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Becoming a Jew

Becoming a Jew


Due to technical difficulties, the passengers had been stuck on the Brooklyn bound train for over half an hour. Evening was quickly approaching, creating a problem for the Orthodox men in need of a quorum of ten to recite the afternoon prayers.

One man decided to try and gather a group and had already found nine men by the time he approached the man swaying as he learned from the open Talmud in his lap. He had long sideburns and a black hat along with his black “I’m sorry, but I’m not Jewish” suit. When he was asked if he would join the quorum as the tenth man, he replied in flawless Yiddish that he was unable to. “I’m sorry, but I’m not Jewish” was what he said.

This story was a favorite at many of the Shabbat meals I went to. You see, the teller would explain in admiration, the man was someone who was still studying for his conversion (the Hebrew word is geirus, most often translated as ‘conversion,’ although it means something else entirely. A more proper translation would be ‘becoming a Jew’). Before becoming a Jew he had wanted to first learn everything he could possibly need to know- not merely the how-to’s of daily Orthodox practice, but how to delve into the depths of the Talmud, how to converse in Yiddish, etc. Because, he said (according to legend at least), he wanted to get it right from the beginning.

I’ve met a few people like this myself, people who studied many years before taking the plunge, and while I admire them, even envy them, I could never quite relate to them.

My own approach to becoming a Jew was far less linear. I knew that my soul was Jewish, even though I had been born to a non-Jewish mother, and the East Coast and its promise of yeshivas and Chassidism was always a dream of mine. What helped make it a reality was the sight of a group of Lubavitchers dancing and singing in a Midwestern snowstorm while blessing the new moon, and a seven year girl named Chaya who taught me how to make tea on Shabbat and graciously let me read Baal Shem Tov stories to her for the remainder of that Shabbat afternoon.

When I did finally make it to New York, I tried to go linear. I enrolled full-time in a very special yeshiva (learning institute) for women and I began interviewing rabbis as prospective ‘sponsors’ of my conversion, diligently discussing the pros and cons of each one’s outlook and adherence to Jewish law with the dean of my yeshiva. In the end, I chose the rabbi who eventually organized my conversion without any interview or discussion- simply because when I walked into his shul - the last Orthodox institution in his neighborhood - he was speaking about the Holy City of Hebron, and he was openly weeping. So much for a linear approach.

Still, I do relate to the idea of wanting to get it right from the beginning, and thinking that it’s possible to do so. The first week after my conversion, I woke every morning literally singing Modeh Ani (the morning prayer said upon awakening in which we thank our Creator for He was speaking about the Holy City of Hebron, and he was openly weeping renewing our souls). I said the morning prayers first thing, without getting side tracked by little things that ‘had’ to get done and putting off morning prayer to the last minute that could possibly be deemed ‘morning.’ Nothing seemed challenging or difficult, nothing could mar my absolute awe and joy at finally being a Jew. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would ever dread cleaning for Passover, or spend two hours on the phone with a friend and completely forget to pray the afternoon prayer of Mincha. I certainly didn’t think I would have moments where I felt alone, or angry, or depressed. Not that I thought I was perfect, but I just couldn’t imagine that that intense awareness of and appreciation for each moment would ever wane, even temporarily.

In that initial rush of excitement, I didn’t really get what it means to be a Jew. That finally having a Jewish soul, fully present and accounted for, doesn’t mean that you’ve climbed to a certain place and now you can just rest there doing mitzvahs as they come along. Or that your relationship with G‑d suddenly becomes this process of steadily feeling closer, more aware, and more secure.

In reality, nothing is that automatic. Like every relationship, our relationship with G‑d is one that requires constant work. Not that from His side the essence of the relationship ever changes - His love for us and faith in us is always there, always strong and never wavering. But from our side, it takes work to maintain that sense of loving and being loved, of being close, and being cared for. Without at least occasional meditation, it’s easy to fall into a sense of estrangement.

