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Today I Am A Jew

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I was born a Jew. Although I had no Jewish education growing up, I always knew I was Jewish. During my early years, that didn't mean very much to me. But as I entered adulthood, my Jewish identity became increasingly significant and I began to learn what it meant to be a Jew. In one of my earliest stages of research, I went to the public library and checked out a few books about Judaism. One of them was the classic What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer. After I finished the book, my roommates would joke around and ask me, "Vat iz a JEW?" in a heavy Eastern European accent.

Fast forward a few decades and I'm still a Jew. Only now, I'm living a traditional Jewish life - Shabbat, kosher, the whole nine yards - married to a rabbi, living in Israel. I've come a long way since I checked out my first Jewish books from the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Today, I watched a young woman become a Jew. When she woke up this morning, she was not Jewish. Now she is. 

When I met her 15 months ago, I learned that she had come from a small town in the southern United States whose entire population was about a quarter of the size of my high school graduating class. She enrolled in a conversion program in Israel and was living with neighbors.
 
Conversion to Judaism, especially in Israel, is not a simple matter. There's so much to learn, it can take years. And then there are the administrative and political issues with which prospective converts must contend. It takes stamina, determination and sometimes, mule-like obstinancy to get to the finish line.

Outside of some cases in the Reform movement, the final stage of converting, after the studying, after the testing, after the series of meetings with the rabbinic court, is immersion in a mikvah.
Ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a pool of water. This pool and its water are precisely prescribed by Jewish law. Immersion, tevillah, is the common core component of every [traditional] Jewish conversion process, for male and female, adult and child, ignoramus and scholar. - Rabbi Maurice Lamm
Although there are at least six mikvahs in the city in which we both live, her rabbis sent her to a specific mikvah more than an hour away. When we finally arrived, my jaw dropped. I have been to mikvahs all over the world and I have never, ever seen anything like what greeted us this morning.

The waiting room was packed with men, women and children. That was already unusual. As a rabbi's wife, I am used to private appointments for converts. This was a party! Dozens of people, along with pastries, candies and drinks everywhere you look.
 
I quickly realized that today was the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Av. The day after Tisha B'Av. No weddings had been scheduled during the three previous weeks because they constitute a mourning period in the Jewish calendar when weddings are not permitted. So there was a huge backup of brides, waiting to immerse in a mikvah before their wedding. Although we had an appointment, there were at least four brides, accompanied by their extended families, ahead of us.

There was also an entire family converting. The father and the teenage son were in another part of the building and the mother and the two younger children were with us.

It was a scene of amazing contrasts, a real sense of the unity of the Jewish people. There were Russian Jews and secular Israelis and fervently religious sefardic Jews, Ethiopian Jews and my friend, the gentile who came from 7,000 miles away to join the Jewish people.

We waited a long time for her turn. And when it finally came, it was over in just a few minutes. After her initial immersion, the mikvah attendant gave her an outrageously unfashionable yet extremely modest waterproof garment to put on and then called in the three rabbis that made up the rabbinic court. The rabbi with the best command of English asked her, "Do you believe in One God?" "Do you promise to keep all the laws of the Torah and of the Rabbis?" Her affirmative answers satisfied them. She made the blessing on immersion, dunked in the water one more time and emerged a Jew.

As she was exiting, the mikvah attendant heaped many blessings on her in Hebrew, shook her hand and said, "Bruchim Haba'im l'Am Yisrael - Welcome to the Jewish people."

My heart was so full it was leaking out of my eyes.

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