Reflexive Advising

A few weeks ago, I received the following email (names deleted to preserve anonymity).

“Hello.  I am an Alumni of OWU, I graduated this past May. I received your email from my friend… Over the years I have been studying and researching Judaism and I truly feel in my heart that I am ready to convert to Judaism. I am not entirely sure where to start or what steps to take. I was hoping you could give me some advice and point me in the right direction. Thank You.”

Reading this, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had on other occasions since I took this job nearly three years ago; a feeling I wrote about in an article for Harlot for the Arts (2010).  I thought, “Who am I to give anyone advice on becoming Jewish?  I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me to be Jewish.” Of course, I don’t expect my own quest to end anytime soon.  So, while I may not be a Rabbi or qualified to supervise anyone’s conversion process, I realized I could speak about my own understandings of and relationship and commitments to Judaism.  Most importantly, I knew that I could listen to this young woman tell me why she wanted to become a Jew.

I suggested we meet for coffee and that in the meantime, she ought to do some reflecting and writing on what being Jewish means to her and what questions she has about it.  This morning, she came to my house and we spent an hour getting to know one another.  She shared somethings about her background – she was raised by her mother, whom she described as “obviously Christian but not very religious”, until she was thirteen when her mother passed away and she move in with her sister, a devout Christian who attends church at least three times a week.  She first learned about Judaism from a high school teacher and then attended a Messianic Temple on and off through college.  She came to realize that this was not a sufficient enough shift for her as she no longer thought of Jesus as a messiah.  She had been drifting for awhile, but expressed a longing for a spiritual home and a new community with which to worship.  The laws of kashrut and Shabbat appealed to her but she still had a lot to learn.  Speaking with her informally about what that learning might entail – exploring different denominations and congregations, experiencing the Jewish calendar, becoming mindful of the laws of kashrut, etc. – helped me realize how much I know and take for granted.

It makes me wonder what I take for granted when I talked to non-Jews about Judaism.  It makes me wonder what I take for granted when I speak with students about their relationships to Judaism.  It made me wonder what I will take for granted in raising my daughter as a Jew in the midwest.  Clearly I have me own work to do.

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