Scouting Conversion

Mikveh, Oakland, CA
Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “Scouting Conversion”

  1. As sometimes happens to me when I read various posts, your last line was the one that spoke to me: Going through my own wilderness experiences at various times of my life is where I’ve had to face the harshest realities and when I’ve come out, I am in a place I either never thought I’d attain or I never knew existed!!

    Our God is an AMAZING God!! 🙂

  2. I really like this post. You’re right; if we’re not willing to venture outside of our comfort zone, we don’t get anywhere. I should keep that in mind.

    1. I read that article, and yes, it’s eloquent about the losses involved in conversion. That article is so good I bookmarked it. (So if anyone is reading comments, click on that link – good stuff!)

  3. Your post speaks directly to me. It took me 10 years to get to this point. I just finished my Intro class and two weeks before the end I went to Rabbi Sabine, terrified. What now? I’m not ready! There’s so much I don’t know. Thank you so much. Between the two of you I feel I am okay. It’s not a race, it’s a new way of life.

  4. very true for myself as well! this also is my anniversary and it is an ongoing learning and growing process, which is true about life anyways, but it is very visceral about embracing judaism.

  5. It took me 15+ years of sorta-kinda-considering conversion, just to put my foot on that path. I really needed the year (in my case closer to a year and half) to deal with all of the changes you outline so well above. I’m still changing and absorbing – partly because I am now no longer a potential convert but now a Jew, partly because there’s still a heck of a lot to learn and know.

    I read Pop Chassid article, and it was eloquent and captured one convert’s experience within the Orthodox structure. But I reject the idea that one will definitely cry oneself to sleep after conversion, and I reject the reasons she gave. Yes, it’s a deeply emotional day and that can be draining, but my experience was one of joy.

    So while I appreciate how beautifully she wrote about her own feelings, I reject the premises she puts forth.
    -Becoming Jewish is not a death sentence.
    -Becoming Jewish does not make me a stranger. Not to my friends and family, not to born Jews.
    -Becoming Jewish does not make it so you cannot “go home” any more than becoming an adult does.

    I split my face with smiles, and I also cried a ton – but not out of sadness, not out of alienation, not because I thought that “a cosmic gulf had been created between me and my family and friends”. I cried out of joy. I cried out of the certainty that after years of spiritual numbness, I was alive and growing again. I cried at the potential and the possibility before me. I cried at my happiness that I am finally what I have always felt I should be. I cried in joy because now I’m Jewish. And that is a beautiful thing.

    1. Amen, v’amen! Everyone has their own experience on this path. After fifteen plus years of working with people in the process of conversion, I have never heard two stories EXACTLY alike.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful words.

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