by Lettie Switzer
Almost ten years ago, my husband Jason and I had dinner with a Jewish couple who were singers in the same opera Jason was performing in at the time. We’ve always been very interested in different beliefs and practices (I attended and researched over 20 different churches in college), but had considered ourselves to be basically agnostic since high school. So in speaking with this couple, we became interested in Judaism, not for the purpose of converting, but just because a lot of their practices seemed interesting (such as kashrut).
We read a book called “Nine questions people ask about Judaism” and it really floored us. The first question in the book revealed that you can doubt the existence of God and still be a good Jew. Judaism has a strong tradition of questioning beliefs and questioning God. This was very different from our Mormon and Catholic upbringings. Both of us had overall positive experiences in those faith communities, but had issues with many of the beliefs in our respective faiths.
Originally, both Jason and I felt that we could never be religious again because we didn’t believe there was a “true faith.” We didn’t want to feel like hypocrites by being part of religion yet secretly believing things contrary to what a church taught, and we acknowledged that our beliefs could change over time.
We started reading more Jewish books, attended a few different synagogues, and took an Intro to Judaism course. We began studying with Rabbi Stone from Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel. In reading the books and attending services, we saw that being Jewish is so much about mitzvot, specific observances and traditions. Those laws, traditions, and practices came about through the Jewish people’s struggle to understand the divine, but those observances can hold a variety of different meanings. We loved that in one synagogue you may have a person who believes that the Bible is the word of God, one person who believes that it is inspired by God but written by humans, and another who believes it is the history of the Jewish people and their struggle with and search for the divine. That diversity really appealed to us.
We decided to convert. We dove into learning the services even though they were completely overwhelming and in a different language. We became close friends with Cantor Sharon Grainer, who helped us every step of the way, guiding us in how to celebrate Shabbat and recite kiddush, how to celebrate the various holidays and all the melodies of different parts of the service. I really enjoyed participating in Rabbi Stone’s Mussar institute, which helped me focus on developing positive character traits within the context of a historical Jewish practice. One thing that I remember distinctly from that time is his mentioning that no matter what we believe, we are not responsible for our own creation, and that should make us feel indebted to respond in ways to show gratitude for that gift.
Over the past ten years, I have witnessed what an amazingly rich history and culture I have adopted. It is an identity that I’ll have forever, no matter how my beliefs and observances may develop and change over time. When I had my first child five years after I converted, I didn’t really know what it meant to raise a Jewish child because I had no context. I had been immersed in Jewish life for the last several years, but it had never really occurred to me how to pass on this legacy to my children until I was faced with the task. I didn’t know how to build a strong Jewish identity for my children while at the same time not alienating and hurting my parents and my in-laws, who to this day are still struggling with our choice. I didn’t know how to provide a religious context that would allow my children to grow into Jewish adults in their own way.
PJ library has been a major source of inspiration and guidance to me in this task. Because I’m building from scratch my own family’s traditions, I have gained a lot of insight and wisdom through these books. For two years, my older daughter’s favorite bedtime books were “Goodnight Shema” and “Thank you for me”. Sometimes I grapple with the difficult subjects of biblical narratives, and I love that PJ library offers a variety of lenses to introduce those stories and holidays to my children.
Since becoming a jkdiphilly Parent Ambassador, it has been a pleasure to mingle with Jewish families of all backgrounds, observance levels, and ethnicities. Even though I’ve been active in my synagogue these past 10 years, I’ve had more opportunities through jkidphilly to forge bonds with those outside of that smaller community. As I soon come up on my tenth anniversary since conversion, I marvel at how much richer my life is because I chose to be part of the Jewish experience.