A Reform Jew-by-Choice Begins His Journey to the Rabbinate

April 9, 2013John Wofford

I began my journey to Judaism nervously. Unlike the Charedim (ultra-Orthodox) who are anxious before the word of God, I was anxious in the uncertainty of the future.

I am sitting in a crowded Temple sanctuary as a chazzan (cantor) begins the first gentle strains of the Erev Rosh Hashanah liturgy. I am equally aware of the haunting musical refrain as I am not actually being a Jew. I shuffle nervously in my seat and survey the friendly faces around me with an uncomfortable smile.

Weeks later, I am sitting in a tidy office across from another friendly face. The rabbi pats his crossed knees and says, “What brings you to Judaism?” Again, I shuffle nervously, then attempt to explain my life story. Born to a Pentecostal missionary. Son of a preacher man. Disillusioned with religious life. Currently secular. Interested in conversion to Judaism. Politely, he asks, “Have you considered another local church? Something different from your childhood faith. Maybe you just need the right fit.” I nod, but insist I want to learn more about Judaism. He agrees.

A year later, I stand before a breeze-touched lake. I am wearing only a loose sheet, which I remove before immersing myself in the cool water and reciting the blessings for mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). My hands shake as I emerge and cover myself. My mind weighs equal parts joy and the residual nervousness left over from conversion preparations. I am a Jew.

Four years pass. I stand before a congregation. The sun has set, Shabbos is upon us, and I feel my hands grip the sides of the wooden pulpit as I find my place on the page. Looking up into the congregation’s eyes, I begin the first lines of the Chatzi Kaddish. Soon, my nervousness subsides as the ease of the Day of Rest seeps into my tense shoulders. Leading Kabbalat Shabbat for the first time, I truly feel myself a member of the Tribe.

Four months later, I am sitting in a sunlit room off a quiet chapel space. Surrounding me is a roomful of rabbinic professionals. I stare into my coffee for a moment before meeting each gaze separately with a smile. To my left, a voice begins with a question about Jewish observance. A space passes. I breathe in once before beginning my answer. The hour-long interview is soon over. Just over a week later, I receive the call I’ve been waiting for: “We think you would make an excellent rabbi.”

When I began my Jewish journey some years ago, I had no sense of where it would take me.  Even now, I still don’t know what the future holds. The Jewish faith is rich and complex, with many worn pathways, and many more yet to be discovered. As a Jew-by-choice, I have trod in the footsteps of the Jews who walked before me, and slowly, felt the confidence necessary to carve my own paths in the inspiration of our ancestors.

Engaging with tradition, I find a language for my experience: as a bisexual man in an age of increasing public tolerance still fraught with challenge; as the son of a preacher from a fiery tradition of insulation and fear of the outside; and as a soon-to-be groom, who will imbue my family of creation with its own sense of neshama (Jewish soul). The Reform tradition – far from the alleged oxymoron it seems to those on the outside – has empowered me to be a better leader, a son, a husband. And it is with this enormous sense of gratitude that I now seek to empower others to find their own Jewish pathways to fullness.

John Wofford is a member of Temple Emanuel Reform Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He graduates in Spring 2013 from Aquinas College, a student of Communication and Philosophy. In Fall 2013, he will begin study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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