Standing Up and Being Counted

By Debbie Burton

June 29, 2009


I attended my 25th college class reunion a month after I formally converted to Judaism. I had been cautious about telling most people of my intention to convert, but I made an exception for my college classmates. Six months before the reunion, when I wrote my entry for the class report, I decided to tell them I was converting. It was so meaningful to me–I wanted people to know that I had completed the spiritual journey that I had started the year after I graduated, when I began attending synagogue regularly, learning about Judaism and gradually adopting a Jewish way of life. For people with whom I had not kept in touch, the news might have been surprising, because in college my only connection to Judaism was that my boyfriend–now my husband–was Jewish.

As I met with and talked to various classmates at the reunion, I kept wondering whether they had read my report entry and knew about my conversion. Although a few of my classmates said they had read the massive 1,200-page book, most of us had only looked up select friends. For some people, my conversion would be just a detail about my life that was no more interesting than the fact that I now had two children. But I really wanted my Jewish friends to know that I was Jewish too now, so when I saw them, if they didn’t mention my conversion, I did.

At one of the early events, I chatted for some time with Robin, who had been in a few of my classes. My husband, Josh, had known her better than I had since they were both physics majors. Robin is now a college professor and the cantorial soloist for her small Reform synagogue. She was going to be leading a Reform Shabbat morning service at the Hillel. Josh and I had a hard time deciding whether to attend that service since we both knew Robin, or to go to the Conservative service where we hoped to see another classmate, Lisa. It was Lisa who had first told us about our wonderful lay-led congregation, and we’d missed her since she had moved from the Chicago area many years ago.

On Saturday morning, we decided to attend the Conservative service, in part because we had not yet seen Lisa at the reunion. There was a bat mitzvah at the Conservative service, although it was still not a very large group–probably fewer than 50 people. We did not see our friend Lisa. Then another classmate, Judith, came in and quietly told us that the Reform group lacked a minyan.

Ordinarily, the Hillel doesn’t have a Reform service on Saturday morning, but a few people thought that perhaps with the reunion, there would be interest. I think many of our Reform Jewish classmates had decided to participate in the class service project that morning, even though it would mean doing work on Shabbat. The two people who had suggested to Robin and another classmate that they lead a Reform service had decided to join their friends in the Orthodox service.

So we slipped out of the Conservative service, and the person leading the service explained to the guests the reason for our departure, which might otherwise seem both strange and rude. When we joined the Reform service, we found that there were exactly 10 adults and teens. If I had not been Jewish, there would not have been a minyan! I was honored with an aliyah, and Josh gave a nice impromptu D’var Torah. Since it was an abbreviated Reform service, they had not planned to have a D’var Torah, so it was a welcome addition.

In my many years of synagogue attendance as a person of another faith, I remember a number of times waiting for enough Jews to make a minyan. The Hillel I attended in graduate school, where I first became involved in Judaism, had such sparsely attended Shabbat morning services that there were several times when the Torah was not read because there were fewer than the required 10 Jews. Although I do not remember any time when the final number was nine Jews plus me, I do remember feeling regret that I could not be of any help in forming a minyan. It was truly an incredible feeling for me to not only be counted, but to even be a needed part of that minyan.


About Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).