A Jew by Choice

by Anna Gersman (Schomberg, Ontario, Canada)

Doubts, fears and uncertainty have plagued my life and the choices I have made, including my decision to become a Jew. I was brought up an atheist, knowing nothing of God, prayer or ritual. I feared religion and avoided it. I could not understand its purpose. Growing up, my ears were filled with jeering words of ridicule for those who did have faith. “Religious people were weak;” “Religion has caused all the wars and problems of the world;” “There is no scientific proof or rational thought to verify religion;” “Look at the millions murdered in the name of religion,” I was told. As a child, places of worship filled me with dread. The great emptiness of godlessness clouded my childhood. I was firmly exiled from God.

The conversion of an atheist is not easy. The long process, for me, was a series of small steps, gently guided by the encouragement and patience of those who loved me, my family and friends. I found my way cautiously with great fear and distrust.

The initial strands of my journey began when I met my Jewish sailor husband in the early 1980s. I fell in love with his warmth, humour and kind spirit.  We sought adventure and together one glorious September, we set sail for the Caribbean in our sailboat. Looking back, I wonder what guided me, where my inner faith and strength come from that helped me push off from the shore. We were not of the sea. He was a Jewish boy from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was from Newmarket, a small town in Ontario.  Together we sailed out onto that massive expanse of water, enveloped by its surging power and energy. As we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda, our world was endless sky and sea. We felt God’s breath blow across the surface of the ocean, softly, gently at times and then fiercely.

Caught in our first storm at sea, I was terrified of capsizing and being pulled down into the cold dark depths of the Atlantic. I did not know how to pray, and yet I prayed with a desperate conviction for survival. I felt God’s presence many times out on the ocean, in the power of the universe, in the vast array of stars, in the schools of dolphins leaping in the moonlight. I realized I could not feel exiled from God at sea, and after several ocean voyages, I was no longer an atheist. I knew there was a God and yet I was a long way from formal religious practice.

My husband was a secular Jew, and we enjoyed the social part of being with family and friends during the Jewish holidays. My mother-in-law accepted me as a non-Jew, regularly encouraging me to “just have a baby dear.” Her words were wise because in fact the miracle of childbirth brought me significantly closer in my journey towards Judaism.

When my oldest daughter was five-years-old, prompted by discussions at school, she asked me “Mommy, what are we?” Those words sent a hollow echo reverberating though my godless soul. I sensed my duty as a mother was to understand my own spiritual identity and pass this on to my children. I had learned over the years to prepare the traditional menu for the Jewish High Holidays. I could make chicken soup and knaidlach (matzoh balls), but I did not understand the rituals or historical significant of the holidays. I spoke to my husband about our children’s sense of uncertainty about their religious identity, but he could not fully comprehend the void I experienced. He had an unshakable confidence in his own heritage, a strong sense of belonging and identity. He had difficulty seeing the yearning and bewilderment in our child, but he took her hand and went to find a synagogue to attend High Holy Day services.

For me, the goal of parenting is to create an independent, capable person. My understanding of the goal of conversion is to create an independent confident Jew, eager to explore further. For my children’s sake, I knew I had to convert. I told my husband and he looked at me tenderly saying, “I have waited a long time to hear you speak those words.” I felt privileged to have married someone, who stood by me while I stumbled on a personal journey towards faith. We joined Temple Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue. Our children were enrolled in Saturday morning Hebrew school, and gradually over time the unfamiliar became familiar.

I cannot describe the joy I felt learning the Torah stories alongside my children. The stories of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, came alive for me as I slowly painted my interior world with their ancient symbols of hope, redemption and forgiveness. The first few times we attended services my husband wept as emotions long buried in childhood flooded back. The Hebrew prayers and melodies he had long forgotten came back with new significance and meaning as he sat with his family in shul. It was wonderful for me to witness his reconnection to Judaism, and his experience helped me feel secure in my decision to become a Jew.

During my conversion interview the rabbi asked me, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” “For my children,” I replied. “I want them to know God.” He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he said “usually we want people to choose Judaism for themselves, but this is a good place to start.” At first I struggled to be part of the synagogue world; I was uncomfortable with the prayers, fearful I would do or say the wrong thing. The rituals of Shabbat drew me in like a moth to a flickering flame. Gradually, as I stumbled through the Shabbat blessings each week, I came to know the peace that Shabbat brings.

At synagogue services I wrap myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) designed by my husband and painted by my daughters, feeling the shelter of God’s love when I draw it around myself. I have learned the great comfort of communal worship, being led in prayer as though through a beautiful garden. Now, I feel safer to ask questions as I continue to search for my own way of being Jewish. The loving ancient words of the Torah and the siddur (prayer book) bring me solace and comfort in this fast paced high tech world.

At my daughters’ B’nei Mitzvot the rabbi spoke to them, stating “our hope is that you will continue in the path of Jewish learning.” I hear that universal message and know that their journey, like mine is ongoing. I hope one day to visit Israel, and to chant Torah, but for now I listen for the sound of God’s voice as often as I can in all that I do.

It is not easy to convert from nothing, to construct a religious life without a solid foundation set in childhood. Each person undertakes their own unique and personal journey towards faith. I have been fortunate.  I chose a loving Jewish partner who waited patiently for me to make my choice; lucky, to have chosen a shul and congregation accepting and tolerant of differences; lucky, to have found a rabbi able to encourage and welcome the unaffiliated, the disenfranchised, and do the holy work of outreach. As we read in synagogue, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mishkan T’Filah – Reform prayer book.)
Anna Gersman grew up in a large family in King City Ontario. She has traveled and sailed extensively in South Africa and the Caribbean with her husband and children. She has been a nurse for over 20 years. She is currently working with seniors as a case manager in home care and as a camp nurse at URJ Camp George during the summers. Anna has been a member of Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario since 1997. There she found a spiritual home, encouraged to develop every aspect of Jewish life. Anna is currently working on a memoir of her journey to find her Jewish voice. She lives in Schomberg, Ontario near Toronto with her husband Sydney, and their teenage daughters Ariel and Liora.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author from Living Legacies –  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl,  PK Press: Toronto, Canada, 2010.  For more information about this publication or to order copies please visit http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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Filed under Canadian Jewry, Jewish identity

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