On the Outside Looking In: Approaching Conversion

January 12, 2016Susan Elliott Brown

As I write this, I’m one week away, almost to the hour, of walking into my beit din (rabbinic court) at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. I’ve been assured by both rabbis and the cantor who will serve on my beit din that it’s nothing to be afraid of – and yet, I’m still quite nervous.

In a room of lifelong Jews – and not just lifelong Jews, but expert Jews – I am still a bit of an outsider. I’ve been studying and practicing Judaism for more than a year, and I’ve never been more certain that I am meant to be Jewish, but I still have jitters about the big day.

I was baptized in the Catholic church as an infant and grew up going to weekly mass and celebrating each sacrament as the time came: First Communion, First Reconciliation, Confirmation. Although I was firmly inside the Catholic Church, I felt like an outsider there, too. I’ve questioned the church’s teachings from a pretty young age, and, if I’m being honest, Christianity was only really ever a part of my worldview growing up because I thought that’s what everyone believed.

In my early twenties, I began to feel wholly on the outside of Christian religion, despite my best efforts at finding a Catholic parish in my college town where I could feel at home. When I moved to southern Mississippi at 25, I really came to understand what it is like to live in the Bible Belt. My composition students constantly used “because Jesus said so” as evidence for arguments in their essays, and I experienced door-knocking evangelism for the first time.

After a man and his 7-year-old son finished praying for my damned soul on my doorstep, I remember thinking, “This is why I’m Catholic. Catholics leave you alone; they do not evangelize.” But then I had a conflicting thought: “Well, I’m not really Catholic anymore, am I?”

I hadn’t actively practiced Catholicism since I was 19 or 20. I went to church with my parents when I was home from college for the holidays, but that was it. I told the man and his son on my porch that I appreciated the invitation to their church but that I was exploring my options.

This was kind of true.

My husband and I had checked out a Unitarian Universalist church back in Indiana before we moved, and while it was closer to what I was looking for, it also wasn’t quite the right fit. After that, we hadn’t tried much else.

We’d moved to Birmingham after my husband was promoted and transferred in late 2014, and we felt more isolated than ever. We’d gone from our first purchased home in Mississippi to a temporary apartment with our three dogs. He worked long hours while I struggled to find a part-time job and balance the work of graduate school with my new life in a new city. And we didn’t know a soul.

One day, over lunch at an Israeli café we’d come to frequent, we started talking about Judaism. I remembered the little bit I learned about Judaism during a religious survey course in college and how interested I’d been when I first learned the basic principles of the faith. We decided to read more about Judaism in hopes of finding something that might fill that spiritual empty spot we both felt in our lives.

A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, we were in a rabbi’s office telling him we wanted to be Jewish.

We continued to study, both on our own and according to the rabbi’s prescribed plan for conversion, for the next 12 months. We went to Shabbat service almost every Friday night or Saturday morning, we lit Shabbat candles at home, and we celebrated Jewish holidays.

For a while, we stood on the outside of two religions, leaving behind the religion of our families and but not quite being Jews yet. If anyone asks about religion – as people often do in the South – I say that I’m Jewish. However, I feel like I have to add the caveat, “Well, I’m not really officially Jewish yet, but I’m practicing Judaism.”

Next week at this time, I’ll be stepping into the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath. It’s been a yearlong journey that will lead me to that holy space, one I’ll enter as a former Catholic/not-quite-Jew and exit as a Jewish woman – no longer an outsider. Then, when anyone asks about my religion, I’ll be so proud to say “I’m Jewish” and really mean it.

Susan Elliott Brown is a poet and PhD student from Indiana living in Birmingham, AL, with her husband and three dogs. Her poetry chapbook, The Singing Is My Favorite Part, was published by Etched Press in 2015. She attends Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in Birmingham. 

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