Remarks on My Conversion to Judaism
by Gary Bishop
It has weight to it, the Torah. I have watched others do what I just did, which is to take the Torah and walk around the sanctuary with it, and I wondered what it felt like. Overall, what does it feel like, and also literally, what is the weight? As I suspected, it’s not light, and I think that’s appropriate. It’s not something to be taken lightly, not figuratively, and certainly not literally. It’s good to have a physical reminder of its significance when you take it in your arms and feel it weighing down upon you but, at the same time, lifting you up.
The challenge for me is two fold. The first is to be brief, and not because I am by nature a verbose person, or at least I don’t think so. The reason is that this experience has been so powerful for me that I just suddenly have a lot to say. The good news is that I have the entire rest of my life as Jew to talk about what this has meant to me, and rest assured that I will not be up here for a long time and that I will be respectful of everything else that happens here at Shabbat services.
The other challenge, which occurred to me as I thought about what I would say here today, is to avoid having this sound like an Academy Award acceptance speech. It is the season, you know. I say that because I have such a long, long list of people whom I want to thank. Any of you who have experienced a conversion or know someone who has know that you do not do it alone. On the contrary, you do it with the support, encouragement, guidance, teaching and understanding of many, many people. Again, I have the entire rest of my life as Jew to express my gratitude, but there are a few people whom I want to acknowledge publicly.
The first is our Rabbi, who worked with me through this entire process. He met with me individually and worked with me tirelessly and selflessly to prepare me for this. Rabbi Thomas did this for the simple reason that I asked him. I walked into his office one day, and I told him that this was what I wanted, and he said OK.
Rabbi Thomas asked of me only two things. The first was to adhere to the course of study that he laid out and to incorporate Jewish values and Jewish rituals into my life. The second was to tell him if at any point in the process I decided that I did not want it anymore. That was it. No other conditions or requirements on my part.
The second person is our Cantor, who brings such joy and spirituality to our congregation. Cantor Zar-Kessler approached me – approached me – one morning after Shabbat services and asked me – asked me – if a CD of music and prayers that I could listen to on my own would help me. I was not sure that the cantor knew who I was, but she more than knew who I was.
The next week, she handed me a CD of music and prayers, which I promptly loaded onto my iPod. I’ve spent many an early morning commuter train ride and late afternoon commuter train ride with those songs and prayers in my head. Cantor Zar-Kessler did this not even because I asked but because she recognized that she should help.
I have expressed my thanks to both privately, but I would like to do so again publicly, here. So, though it sounds completely inadequate, I say thank you to both of you for all that you did for me.
This brings me to all of you, the Beth-El congregation. “A great place to be Jewish, and a great place to become Jewish,” which is the way Rabbi Thomas described it here at Beth-El. My first contact with Beth-El was at my daughter, Rebecca’s, naming ceremony, and I know that some of you were here that day. As I watched Rebecca being welcomed into the community that day, the Beth-El community, the Jewish community, I could feel the outpouring of warmth and joy and love. I had been contemplating converting to Judaism up to that point, but that experience for me was the turning point when I knew that I wanted to be a full participant in the community here.
The welcoming feelings continued as I attended services and many of you approached me and welcomed me and told me how wonderful you thought that it was that I was there and even,in some cases, you invited me to your homes. It meant a great deal to me, and even if I did not express that to you at the time, I would like to do so now.
Last, but by no means least, not by a long shot, there is my family, starting with my wonderful wife, Toby, and my truly amazing daughter, Rebecca, who I mentioned earlier. When I first met Toby, I could tell almost immediately that she is extra special and I was drawn to her. I also knew how important her Judaism was to her, not because she was overly demonstrative about it but because of her unwavering, steady commitment.
As our relationship as work colleagues grew into a friendship, love and now marriage, Toby and I had discussed the topic of conversion at various points during that time, but the discussion never reached the point where I seriously considered conversion. I knew that we could be just fine as an interfaith couple, that Rebecca would have a clear Jewish identity and a strong Jewish upbringing from Toby and that I would offer all of the support that I could.
When I first told Toby that I wanted to convert to Judaism, she was extremely happy about it. She also provided me with excellent advice, as she always does. Toby counseled me not to do it just for her or just for Rebecca. Rather, Toby told me that I should do it for me and only if it was the right thing for me. And it was. And it is.
I wanted very much to be a part of a people who have a special relationship with the Eternal, a people who consider it their obligation to do good work and to perform charitable deeds, a people who place such a great emphasis on learning and study, a people to whom a sense of community is so important, a people who are so tolerant and accepting of those with different beliefs, a people who have thrived in the face of oppression and hostility and a people who see the value and wisdom of Shabbat observance.
I stand here today draped in a tallis that was purchased in Israel some time ago by Toby’s grandmother, a woman whom I never met but whose name, Rebecca, we gave to our daughter. I understand that Rebecca purchased the tallis for Toby’s husband, whomever he might be, to be given to him when Toby and he were married. There was a slight delay in the timing of the giving of the tallis, but I am so, so proud to stand here wearing it today. And I am so proud and so happy and so extremely honored to be a part of this wonderful tradition of Judaism and to stand here and say, yes, I am a Jew.
February 13, 2010