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:
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.