Raised Lutheran, I Found My Way Back to My Father's Faith
When I was 10 years old, my family met Congressman John Lewis, a giant for social justice; it’s the only time I remember seeing my dad tear up. My typically composed father practically threw himself at the congressman, telling him how honored he was to meet him and how thrilled he was that his daughters could, too.
A few years later, my teacher assigned a project: choose an autobiography, write a paper, and present to the class as our chosen figure. I figured I’d choose an athlete, but when I mentioned the project at home, Dad told me I had no choice in the matter. It had to be John Lewis. I spent several weeks immersed in Lewis’s 500-page autobiography, learning about the ugly, violent history of racism in the United States. This was my introduction to social justice and, incidentally, the seeds that eventually grew into my claiming my Jewish roots.
I grew up in Boulder, CO, where I assumed that racism was essentially a terrible thing of the past – but when my family moved to Chicago my junior year of high school, I quickly figured out I’d been wrong. I joined and then helped lead my school’s NAACP chapter, and I stayed involved with racial justice issues throughout college. I also began working to advance gender equality, reproductive health, and educational equity.
During this time, I struggled with religion. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, attending services with my Catholic mother and Jewish father. I was baptized and confirmed, attended church summer camps, built houses on faith-based service trips, was active in the youth group, and served as an acolyte (a young person who assists in church services).
Still, there was always an exception in my head for my father, who was kind, generous, and loving. How could he be destined for anyplace but heaven? Secretly, I worried that I couldn’t be Christian because I didn’t believe in Jesus; if I believed in Jesus, it meant I believed my dad (and many relatives and friends) might not be going to heaven.
Though I was completely uninvolved in religious life during college, I visited Israel three years after graduating. Upon my return, I attended my first Friday night service at a synagogue in Nashville, where I was living. I was surprised by how much of it was familiar to me, how much Judaism I’d learned from my father at home. I sobbed through that first service, filled with a profound sense of wholeness. When I left temple, I called my parents and said, “I think you chose wrong.”
The dots were finally connecting. My dad’s visceral response to meeting John Lewis was deeply tied to his Jewish values of social justice and tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is always better to choose the right path than the easy path.
In more ways than one, Judaism is where I found my home. As I learned more about Judaism, I discovered that my dad had raised me with Jewish values; as a child, I just hadn’t realized it.
After participating in a Judaism 101 class at my synagogue, I officially “converted” to Judaism. Jews are often surprised when I say this, but I felt it important to affirm my commitment to the Jewish people and my obligation to tikkun olam, which was central to my choice to be fully Jewish.
I spoke in front of the congregation in Nashville that taught me my own history and tradition in a fuller way than I could have imagined. I held the Torah in my arms, nervous that I would drop it. I went before a beit din, a panel of rabbis who questioned me about my choice, and I immersed in the mikveh (ritual bath), adding my tears to the water as I read the Song of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you dwell, I will dwell. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.
Reading those words, I thought not just of the Jewish people but of all people who have been marginalized, who need an ally, a friend, and a warrior. I chose to be Jewish because Judaism represents a social justice imperative: that we have an obligation to be kind, to be welcoming, to build a better path for the people who come after us.
Bound by rich history, faith, and tradition to the Jewish people, I feel a deep sense of happiness in the responsibility to work for a better community for all people. As the new year begins, I am conscious of the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to truly repair the world – but I’m also hopeful. I hope to someday meet Congressman Lewis again, to thank him for helping me find my place on the right side of history.
In the meantime, let’s get back to work.