it was, at least in part, an attempt to buy himself a little time). But the second I brought up the possibility of converting, and that I wanted him to be involved, he would again ask why–why I wanted to do it, and why he had to go through it with me.

And, not surprisingly, our most intense discussions seemed to culminate around the holidays. With each passing year, I was becoming more and more convinced that conversion was right for me, and he seemed just as determined as ever not to take any formal steps with me. I would bring it up, he would resist, and I would back off, figuring “He’s not ready.” I didn’t want to push.

This year, at Rosh Hashanah, he started telling people I was converting. He told his parents. He told his rabbi. When we got home, I teased him, “So, does this mean you’re ready to convert?” That week we signed up together for the 16-week “Intro to Judaism Class.”

When I asked him “Why now?” he could not offer a concrete answer, he really wasn’t sure himself. I think he finally realized that I wasn’t doing this because I thought I had to, but because I wanted to. I think he finally understood that–because of him, not for him–I had found a religion that meshed with the beliefs that I had held all along.

Whatever the reason I’m happy that this is something we are doing together. I’m not naive enough to think that we won’t hit a few bumps in the road. But I’m confident that, with a little bit of patience and understanding, we will both learn a lot and come to an understanding about what it means to us–as individuals and as a couple–to be Jewish.


About Angela Garber

Angela Garber is an editor and freelance writer who lives in Nyack, NY