My path to Judaism took 13 years. And while I ended up marrying the first Jewish person I ever met (my now-husband Dan), I felt like an outsider for much of my journey toward and with Judaism.
It started the first time I met Dan’s family for their traditional Israeli Sunday brunch at their home. If you’ve ever met Dan’s family, you know immediately they’re incredibly welcoming. His Mom’s legacy centers around food and community, and making everyone feel comfortable in her home. At the time, though, I was a 19-year-old undergrad and felt like a fish out of water, far away from the rural, conservative town in Maryland where I grew up.
While I was not brought up in a “strictly” religious household, going to church and being an active part of a church community was a big part of my upbringing. My mom and I participated in service projects, holiday gift drives, fundraisers and more.
So there I was, preparing for brunch in a new environment. “Brunch,” I thought. “I can do brunch, I’m good at eating and socializing.”
As I sat with Dan’s family’s house that day in front of pickled fish, olive bread and salad (for breakfast?), and tried to follow the conversation that dipped in and out of Hebrew and English, my self-consciousness got the better of me. “They’re talking about me, I know they are, they don’t like me,” was all I could think.
This was my first exposure to Judaism and after that meal, I was skeptical that differences in religion and culture would be a deal-breaker in our relationship. Although my comfort level around the Laufer family grew with every celebration, I still felt like an outsider around Jewish rituals. I spent services mumbling along, eyes down and hoped nobody noticed my lips barely moved.
Before getting engaged, Dan and I discussed what raising a family might look like in the context of religion. Dan was a grandson of a Holocaust survivor and though he would never ask me to convert, raising Jewish kids was a non-negotiable. I completely understood why this was important to him and we decided on an interfaith wedding. Our wedding was in Charlottesville, Virginia, and our officiant was the university’s Hillel rabbi, who, like Dan, was open-minded and married interfaith couples who promised to raise their future children as Jews.
I spent the next eight years living Jew-ishly and keeping a (somewhat) Jewish home, During this time, I embarked on the conversion path three times (different classes at different synagogues) before I ultimately decided to go through with my conversion. I had spent most of the past decade battling “imposter syndrome” in my professional career and here it was, surfacing in my personal and spiritual life as well.
When I asked myself if I was “ready” to be Jewish, the lingering questions ranged from serious to humorous: Had I experienced enough lifecycle events and holidays authentically enough? Is it OK that I still don’t like lox on my bagels or pickles in my falafel shawarma? Will people know that I’m a Jew by choice? How do I raise children who may be subject to antisemitism? Do I know everything I need to know about Judaism?
I read a quote about parenthood that I think applies to anyone grappling with these uncertainties in becoming Jewish: “There is no one way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one.” When I subbed “mother” for “Jew,” I knew I had a pretty good answer for navigating the road ahead. I already knew there were a million ways to be a good Jew and almost all of them start with showing up: For yourself, your community, for Saturdays and all of the days and moments in between.
When I told my mom about my decision to convert, I think she felt a bit like I was rejecting my upbringing. I told her I understood how it could feel like a rejection, but it was actually the experiences we shared together with our local church community that made me want to convert to Judaism. I yearned for the same kind of community she had introduced me to, for myself and for my family; I was simply living out that desire within a different religion.
Sometimes I feel sad that I spent so much time worrying about how I was perceived as I explored Judaism, which may have created missed opportunities to connect more deeply with the religion, the community and the rituals. But now I understand that I needed those years; I needed time and space to explore Judaism on my own terms, in ways that were authentic to me, to see if it was right for me.
Thirteen years after that first brunch, I felt comfortable. I submerged into the mikveh 35 weeks pregnant at the age of 32, and knew it was the time and place for me.
After converting, Dan and I continued to celebrate holidays and take care of each other, our family and community—Jewish and not. I still mumble in services through some of the prayers, but with a bit of rhythm and clapping and humming, I fit in on a Friday night. I finally feel like I’ve turned off the blinking neon “NOT JEWISH!” sign that hung over my head in the synagogue for all of those years. It was only there in my imagination anyway.