I had been preparing for this moment for about 15 months. I started looking for a program to help me learn about Jewish stuff in August 2005. I finally got frustrated and leaned on family friend Dawn to point the way to an Introduction to Judaism class, which, after weeks of waiting, started earnestly in October.
I never got close to many of my fellow Intro students. For one thing, most of them were couples. For another thing, each person had a different story: some were there to look into conversion because part of the couple was Jewish; many were doing it for their kids, to find out what their kids were learning in Jewish or Hebrew school. I think this class was beyond just the curious due to the cost and the length. The class was almost 6 months long, spread out over two synagogues in the East Bay and four rabbis (actually six at final count). Out of over 30 students at the first class, only 12 or so attended the last few classes.
I learned a lot in Intro. I was probably the only person who did all the readings. Come to think of it, that's probably not true: Tracy, who later became a friend when I would see him over and over at the same Sinai functions, absorbed everything like a youthful sponge even though he is the teacher of prepubescents during the day. And Scott, that mysterious man who showed up in a suit each time, talked as if he knew what was going on. The rest, I believe, tried to float on what the rabbi told them, and most of them were quick enough and clever enough to gather it all in.
Not me. I needed all the help I could get.
After Intro, I went through about two months of trying to find a rabbi. After one false move, I asked Rabbi Mates-Muchin, whom I had seen in a couple of Intro classes, and whose outlook was definitely Reform but not Kooky, to help me on this path and she graciously agreed. I don't know if you've noticed, but some of the rabbis kind of define "alternative." They're rather weird and like oddly put-together services. And I guess that's good for some but not for me. I don't want conservative or orthodox (although those are certainly interesting pursuits); I want modern, realistic Reform, something that makes sense to me and helps me live every day. And that's what I got.
I also got a really structured approach. (I can hear George calling, "And that's what you want!") She gave me a syllabus she constructed -- complete with questions to be answered, vocabulary lists, and an extensive but specific reading list (from 5 main books). Every three weeks or so we would meet and go over the questions I didn't understand. Quite often there would be a word I didn't understand (like "bris" vs. "brit" -- I'll never forget THAT discussion). And we would wend our way through the entire year so that I could experience the different events and holidays.
I have to stick in here that, well, I wonder if people set up meetings with the rabbis and don't make it through the whole year. You persevere, you keep going. You do the homework because to do otherwise would be insulting to the rabbi. I never missed one, and I was never late. I think you have to show your earnestness that way. And their time is so valuable and limited.
And throughout that process, I had a different kind of supervision. Every week Dawn and I would go walking around Lake Merritt and I checked in with her. I suspect she was checking in on me, but she's so low-pressure that I never felt it. And she would occasionally invite me over for shabbat dinner so that I could taste it and feel it. That really is the only way to do these practices -- you can't pick it up out of a book. And Intro can't teach you everything.
The hardest thing, I think, was learning the blessings and the songs. I still only have the basics of those down, so I will certainly continue.
My beit din was Wednesday, November 29th. On Saturday, December 2nd, I stood in front of the congregation and held the Torah. MY Torah. And gave a speech.
Today, one day after everything was over and I was beginning to come down from the high, a guy stopped me at the Montclair open-air food fair, shook my hand, and said congratulations. I recognized him as the president of the congregation. How nice of him to notice me and to take time to offer his congratulations. And he put me right back on that high for a few seconds.
I will begin wearing the Star of David necklace that Val gave me as a present for successfully completing this part of the journey. I feel I've earned it.
Today I am a Jew.