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How I Became a Halachic Jew

How I Became a Halachic Jew

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Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting, befriending and reading about many righteous converts. They come from all walks of life, like my close friend who is the daughter of Dominican immigrants or another friend raised by Bible-thumpers on a remote ranch in Texas. There’sI look like a typical Hollywood rendering of a Jew still another who grew up atheist in Communist Russia. They are holy souls plucked from the most improbable origins. Their backstories are sometimes so remote and obscure that surely only Divine providence could have led them into the fold.

And then there’s me—the boring kind. The kind who lacks an exotic story. My story is similar to those of many Jewish baalei teshuva who grew up with a Jewish identity, but only discovered observance later in life. There was just one hitch in my case. My mother’s conversion had never been a halachic one, so it wasn’t until I was nearing adulthood that I realized that my Jewishness was in question. I look like a typical Hollywood rendering of a Jew; I studied Hebrew as a child; I went to a Reform Jewish day school and learned the basics of the songs, holidays and customs. So acquaintances are often surprised to learn that I am a convert. With non-observant friends, it becomes even more difficult to explain. “But you were always Jewish. You mean you converted to Orthodoxy, right?” Well, not exactly.

It all started when my mom started to explore Orthodoxy when I was a teen. She had always wondered at the modestly dressed Jews walking the streets around our Baltimore neighborhood on Saturdays.

“Aren’t you curious about the way they live? How they devote their lives with so much conviction and passion?” my mom would ask me staring out her car window as we drove by.

“Huh?” I would respond, looking around me as if for the first time. “No, not really.”

I barely ever took notice of those people. I figured they just liked to walk for exercise. When she finally decided she was going to “convert,” this time according to halachah, I did not think much of it because I figured that there was a conversion process for becoming Orthodox. Even when she explained to me that she had never been Jewish in a valid way and that the same was true for me, at the time I just brushed it off. “But only Orthodox people think that and I’m not Orthodox, so why should I care?” Still, being Jewish was an important part of how I saw myself, and it silently irked me that anyone would ever think otherwise about me.

When I went off to college and met other Orthodox Jews my age for the first time at Hillel, and started hanging out at the Chabad House and attending Jewish events in the city, I started to feel differently. The Torah wasn’t something defunct or a bunch of old fables; it was something entirely true that you could live with every day of your life thousands of years since its inception. What I was getting glimpses of was special—something I wanted to be a part of but couldn’t fully be a part of, at least without feeling like an impostor. I decided that my desire to learn more about a Torah lifestyle was worth more than my indignation over how Orthodox Jews viewed me. And from there, I started a long road to becoming a Jew.

I went to my first Orthodox minyan (traumatizing; I had no idea what was going on). I started attending and hosting Shabbat meals, even though I had to get Jews to help me with the cooking. I read books and joined Jewish learning initiatives through outstanding outreach organizations, and slowly let go of any resentment about how others might view me. Instead, my focus turned to how I viewed myself. Eventually, the desire to be a halachic Jew became all-consuming and all-encompassing. The experience of one friend before she converted sums it up: Each week she would cry anguished tears when she was compelled to commit an act to break Shabbat since a non-Jew is prohibited from keeping a complete Shabbat.

I have observed that converts vary widely in how they feel about their status and in their reticence to share that identity. AShould we take advantage of the fact that our secret is safe? few friends are extremely private about it, even taking pains to hide it. This is easier for some than others, whose appearance or the basic facts and circumstances of their lives and their families make it more difficult to hide. On the other end of the spectrum, others speak publicly and proudly about the process, inspiring and educating our communities, and allowing a window of understanding into their experiences.

So what about me and others like me, the “boring” converts? Should we take advantage of the fact that our secret is safe? Once we’ve “dunked” in the mikvah, should we put it behind us, not having any reason to look back?

Luckily, the Torah allows each of us to process our conversion in our own individual way. It takes pains to protect and include converts, and ensure them their privacy to the greatest degree possible. But it also honors and praises converts, so that those who wish to be open about their identity can feel proud and treasured. In the end, this is a decision converts have the freedom to make for themselves, joining seamlessly into the collective or celebrating this difference as personally meaningful.

Rachel Barmatz is a wife and mother who enjoys reading, walkable cities, and reminiscing about her time in Israel.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Dina September 4, 2017

Thank you for sharing your journey! What a beautiful story. Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin September 3, 2017

Baruk HaShem.......Elokim isn't Jewish, and was the first to have kept Shabbat. But was it a Shabbat by halachah? I don't know, but it's possible.....therefore, if that's possible why not allow others to keep Shabbat as well? Is there not One Law for both Isrealite and stranger alike? There would be little benefit for someone to keep all the mitzvoh, and mishpatim of Torah if they were not of Israel. So, if some one did keep them, and it benefitted their life, and the lives of others; it would tend to prove that they were of Israeli heritage in some way pleasing to HaShem, wouldn't it? There's room to argue here. How would one go about doing so? How many rabbis would need to agree, in principle to change halacha in this regard? Shalom. Sincerely Reply

Anonymous August 29, 2017

Conversions? I have been under the impression that Jews discourage Gentile conversions and encourage them rather to join up with the Noahides. ??

I would like to know if Gentiles are welcomed to convert to Hasidism or another holy, conservative branch of Judaism. Thank you! Reply

Naava Tacoma August 31, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Yes a Gentile can convert to being a Hasidic Jew. They must find a sponsering Rabbi who is Orthodox and meet with a beit din. They will try to discourage anyone from converting but if that person passes the tests and is serious they will then help. Reply

Kathleen Stewart September 1, 2017
in response to Naava:

That is good to know, thank you. Reply

Anonymous Glendale Ca August 28, 2017

Please give me the source that you reference that a prospective convert is not allowed to keep all the 39 melochas before the conversion is completed
Thanks Reply

Sha'ul Dallas August 30, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Melachim uMilchamot - Chapter 10:9. Google it.

Hope that helps. Shalom Reply

Menachem E. Groen The Netherlands August 31, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I am curious too about this source because I see in the Kitzur about the Shabbat mentioned: Yeshayahu 56:1-7 Reply

Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for Chabad.org Folsom, CA September 3, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Exodus 31:16,17: "Thus shall the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."
Based on this Rambam rules that a non-Jew is forbidden to rest on Shabbat (or for that matter, any day of the week in a Shabbat-like manner). Reply

Joseph Btooklyn September 3, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

To anonymous 8/28/17
A non- Jew may not keep Shabbos (aka keep all 39 forms of work) unless converted, not in process of converting. Until they are not completly converted they are not Jewish.They have to desecrate Shabbos with any 1 of the 39 melachah

Talmud Sanhedrin 58b last 3 lines
Rambam Laws of Kings chapter 10 Halacha 9 Reply

Chaya Mushka August 28, 2017

BS"D Wow! Hardly "boring." That's amazing! Baruch HaShem! Thank you for sharing! :) Reply

Anonymous August 28, 2017

Your story was just as interesting as all the stories I have learned about converts. Reply

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