A Letter to the Rabbi Who Jump-Started My Jewish Journey
I hope this letter finds you well, and shavua tov/Shabbat shalom, depending on when you read this.
I wanted to write this letter – publicly and openly – as a form of gratitude and appreciation. A lot of events, circumstances, and people led to my becoming a Jew, but you stand out in particular. You were the first rabbi with whom I ever discussed the idea of conversion, and I felt comfortable doing so because of your personality and approach to Judaism.
As a full-time student beginning to search for his place within Judaism, I looked forward to watching you lead Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services in the Hillel chapel. I loved the way you effortlessly guided us talkative, distracted students into song and study through your soulful niggunim, wordless songs.
I appreciated the way you wed Judaic tradition with a radically modern mindset through your brilliant observations of sacred text. You made ritual and holiness relevant and interesting to a jaded agnostic college kid like me. You saw my interest in Judaism and my cynicism toward religion not as a contradiction, but as a testament to the human will to both question and embrace.
And yet, when you agreed to sit and meet with me at your office one chilly January afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I had never opened up to a clergy member in this way before, and I didn’t come prepared with any questions because, frankly, I didn’t know what to ask. All I knew was that I had a real, genuine desire to reconnect to my Jewish roots – combined with a distaste for religion due to negative experiences in my Christian high school.
I wanted to be a part of this rich, deep religious civilization that I felt such a strong connection toward, but I also couldn’t embrace the idea of a loving God who could stand idly by and allow so much evil and suffering to exist.
And yet, despite the fact that I was not ready to open myself up to reconnecting with the Divine, you accepted me as I was.
You probably knew back then that I wasn’t close to being ready to fully accept Judaism, but by taking the time to talk to me, you acknowledged the idea that one day I could be. You understood and appreciated the importance of simply connecting with a confused young adult who loved the peace and music of Shabbat and the ritual, food, and hopeful message of Hanukkah, but who was also angry toward God and viewed the Tanach, at best, as a well-intentioned contradictory mess.
You knew that I was on my own path and nobody else’s, and that as long as I was taking care of myself and asking myself (and others) the questions that needed to be asked, it didn’t matter how long it would take me to accept Judaism; everything would fall into place in its own time.
I want you to know that those seeds of inspiration you planted during our meeting – your warmth, your hospitality, your willingness to listen and engage with me – led to me eventually take an Intro to Judaism class at Temple Sholom in Chicago. That class was co-led by a rabbi who taught me about process theology, which allowed me to view God in a radically refreshing way that I had never even considered before.
Not long after I completed my class, I joined the community of Temple Beth El in West Bloomfield, MI, whose welcoming and wise clergy guided me toward the mikvah steps that would usher me into becoming a Jew.
My relationship to the complex, diverse way of being that is Judaism is anything but simple. I question things all the time. I openly share my disagreement with certain Biblical texts or rabbinical rulings. Many days, I find it a lot easier to believe in people than to believe in God. In a lot of ways, I’m still the same stubborn kid who sat in your office that chilly Sunday morning.
And yet, you gave me the confidence and determination to become who we both knew I was destined to be: someone who always does his best to both learn from and guide others; who engages with the Divine through service and intellectual curiosity; who pursues justice ravenously and embraces the holiness of music, food and comedy.food and comedy.
In short, you helped make me a Jew. And I hope that I’m making you proud.
The author would like to thank Rabbi Rachel Gartner, former Hillel director at Miami University of Ohio, for her inspiration and guidance. Rabbi Gartner currently serves as the director of the Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown University.
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