Meeting the Rabbi – My Story

Image: Rabbi Chester and I at my ordination on 5/18/08. (Photo taken by R. Sanford Akselrad.)

It is a truism among writers that when you particularly love a line or a paragraph it is often the one that most needs to be edited out.

I’m barreling towards a deadline on an article about ritual and conversion to Judaism. The article is supposed to be academic writing, which means that I have to rein in my inclination to tell homey little stories, especially first-person stories.

So here is a bit that had to go. I’m sharing it here to pacify the part of me that was determined to tell it, and partly because I think it might be useful to someone worrying about meeting a rabbi to talk about conversion:

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I read anything Jewish I could lay hands upon, absorbed a quantity of information and misinformation, and finally decided I was sure. I called and made an appointment to meet with the rabbi.

So when I first approached Rabbi Steve Chester in 1994, I told him very confidently that I had decided that Judaism was for me. His words to me like a non-sequitur: “There’s a tradition for turning candidates away three times – can we agree that I’ve done that? I don’t want to be unfriendly.”

Then he added, “Maybe you want to be a Jew, maybe not. I’d like to slow down, study with you for a while, and see how it goes.” He explained to me that not every Jew in the world recognizes a Reform conversion, and that it would not hurt his feelings if I decided to meet instead with a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi, just to be sure to let him know. The warning about non-acceptance of converts mostly flew over my head. He gave me a book to read, told me to sign up for an Introduction to Judaism class, told me he expected to see me at services every Shabbat, and we made an appointment to meet again the next month.

He didn’t send me away, but he wasn’t terribly encouraging, either. I could not leave that meeting shouting, “I’m going to be a Jew.” All I knew for sure was that the rabbi had given me assignments to do, and we had an appointment to talk again in a month. What I had, from that moment, was a relationship with a rabbi. And let me tell you, to this day, the relationship with Rabbi Steve Chester is one of the most important in my life.

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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 https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Hamaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA.

7 thoughts on “Meeting the Rabbi – My Story”

    1. Thanks, Pamela. There’s a time for everything, as the Book of Proverbs says, and that story belongs in a memoir or similar setting. It didn’t belong in a technical article for a professional journal.

      Giving it a home let me release it, which moved the article along amazingly well. I thank you for the kind words!

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  1. “He told me he expected to see me at services every Shabbat”.

    Is it just me, Rabbi, or do his words sound harsh?

    I have read your work for maybe 2+ years now, so I do understand the goal & importance of synagogue attendance & membership.

    Still, I found his words jarring.

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    1. His tone wasn’t harsh, and since I’d grown up Catholic (with weekly Mass a requirement for all) it all seemed perfectly normal.

      I had been a seeker for a long time, a Goldilocks who had tried a LOT of chairs: Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, a Pentacostalist congregation, a Unitarian church. This let me roll up my sleeves to see if I was going to fit in as a Jew, with real Jews, not theoretical ones.

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  2. Having all sorts of warm fuzzy memories about my own conversion process with Rabbi Chester. “The book” I was assigned was Abba Eban’s “My People: The Story of the Jews,” (was that yours too?) which was out of print by then so I actually had official instructions to go haunt second-hand bookstores, how fun was that?

    Many similarities in our conversations, some differences; I was already a member of the congregation with a child in the religious school. I remember vividly how very nervous I was before my beit din, which was Rabbis Chester and Berlin plus Lori Abramson; I’m used to processing nerves like that in a musical context, but without my instrument in hand I had no clue where to channel them!

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