I’m Not Done Converting Yet & I’m Already Dealing With Anti-Semitism

I never thought I'd be dealing with anti-Semitic comments at my workplace.

Back in the early months of 2019, I seriously started looking into Judaism. My partner and I had recently moved in together and had been having talks about getting married and, eventually, having children. My move towards Judaism started when, one night, I found myself wondering what religious tradition my children would be born into if we ever have them. A friend of my partner’s had very recently baptized his son, but when I thought about us doing the same some years into the future, the possibility seemed inexistent. Enter Judaism.

My connection to Catholicism had been waning for years, or perhaps it had always been non-existent. As my mother and father were never married, and this was well-known by our priest, my family had always been frowned upon at church — something that deeply hurt me as I was growing up. For years I had been looking for an alternative to Catholicism that didn’t make me feel as though I was accepted only grudgingly into my religious community. I had researched and looked into other religions that never quite seemed to encompass everything I needed: beliefs that aligned with mine, inclusion, openness, and the desire to do right by the community and the world. Eventually I got around to researching Judaism, and the more I read, the more I became convinced it was the place for me.

I live in a majority Catholic Latin American country with a Jewish community of less than 10,000 people, the majority of whom live in the capital. That means the closest Jewish congregation to me is over an hour away by car. As such, before attempting to find the comfort and guidance of a rabbi to lead me in a formal conversion, I’ve spent the past year and a half exploring Judaism on my own, educating myself about traditions, festivities, and the history of the Jewish people. I’ve even attempted to tackle learning Hebrew on my own (it’s not going great). I am very much looking forward to finding a rabbi and a congregation a year from now, after I have dedicated more time to studying and submerging myself into my life as a Jew – even if it means driving up to the capital every single week in order to be with them.

Still, the feeling of isolation from my chosen community is something that has been hard on me. But, as any converted Jew would probably tell you, separating yourself from the community you were born into also brings around new and heartbreaking feelings of not quite belonging anywhere.

One of my main concerns at the beginning of my process of conversion was breaking it to my family. My partner is agnostic, which makes for a rather strange household. Despite his initially not understanding why I would want to leave my religion just to find a new one, he’s kind and supportive about it. We have had conversations about what a future within Judaism could mean for us and our hypothetical children, and he’s up for it and has even taken a liking to some Jewish celebrations — and especially the food. My mother was incredibly accepting, too. Having taken classes about different religions herself, she understood my fondness for Judaism and provided (and continues to provide) me with reading material so I can delve deeper into the subject. She even took it upon herself to talk to my dad, by far the most Catholic in my little family, about why I am converting, why it is a good thing for me and my spirituality, and why he needs to respect my choice.

But the complication I never saw coming, not in my wildest dreams, was at my workplace. I am a history teacher in one of the top private high schools in my country. Day in and day out I am surrounded by some of the best academics in their areas, highly educated people, full of witty conversation and brimming with specialized knowledge, which is why their deeply-rooted anti-Semitism and ignorance came as such a surprise to me.

I don’t particularly remember the moment when I “came out” to them as a “Jew-in-process,” but it must not have been such a momentous occasion or my mind would have bookmarked it somehow. It might have been the first time I brought some of my homemade challah for them to try, or when they saw me carrying around my Hebrew book in order to study. All I know is since then, the waves of anti-Semitism have been crashing against me unrelentingly, one after the other.

In the past year, I have had to listen to a professor who teaches German and one of my very own co-workers from the history department deny the Holocaust and discuss, loudly, how it is that Jews have modified history in order to make themselves look like the victims. I have listened to this same history teacher recommend a YouTube “documentary” that “proves” George Soros and the Rothschild family are actively seeking world domination.

The first time this happened, I walked out of the room, indignant, but I felt remorse about it, almost believing that I had overreacted. Immediately, I texted a co-worker and friend that I was sorry if I had seemed overdramatic, but that I didn’t want to stay and listen anymore. She told me she hadn’t even noticed the conversation was going on. The other times I have heard these comments, I’ve chosen to stay quiet in order to not call attention to myself, and have even started wearing earphones nearly constantly, preferring not to hear what these people have to say.

But I still wanted to curve this sort of behavior, so this past Purim I organized a little event with those co-workers of mine who have actually supported me in my decision. We set up a table brimming with hamantaschen provided by me, as well as vegan cookies and brownies baked by two of my friends. I printed little flyers explaining what the holiday is about and asking people to consider their own anti-Semitic behaviors: Did they believe that Jews secretly control the world? Did they believe that Jews made up or exaggerated the  Holocaust? Did they stereotype Jews based on their cultural or religious beliefs or based on their physical appearance? I closed the little flyer by asking them to “Be an Esther, not a Haman.”

Throughout the day, all kinds of teachers came up to our little set-up to eat food and take a flyer to read when they had more time. My fellow history teacher purposely partook of the vegan cookies and brownies, but left my hamantaschen and flyers untouched.

Perhaps the most hurtful of these cases came from one co-worker who I used to consider a dear friend. When I first spoke to her about my curiosity around Judaism, she tried to disuade me from purchasing my very first book about the topic, a Jewish Bible, by saying horrible things about the religion and the people in it. For a while afterwards, she even stopped associating with me.

Around a month ago, she started seeking me out again, and I told her about my experiences and how they were making the workplace hard for me, almost unbearable. At this point she confirmed for me a suspicion I’d been harboring for a while: it seems that there have been complaints against me by school leadership because of my conversion. I have been criticized for respecting Shabbat because it excludes me from being forced to participate in school activities that take place on Saturday; I was frowned upon for not having birthday cake on one of the school administrator’s birthday because it fell right on Yom Kippur; even more hurtful, she warned me that talk has been going around that when it comes to my Judaism, I need to “tone it down” since very few people in the school are Jewish and I cannot possibly expect all the others to have to accommodate me.

This co-worker added further insult to injury by deciding that in order to be more inclusive of me, she would “give me a Jewish name.” Never mind that choosing your own Hebrew name is such a meaningful part of conversion or that my name is already, actually, Hebrew — the assumption that that’s what I needed instead of basic respect and acceptance is baffling.

Strangely, the pandemic has brought some relief to this situation as I no longer am forced to spend long periods of time having to listen to these comments being thrown at me. Still, I worry how things might escalate once we are asked to return to the workplace.

I’d be lying if I said these experiences haven’t somewhat damaged my relationship to Judaism. I’ve had to lower my head and withhold my pride in my religion, and even keep quiet about it at times. They make me afraid of how I will be treated going forward in a job that I absolutely love, knowing that my love for Judaism isn’t something I am willing to sacrifice in order to accommodate people who refuse to make room for me. But they have also reinforced in me the desire to convert, to do right by my people and educate others about the hurtful, false things they say to us and about us. I knew that dealing with anti-Semitism comes with the territory of being Jewish. I just didn’t know it would come this soon.

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original illustration by BRO Vector/Getty images.

Read More