The mind and emotions of a Jew are landscapes all their own, and they require conquering and settling. The parallel for this in our national experience is the conquest of the Land of Israel. When Joshua first led the People of Israel into the Land, we had to conquer the seven nations of Canaan already living there. The military conquest lasted seven years, followed by seven years of settling. Yet long after the period of conquest and settling had ended, there were occasional wars with remnants of those nations still living in Israel. These were usually precipitated by periods where, under their influence, the Jews turned to worshipping the idols of the Cananites.

In Chassidic philosophy it is explained that these seven nations correspond to the seven emotional attributes inside each one of us: loving-kindness, might, beauty, victory/endurance, acknowledgment, foundation, and kingship. In addition, there are three nations- corresponding to the intellectual attributes of wisdom, understanding, and knowledg, whose physical territory we will only be able to acquire with the arrival of Moshiach and only after we conquer these lands on a spiritual and emotional level.

These ten intellectual and emotional attributes - the sefirot - make up the inner Land of Israel in every Jew. And just as with the physical Land of Israel, their conquest requires years of struggle. And as you succeed in fighting off the most ungodly forces within, you have to also begin the challenging task of settling your inner landscape- filling it with knowledge of G‑d and His Torah, with faith, with the acknowledgement of the all the beauty and goodness that is in you and the world around you. Land as fertile as human imagination and emotion won’t stay idle for long - each spot not claimed for the sake of good will inevitably end up being settled by the negative - and further military conquest becomes necessary.

In that initial rush of excitement, I didn’t really get what it means to be a Jew

And just when we think we’ve conquered all of our inner territory, we might find little pockets of Canaanite settlements still thriving, enticing us to worship their idols of money, power, recognition - taking us prisoner with anxiety and self-doubt.

This is where my very non-linear history actually comes in handy. Having operated more from the heart than the head for 32 years now, I’ve learned how stand up again after falling flat on my face. And while the linear, logical approach has its advantages - Divine Assistance sometimes comes in the guise of emotional bursts that send us flying over obstacles and months of slow, plodding growth - but you have to be willing to let go and allow yourself to be carried sometimes.

At the same time, unless these bursts of inspiration are fully integrated into one’s way of thinking and being, the progress is lost. You may even find yourself catapulted back to a lower place than before. Conversely, the deeper and more real the integration, the more permanent our settlements will be and the closer we come to fully entering the Land.

Before setting out to enter the physical Land of Israel, Joshua gathered the nation for a pep talk and a day of preparation. He warned them of the enormity of the task ahead, but encouraged them with the assurance that great miracles lay ahead as well and that G‑d would be assisting them every step of the way - they only needed to begin their task with the humble awareness of this Heavenly assistance and their dependence on it. That day was the Ninth of Nissan - which is also the day that I became a Jew. It makes perfect sense to me - because the day that I became a Jew isn’t the day I reached my spiritual destination. It’s the day that enabled me to start walking.

By Anonymous
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Anonymous israel November 10, 2013

michael russo, searching jewish roots Dear Michael russo,and to whom it may concern. if you are looking to verify your jewish roots, there is a jewish genealogist in italy, whos website is- , email He is an expert archivist, fluent in italian,spanish,french,russian,hebrew, and has helped people all over europe including my family who is from sicily. with his help I was able to provide sufficient proof that I and my family are jews,forcibly converted by the inquisition,and with the beit din Hagadol in jerusalem ( biggest rabbinical court) returned to judaism,without a conversion.
The best of luck on your path Reply

Ms. Angel-Orah Rossi Hanan February 17, 2012

Coming Home I am a Jew by Choice for almost 40 years now, and there have been ups and downs in my life, but even as a child ( and not yet a Jew) HaShem was there with me. I found the place I was seeking when I attended a friends Bat Mitzvah, I instantly knew that the faith, family and comunnity - and Love of Ha Shem - was right here in front of me and this is where I belonged. I am returning to observent life again by choice , and it was sugesested to me that I read this story( among other steps slowly one at a time ) by Mrs. Silberberg from Chabad .org. She took the time to read my letter and give me guidance to find my way back to the life I truley want to live. I do not believe in coincedence , I know I found this site because of my need to come home, Buruch HaShem, and now I know that I can...... Reply

