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Taking Faith

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Jessica, figuring out how to 'just have faith'

I’ve known people who can boil something huge down to a single, explicit moment: The moment they realized what they wanted. The moment they fell in love. The moment they knew they believed in something. The moment that changed life as they knew it.

Those moments have always eluded me. My questions about the details, need for tangible answers and tendency to over-think turn my moments into series’ of complicated hours.

I’ve known people who can find answers by “just having faith” and that’s another one I’ve never been very good at.

I’ve often wondered how much of that has to do with the fact that I grew up without religion.

I used to wonder if I was starving my spirit by not feeding on religion, but whenever I set foot in a church, I was distinctly uncomfortable. I couldn’t wrap my head around having faith in something that just didn’t make sense to me.

In college, I briefly thought I’d “found it.” I attended a Baptist Church. I didn’t much follow the whole religious thing, but when the congregation erupted in song, my stomach fluttered and I felt goosebumps. Every time. And when, after services, we’d gather to share a great big lunch, I felt something. I was part of a community. But I winced when the discussion turned to God and faith. I swallowed my questions and focused on how good it felt for all of us to sit in the sun together, eating from the same giant bowls of Jello.

But my questions about the details piled up, I couldn’t make myself believe in the answers, and, ultimately, the music and lunches weren’t enough to keep me glued to the community.

I didn’t think about religion again for a long time. Not even when I took a job at The Jewish Federation in Chicago. I offered myself up as a non-religious outsider, who might bring a fresh eye to the communications department. My approach to learning about Judaism was analytical; I was rooted in a need to understand this religion I knew nothing about so that I could do a job.

During those three years on the job, colleagues and friends lined up, tirelessly, to answer my never-ending questions. Eventually, I collected a string of moments that made me determine I’d “found”—or at least come to understand—religion: The moment a precious 13-year-old, preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, told her mother I had a Jewish soul. The moment I attended my first Seder. The moment I attended my first Jewish wedding. And an entire week of moments I experienced while visiting Israel.

It was after that trip to Israel, while hanging my first Mezuzah, that I realized my professional mission of reaching out to young, unaffiliated Jews and emphasizing the importance of continuity was no longer strictly business.

I’d developed a personal connection to Judaism and the result was goosebumps all over my spirit and my brain.

It was that spiritual understanding with an intellectual anchor that taught me what it means to “just have faith.”

But conversion? Doesn’t that require a single “moment” when you know you’re sure? Don’t you need a solid religious stance to convert from? And don’t you have to be done asking questions first?

Conversion means change. Transformation. Becoming someone new. It’s disruption. It’s controversy. It’s complicated.

Was there a moment? Absolutely not. I thought about it for years. But at some point along the way, my questions moved from skeptical and analytical to hopeful and personal. The more I rolled the idea around, the scarier it felt. Without memories of my Bat Mitzvah or family kugel recipes to pass down, won’t I always be considered a fake? Will I have something to hide?

And what happens to the me that I am now? Do I have to bury her? Do I have to abandon my family and the non-religious traditions we share? Do I have to sign something that says I’ll stop listening to Cyndi Lauper’s twist on Christmas carols? Do I have to learn to curl my lip in disgust when someone orders shellfish in a restaurant, or can I confess my true feelings for all-you-can-eat shrimp cocktail?

Does conversion mean I have to stop questioning? Does it mean I’m expected to know all the answers?
The closest thing I ever had to a “moment” was when I realized these two things: I didn’t have to have answers for every question in order to start my conversion. And if I stop asking questions, I’ll likely never finish.

Every day brings new questions.

Some have been relatively small: While others prepared for family reunions and familiarity during Passover, I felt college-like, pre-test stress over all the details, trying to memorize every last one: Do’s, Don’ts, rules, rituals, how to set the table, how to run a Seder. 

Some have been bigger: Where, how, and how much of my conversion will I share along the way? What elements will remain entirely private? Which ones will only be shared with my inner-most circle? And at some point, will I have a template for what to share with everyone else, or will I continue to wrestle over if, what, and how to share during first dates and cocktail parties?

And some, quite honestly, have been mind-rocking. Those are the heart of this experience. They’re big questions with answers I can only find by just having faith. And I do.

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