September 11, 2013
Chesed by choice
For many of us, the month of Elul and the High Holy Days are our personal and communal time for introspection. The work we do for ourselves as Jews is significant as we take the opportunity to make teshuvah (forgiveness) to others and to God and to improve our lives.
This year, I believe that recent experiences in my life offer powerful lessons for growth. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can lend consolation to anyone who has been mistreated by words and to prevent others from repeating the wrong done to me.
Fifteen years ago, I became a Jew by Choice. I made this transformational decision willingly and with a whole heart. I was married under a chuppah, and, two years later, my husband and I were blessed with our first son. We rejoiced in the life of our son — another Jew to be counted in the world. We were highly motivated to give him a strong Jewish identity and education, so we enrolled him in the nursery school at our synagogue and immersed ourselves in our new role as parents.
The battery of questions began immediately from people we barely knew. “Did you convert?” “How does your family and your husband’s family feel about your conversion?” “Do you celebrate Christmas and Christian holidays?” “How are you raising your children?”
I understood that people were naturally curious, so I welcomed the opportunity to introduce myself to them, to be open and frank, and to tell my story and even share personal experiences with them.
A few years later, our second son was born. By now, we were “tenured parents,” yet the routine questions about my conversion still persisted from parents who were new to us. This time I resented the questioning and thought people were out of line. After all, we had been members of the synagogue for five years, and I felt so at home and comfortable in my Jewish skin. We celebrated Shabbat, kept a Jewish home and had our children on a secure and substantial Jewish path of learning, both at school and at home.
I suppressed my longing to resist and not answer. Instead, I decided to be a good sport with the understanding that this was a new and curious group of folks who wanted to learn about me, or, at worst, felt entitled to ask any questions they wanted. I became a pro at answering them and could even predict which questions would come first, second and third. I literally could have passed out an answer sheet, because the questions were so predictable and repetitive.
Fast forward to now. I am an involved parent and resident in my local community. Recently, I was in the presence of two friends having a conversation about local politics. One of them cautioned me about getting too involved in the local scene and told me that I would be looked upon as a “convert” and that my “children are not really Jewish.” I immediately responded that I never wanted to hear that said to me or anyone and that the comments were offensive. Unfortunately, the other person present remained silent in the face of what was said.
I felt consumed with shame and sadness, but most of all I felt as though someone had literally put a stake into my heart and soul. This was a transgression committed by a Jew against another Jew — the convert. I was unprepared for the unfurling of such hateful words, even in politics. I wanted to tell my mother and brother, but I could not bring myself to do that. What would they think of my life, my community and the lives of my three children? I told my husband, which proved to be an extremely painful experience for both us.
So why am I writing this today? As a Jew by Choice, I know there are some who will never see me as an authentic Jew. That does not bother me as much as the vulgar and judgmental remarks about my children’s Jewishness. As a Jew by Choice I chose my life, but my children came into the world through me and know no other life. Yet some Jews feel entitled to judge my children openly, as well as through whispers. This experience has allowed me to understand prejudice not from outsiders, but from those within my own community. The enormity of the lesson here is that in the absence of courage, silence is wrong, and that words have tremendous power.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes, “After a person converts to Judaism, he is like any other Jew. In fact, one must be more sensitive to his feelings than those of other Jews. This is because of the extreme difficulties that a convert faces.” This year, these words have resonated through my experience and have served as a pillar of strength during the month of Elul.
As the High Holy Days approached, I recently spoke to my rabbi about this experience. I asked him, “How do I forgive the other, when that person has failed to ask me for forgiveness for the hurt and pain they caused?” He paraphrased a teaching by Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, who defined chesed (which we often translate as “loving kindness”) as acting more generously toward someone than they deserve. And the greatest act of chesed is life itself, given to us by God, because who among us earned consciousness before we got it? My rabbi also passed on a wonderful drash by Rabbi Shai Held. Held speaks of our signature role in life being to pay chesed going forward by acting more generously to others than even perhaps they have earned. One way of doing that is by granting forgiveness, even if it has not been begged for. It is an act of chesed not only to the other, but to the self, because it frees the self and the soul from the gripping tension of being angry, even legitimately angry.
I remain on the path I began 15 years ago and can reconcile myself with my creator, and I go forward with Jewish wisdom as my touchstone. Today, I choose chesed. This year, more than ever, I understand the powerful opportunity we as Jews are given year after year to forge new beginnings. It is an amazing gift, and I feel deep appreciation for the personal meaning and significance of the High Holy Days. Fifteen years ago, I chose the path of Ruth, and today, more than ever, I remain deeply committed to the teachings of the Torah that are alive for me and for each and every one of us.