Our tradition teaches that once someone has converted to Judaism, they are as Jewish as a Jew by birth and we are not to speak of it again with them, or with anyone else. It should be as if they have always been Jewish. To not speak of it is to fully honor the person who chose Judaism by not making any distinctions between them and the born-Jewish members of our communities.
But the truth is, those of us who converted to Judaism have distinctly different paths from those who were raised in the Jewish tradition. We have different stories and experiences. And those pathways, stories, and experiences matter. They matter to us as individuals, and they matter to the Jewish people. For Jews-by-choice to be fully part of the Jewish community, our whole selves need to be honored. This includes our pre-Jewish lives, the pathways that led us to Judaism, and our non-Jewish families. We need to be embraced with our whole complex, messy selves. Judaism benefits when the differences we bring create a more robust diversity of culture and ideas.
Making room to talk about the experiences of converts is what the URJ's online space, Jewish & New-ish, is all about. This monthly drop-in group offers a safe environment for those who have converted to Judaism in the past five years to connect around our shared identities, tell our stories, and wrestle with our shared challenges. How do you share your new Jewish identity and holidays with your family of origin? What possibilities exist for blending your cultural/family traditions into your Jewish life? When are you uncomfortable owning your new Jewish identity, with Jews and with non-Jews? How do you "come out" as a convert and when is it okay not to? How do you "come out" as Jewish and when is it okay not to?
Participants in this monthly support space are so grateful for one another and for the sense of community that arises in the short amount of time we spend together. What a blessing to find out that I am not the only one! What a gift to know that others are also wrestling with imposter syndrome or family tsuris (difficulty). What a comfort to know that others are also feeling a little lost at sea post-conversion; that they are also trying to find their way with this new identity.
Here are just a few of the comments new-ish Jews shared with us about what this space has meant to them:
"I value meeting fellow Jews who understand the struggles of still being new in Judaism."
"I appreciate hearing that my experiences are not unique to me."
"Jewish and New-ish is a space to be open and to have a community that can relate. I don't feel alone."
"Thank you for the open exchange of thoughts on hard topics."
"Even just thinking about this group gives me hope and makes me a little emotional in a good way!"
In our time together, we connect, tell stories, explore areas of challenge and joy, and share resources. We feel seen, honored, and included. We feel like we matter, and like our stories matter. It's great that our tradition asks the old-timers to treat us newcomers like we have always belonged. And it's better when that belonging allows us to bring our whole selves in the door; our non-Jewish pasts and our Jewish futures, making space for all our experiences as Jews-by-choice.