Mr. michael russo February 14, 2012

conversion what about for some of us who it was taken from? like for me as an example..i am a decendent from palermo sicily with a name im seeing as a common name used by jews in sicily that were forced into converting to catholic or die by the spainiards and am now learning who i really i not a jew because it was forced out of us...until now....large numbers off us with the russo name are testing positive for jewish roots linked to palermo sicily...i actually found a article titled SICILIAN JEWS BACK AFTER 500 YEARS. i wonder were does this leave me? where do i stand with a situation like this...please help...Michael Reply

Andi Alpert Ziegelman Haifa, Israel April 20, 2017
in response to Mr. michael russo:

I've read a lot on the Internet about people with your background. I would like to suggest two things to you. First, I suggest you search on the Internet for: anousim, marranos, and secret Jews, and read what you find. Second, I suggest the you investigate formal conversion to Judaism. That's what anousim who wish to return to their roots do. Reply

miriam Durham, England via October 28, 2011

Conversion I have been so Blessed reading the story and comments on 'becoming a Jew'. I have been 'trying ' to convert, or even to find a Rabbi to speak to for many years. If anyone reading this knows of a Rabbi who would be available to meet with me and advise and guide me, I would be most grateful. I have applied to Bet Din.
Thank you in anticipation :-) Reply

Devorah Mushka July 31, 2011

After a Reread Two Years Later
After seeing in my inbox that a comment was posted on an article I read two years ago I was wondering which article. After re-reading this with all my knowledge and G-d Willing near the end of my conversion process I can honestly say that This is what it means to convert to Judaism. It truly is letting HAsh-m show you your path and letting go of logic. Because our fate isn't in our hands, we have free will but our core our soul is in Hash-m's hands and if He deems us lucky enough to enter the covenant then Amen! Reply

Adam Huxley, Iowa July 30, 2011

Awesome I'm much like that man on the bench described at the beginning of the story. I dress Chassidic and study Rambam, Tanya and Talmud until my head feels like it's going to explode, but I am not yet ready to convert, I keep saying, maybe next year, when Hashem is ready, I'll be ready. Reply

Anonymous Lakewood, OH/USA January 26, 2011

A beautiful Article I am descened from Jews and in my soul I feel very Jewish. Sometime thie feelings are weak becaue of my life amidst the Gentiles (of whom I feel alien and distant)
I feel it is a long road home I am now beginning to take at my age - it will be as long as it needs to be. But, this story is inspiration. Someone to think about and maybe emulate. Reply

Anonymous Cabarete, Dominican Republic October 5, 2010

Such beautiful words of wisdom & compassion Thank you so very much. You have touched my soul and put into words some of what I cannot. I am on my way to join the Jewish people. It is an amazing journey. Reply

Raziella August 11, 2010

Great uplifting and spot on We need to fill our lives with Torah, prayer, mitzvot and good deeds, relationships, and serve HaShem with all our talents. Then as you say we can fully love and serve HaShem even when it gets rough. Conquer all those negative forces or push their energy into G-dliness. Reply

Elizabeth June 12, 2009

Such an encouraging article Thanks so much!! It makes us want to come home all the every way!! We have reasons to think we are of the lineage, though so well hidden we are the first in generations to think so, or so it appears. And only last year I learned my maiden name was always known to be Jewish...surprize!! A very nice thing to find out!!

Also enjoyed some of the comments just as much!! We need all the encouragement we can find these days!! BLessings for sharing so openly here!! Reply

Andi Alpert Ziegelman Haifa, Israel May 6, 2017
in response to Elizabeth:

How to find out if you have Jewish roots I suggest that you do an autosomal FamilyFinder DNA test with the DNA testing company, Family Tree DNA . If you have Jewish ancestors from the last 7 generations, you will see their relatives on your list of matches from your DNA test. For each person on your match list, you will receive his/her email and you can write to anyone on your match list and ask if he/she has any Jewish ancestors. People who test their DNA always do that.
Another thing you can do is go to the web site, JewishGen to the FamilyFinder page there, and search for your Jewish sounding family surname. There you will get a list of people who also have your Jewish-y surname, and their emails, and you can email each person on that list and ask each to send you his/her family tree. This is also standard behavior. By taking these steps you will most likely discover if you have Jewish roots.
Read an interesting true story of personal Jewish discovery on the Internet by googling MARK HALAWA. Reply

