Crossing Over

May 9, 2023Josh Rodriguez

I’m feeling very peaceful today. I went to the mikvah this morning. I was a little nervous, just because official rites of passage can be a little scary. But I knew everyone was going to be super nice and supportive (and they were!).

First was the beit din, the team of (in my case) four rabbis, who talked with me about my choice to become Jewish and my commitment to living a Jewish life. I had written an essay (or, more accurately, a life story) about what had brought me to this point. The beit din asked me things like what becoming Jewish meant to me and how Judaism manifests in my life.

During our conversation, I explained that I wanted a community where I felt I belonged. I had gifts that I wanted to share, but needed a community that would welcome those gifts, especially my music. When performing simple traditions at home, I felt a shared identity with the millions of Jews around the world doing something similar in their homes.

After the beit din, we moved down to the mikvah itself. It was an odd, yet familiar experience. I had been baptized into a Christian church at age 8. Several years later, I baptized my younger brother, a few people while I was a missionary in Central America, and eventually each of my own children when they were old enough. Now here I was, peering down into a similarly constructed area: a ceremonial pool adjacent to a bathroom and changing area. But it was also totally different. My immersion in the mikvah was more intimate, both the ceremony and the symbolic meaning. It was a simple gesture of my own personal choice, a crossing over and through the water to join with the people I loved.

As I was moving forward, toward that moment and toward the water, I felt so peaceful. As I was undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror and then up toward God. I said a little prayer, nothing in particular, just an acknowledgement with thankfulness and hope for the step I was about to take. I felt my eyes warm with tears. My identity was going to be different, more authentic, and mutually acknowledged by a vast and ancient community. I was glad to be stepping into this new role.

I wiped my eyes, wrapped my towel around me, and stepped out into the area leading to the small pool. The water was warm. As I walked down the seven steps, I felt the warmth and comfort of the water as it reached up to my shoulders. I dunked myself once, leaping up a bit and sinking down into the warm water before reemerging. I read the first prayer, acknowledging the command to immerse myself. I dunked myself again, once more lifting my feet up and sinking down into the warmth. I arose and paused for a moment to enjoy the sensation. A third time, I plunged under the water, popped back up, and read the final prayer, the Shehecheyanu, praising God who had brought me to this event, this time, and this place to celebrate this moment.

The rabbis and my wife, who were all sitting together, sang to me from behind wooden slat doors. They had witnessed the ceremony by listening to the sounds of my splashing and my voice reciting the prayers. They congratulated me with exclamations of “mazel tov!” and singing Shalom Aleichem (“Welcome to You”). They welcomed me as we welcome the angels into our community every Shabbat. I sang along and was glad.

I was sad to leave the comfort of that water and the joy of that moment. As I dressed, I hoped the joy of that moment would stay with me. As we were leaving, my wife looked me in the eyes and said, very excitedly, “You’re Jewish! You’re Jewish!” And while, like most rites of passage, it takes a while to really grow into a new identity, I thought, “I guess I am.”

For the past few years, I have been attending, participating in, and contributing to the Jewish community. But I always had a sense of being the outsider, the guest. Suddenly, with a few signatures, a few splashes in the warm water, and a small chorus of congratulations, that had all officially changed. Not only is my little congregation in DeKalb, Illinois my people, but Jews around the world are also my people. Despite the many different ways of being Jewish and the many communities that have emerged from that fact, there is a shared core that I have now stepped into.

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