Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Leslie Contreras Schwartz
First person 

Why I converted to Judaism while seven months pregnant

 


(Kveller via JTA)—I was pregnant with my first daughter when I stood above the steps leading into the mikveh. After years of study, private and at a synagogue, and months of preparation, I was converting to Judaism. Naked and heavily pregnant, with my husband and rabbi standing in witness, the room was full of light and the still water before me.

It was fitting and symbolic for me to be converting so close to delivering my first child. As a third-generation Mexican-American, I had grown up in a cultural limbo. I grew up in a mostly black and Latino area of Houston where I was considered too “white” by my peers, yet whites never considered me American. I had no sense of belonging to any community.

Although I was brought up Catholic, its dogma, saints and forms of worship never spoke to my heart. I had always longed for a community in which its members shared my same passion for giving, justice and respect for humanity, and related that to their relationship with God in a way that connected to me on a spiritual and intellectual level.

My Jewish husband and I had a rabbi and a priest officiate at our wedding five years before. Years later, when I understood one of the interpretations of the glass being broken at the end of the ceremony, something shifted in me. The story I like the best is that the breaking of glass is a symbol for tikkun olam, or the need to bring together a shattered world through compassion and loving kindness.

That connection drove me to start volunteering at the Holocaust Museum Houston, where I helped staff the gift shop. There I met a longtime volunteer and his daughter. This man was nearly 90 years old and was himself a survivor. Born in Transylvania, he forged a passport when the Germans arrived and managed through subterfuge and cunning to find his way on a boat to prestate Israel. He had been volunteering for years every Saturday and spoke kindly to everyone, even those who (surprisingly) knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. I saw something in him that I wanted to do—to carve out for myself a humility and giving spirit through love for both a community and humanity at large.

I attended a class at a nearby Reform synagogue with my husband. I discovered that many of the traits and values that I loved the most about my husband stemmed from his connection to Judaism—the belief in education and learning, and how is it something that cannot be taken from you; the protection of the family unit; his belief in the inherent goodness of people and the responsibility of helping others, and especially his emphasis on focusing on the here and now of life rather than the afterlife and its supposed consequences or glory. The glory, in Judaism, is the present.

In the Book of Job, God asks a series of questions to Job, who has fallen to his lowest point of suffering. This section, called “The Voice in the Whirlwind,” asks a series of questions that focuses on God’s nature as a Creator, and it does not answer Job’s own questions of the reason why he is suffering. Probably more of a Reform manner of believing, some interpret this answer to mean that God wants Job to know that all humans—evil or good—experience suffering, and that life is not a series of God’s rewards and punishments. (“The sun rises on the righteous and sinner alike.”)

Growing up, it was ingrained in me that I was punished directly for my actions, and that my suffering was somehow caused by something I did or did not do. I did not like this version of God because I did not believe in it. I wanted to love God not for what he could do for me, but for the inherent relationship itself.

And when I decided to go through the conversion process while pregnant, I did it so my daughter could know this relationship from the beginning: to know that God was both mysterious and loving, that it was good to believe in doing good for its own value. And to be like Job, who said, though he submits to God, “Yet will I argue with him.” Because the Jewish people are the ultimate wrestlers. I am one of those people now.

As I floated, fully submerged in the mikveh waters, the water holding up both my baby and me in its own kind of womb, ever the poet I began writing a poem in my head as I thought of my new relationship with God. At home, I wrote it down:

“To call God, the name I have chosen.

Adonai, I say, and the baby and I float,

perched on the edge of this name.

To enter the world

as we choose, to enter

with our eyes wide open, gasping for air

as if we call out for this

through our very breathing.”

I had found a way to name the struggle I had always had with understanding God and a community for which I had longed. Like the exemplar convert, Ruth, which became part of my Hebrew name, I followed my longing to know God as she followed Naomi into a strange land. And also like Ruth, I did not simply convert to the Jewish faith. I became Jewish.

I continue to learn the long history of traditions, rituals, songs and prayers. I have learned enough to teach Sunday school at my congregation, to participate in worship and to teach my children at our private observances. Sometimes I even teach my husband things he did not know or did not practice growing up. And it is this constant growing in my relationship with God that I love.

Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a Mexican-Jewish writer living in Houston. She is the author of “Fuego,” a collection of poems about motherhood and teaching refugees.

Kveller is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens.Visit Kveller.com.

 

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