I was raised in a small farming town in Tennessee where nearly everyone was a Southern Baptist. Though I’ve always been a spiritual person, pieces of the Christian doctrine just didn't fit together for me, and the values that surrounded me in the community were different from those I experienced at home. My parents, Episcopalians who were scientists by profession, taught me that faith is important but that we have a brain for one reason – to use it.
After college and living abroad, I eventually landed in Miami Beach and found myself exposed to Jews of many persuasions. I met Orthodox men who thought nothing of dressing in heavy black coats and hats in the middle of summer. I met Friday-night, cheeseburger-eating, less- or not-at-all-observant Jews. I met Israelis whose opinions of the political history and future of the Jewish people were often pointed.
I was intrigued by what I learned about the breadth of micro-cultures in Jewish society.
As much as I love being outside of my comfort zone, I was still nervous about going into a synagogue for the first time – until I met Rabbi Tom Heyn at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. He and the staff were genuinely warm and welcoming to me, and after attending several Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, I decided to convert to Judaism.
In preparation, I scheduled many meetings with the rabbi to talk about my personal life as a legally married gay man, my HIV status, my professional goals, and my personal desire to become Jewish. He listened attentively, and in his gracious yet thoughtful style, he challenged my motivations and expectations.
Finally, the rabbi said, "People convert for many different reasons, but one thing is true: The more you engage in your Jewish life, the more you will benefit." (Boy, was that remark on the money!)
In January of 2013, I began an Introduction to Judaism class. There were about 30 people in the class, all of different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, and life stories, including a number of straight and LGBT singles who were preparing to marry. Others were couples with young children who they’d decided to raise with an awareness of their Jewish identity. Still others were couples in which one partner had essentially left Judaism after becoming b’nai mitzvah, and their significant other was the impetus for their enrolling in the class together.
Some had grown up in Jewish neighborhoods, so Jewish culture felt like home. One woman, who was adopted as a little girl, had recently discovered that her biological mother was Jewish, and conversion helped her feel like she was returning to who she was born to be.
As for me? I was raised in a Christian home, and although my paternal grandfather was Jewish, my dad never had a connection with that part of his past; any Jewish influence withered on the vine.
Although I had not been exposed to Jewish religion, language, food, humor, pride, or the like, I felt a pull for many years that finally found nourishment in the Introduction to Judaism class. We met weekly with rabbis and other scholars to discuss the seemingly endless Jewish traditions, history, and practices. We learned about Shabbat, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, and other holidays. We discussed, prayer, worship, God, the Shoah (Holocaust), Torah, ritual, customs, and Judaism in the home. Finally, we learned about conversion (though converting was neither required nor expected of participants).
We were surrounded by experts, but the tasks of learning and furthering our personal journeys were truly our own. Throughout the class, we were encouraged to read, to ask questions, to expect to face differing opinions, to challenge ourselves, and to use our brains – all in the quest to take as much as possible from the formal training part of our Jewish experience. In the Reform Jewish community, I learned that we have more than an opportunity to use our brain, our back, and our heart on behalf of our community; we have an obligation to think, work, care, and repair the world around us – a beautiful concept known as tikkun olam.
A few months after my conversion, I traveled to Israel, where my life was changed forever. Traveling around the country and physically being in the homeland and history of our Jewish people, I felt I had become one singular piece of an enormous beautifully and complex puzzle of a nation... but that's another story! Finally, after many years, Reform Judaism gave me the spiritual connection I had sought for so long.
Interested in learning more about Judaism? Find an Introduction to Judaism class near you.