Feeling Jewish

July 20, 2011Stephanie Seiberg

When I decided to convert I wondered often, "Would I ever really feel Jewish?" I never could have anticipated that the death of my father, who was neither religious nor Jewish, would be the event that would take me there.

I had married a Jewish man several years before my father died. Prior to marriage, we agreed to raise our children Jewish, but at that point I considered myself a non-religious person and had never really considered conversion. Events in my life, including my father's illness, over the years led me to feel a void with my lack of faith and as we started planning to start a family and I studied Judaism, I came to believe that becoming a Jew would enrich my life and allow my husband and I to raise our family in a true Jewish home.

Although it did not occur to me at the time, I realize now my father's death, almost 12 years ago, may well be the first significant Jewish moment in my life. I was nearing the end of my studies in preparation for conversion when my father died. He had been ill for a few months so I had naturally taken a break to help care for him. When I returned to meet with the rabbi to continue my conversion studies for the first time after my father died, probably a month or two later, I commented to her that I had felt conflicted sitting in the church during my father's funeral. My father was not religious but my mother, a Presbyterian, is. I was not comfortable participating in some of the readings and prayers during my dad's funeral as they conflicted with my Jewish faith; however at the same time I felt a sense of guilt for not participating fully in my father's memorial. The rabbi comforted me and assured me that these feelings are common with converts. She encouraged me to  submit my father's name  to the temple office so that I could be reminded each year of his yahrzeityahrzeitיוֹם הַשָּׁנָהAnniversary of a death. It is customary to recite the Mourner's Kaddish when observing a yahrzeit. . She encouraged me to light a candle and come to services to say kaddish.

At our next meeting, the rabbi announced that she believed I was ready for the beit din. She felt that my feelings regarding my father's funeral service were a sign that I had truly embraced Judaism. My father was not a Jew, but that did not matter. What mattered to me at the time was that I wanted to grieve for my father in a Jewish way. It felt right to me. I was a Jew. I would honor my father in a Jewish way. And that was ok.

Through the years I have found much comfort each year in celebrating my father's life through the rituals of lighting the yahrzeit candleyahrzeit candleנֵר זִכָּרוֹןMemorial candle lit on the anniversary of a loved one's death and also on days when Yizkor is recited. and giving tzedakahtzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”  in his memory. I will always remember my father's death as a sacred time when my Jewish beliefs took root.

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