To those who gave me the opportunity to bless them as they embraced Judaism:
I struggle to find the words to embrace you as Jews in this regard. To call you merely “converts” does not convey the deep emotional impact of your spiritual Judaism. To refer to you as “Jews by choice” does not enlighten others to what your quest has brought to our synagogue. I struggle to find the right way to say “thank you” for enriching my Jewish life as well as the life of this congregation. I grope to find the words to assure you of your authenticity as a Jew in this community.
We have studied together over the months and years. We have shared a great deal of laughter and tears. You have challenged me to impart to you the joys of Jewish tradition. You have caused me to look inward to rediscover why this religion is so much the fabric of my being. For you, this journey has secured a new religious home. But you know better than I that it was not easy. You have had to learn so much and process it to make it a part of you. You have realized that being Jewish is not just doing the rituals and reciting the words but acting Jewishly and incorporating Judaism into your daily life. You have searched to create an image of God that is personal as well as authentic. And then there is the emotional challenge of letting go of your spiritual past. You have searched your souls to assure yourself that embracing Judaism does not make you a failure as a son or daughter.
When you ascended the bimah to hold Torah in your arms, you were surely worthy. You are as Jewish as those born into the covenantal relationship. I know that each one of you was just as nervous as any B’nai Mitzvah who stood on the pulpit! Months later, as the initial feelings of unease subsided, new ones emerged: when will I be accepted as a Jew and not as a convert?, how do I deal with not having Jewish memories that bring basics to a Jewish conversation?
Perhaps a little guidance from someone who knows will reassure you. Diane Ackerman in a memoir on learning to fly, counsels that in moments of high challenge, “when one is concerned with acting deftly,” reaction, not analysis, is the goal. At such moments, you do not want to scan, assess or make decisions. What you want is a kind of informed instinct. You want to be fully alert but free of doubt. Trust yourself. Be open and attentive to the moments in life. That, says Ackerman, is a form of ecstasy. As a rabbi, let me encourage you not to doubt your past but to utilize it all as you respond Jewishly to life’s challenges.
As Jews, you bring a new found sense of awe which can be jaded in those born of this tradition. Thus, I am expecting you to encourage us all to take flight. I am hoping that you will motivate us to soar beyond the words on a page in the prayer book, to enhance meaning into the melodies, to unlock secrets found in the Torah. What we all need from you is your presence and leadership to find what the Israelites experienced at Sinai-that ecstasy which is the sure knowledge that we all have, at long last, arrived.
Mazal Tov from me to you as you begin your new spiritual lives as members of a great tradition. We welcome you with open arms as does the Holy One who has waited so long to welcome you as one who stood as Sinai. Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek - from strength to strength, we all are strengthened!
Matthew Cutler is the rabbi of Congregation Gates of Heaven, Schenectady, New York.