Elizabeth May 9, 2017
in response to Andi Alpert Ziegelman :

Thank you very much for your encouragement and advice...we will be looking into this some more...I am very doubtful of finding any kin who practiced Judaism however even back 7 generations...we have been in USA from the start...I am even some Cherokee blood. Reply

Devin Ambler, PA June 11, 2009

I can't agree with you more! I'm only just starting to look into conversion, but this article made me realize a lot of important things that go along with that, because I know that I too get that energetic feeling and maybe make rash decisions. Very well related to the Torah and just over all very inspiring! Reply

Nikki Louise UK November 25, 2008

I was almost brought to tears reading this article, I have been wanting to convert to Judaism for almost three years now, and I think it is inspiring especially to someone like me who has been wanting to become a Jew. I also think this is a must read article to those who are like myself. Reply

Carol A. [Ariel] Knaak Spring, TX August 25, 2008

I am the In other words I am becoming a real honest to goodness Jew. At 62 years of age all the way to Bat mitzva. Personally, this may sound biased, but I simply can't see anyone being anything but a Jew. To me, it's the only way. I eat, sleep, work, think, pray Jewish 24/7. I LOVE the Torah and I love Hashem. I found your article so inspiring so worthy. It's an article every Jew that is a Jew and wants to be a Jew should read. Shalom. Reply

Karen Bell (Chaya Fradle) (Kleinman, maiden name) RiversideCA via August 3, 2008

Who is a Jew? My opinion is... There are MILLIONS, maybe BILLIONS of people who have lost their heritage along the generations and circumstances, yet have that Jewish spirit still inside them. When they realize it, they come back home as in being DRAWN BACK to Judaism without, sometimes, even knowing why. It is very possible that the people being drawn into Judaism from other backgrounds (races, nationalities, looks), WERE Jewish MANY, MANY centuries ago, and the knowledge of their lineage was lost somewhere along the line. Welcome to Judaism!!! Reply

Anonymous Madison, WI April 19, 2008

I was very happy to see this here and I think it strongly relates to converts like us because sometimes the eagerness to become a Jew makes us step forward too fast. Reply

Janine January 3, 2008

Thanks so much for writing this. Very practical. It's helpful to learn from the experiences of those who made the decision before me. Reply

Anonymous new haven, CT December 12, 2007

becoming a jew It helps to know that I am not alone in experiencing times when I feel disconnected from the mitzvahs, and that the conversion--in my case, nearly 20 years ago--is a beginning, and not an end. We must always remember, too, that the community is noticing our particular Jewishness. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds look at me as a kind of symbol, and as such, they project many of their own ideas onto me. Of course, I never wanted this kind of attention. But I do find this helpful at times--my family may protest my observance of kashrut, but they also respect it. And when I despair about cleaning the house for Pesach--as I do every year--I know that my daughter looks to me as a role model and that my extended family appreciates a kosher pesach experience. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Reply

Anonymous October 18, 2006

That was very interesting and well written too. Thank you for posting it on the website. Reply

Anonymous August 1, 2006

Your post was great! B"H, I am almost done with my conversion process and there are hard days. I just try to remember to trust in Hash-m and know that all will be ok with Him by my side. Conversion is definitely an important step, but one of many steps in the journey of life. Thank you for your inspiring article. Reply

Jessica Blanks Carrollton, GA 30117 April 11, 2006

similar feelings I have had similar experiences. As a child I felt connected to the Jewish people. I remember that I've had a desire to see the temple rebuilt from my youth. I've wanted to see the dreams of Hashem and the Jews fulfilled, intuitively recognizing the need for final redemption. I was married at nineteen to a man with similar feelings. Now I am almost 30 and have five children. We have been "practicing" the mitzvot we could, but have not yet had to opportunity to convert. It is our desire to be Jews and with Hashems help we will continue on our process as well. Make He make peace upon us and all of Israel! Reply