I am in the process of converting to Judaism. I have studied extensively; I read Jewish books, I listen to Jewish podcasts, I follow Jewish influencers on Instagram and I read Jewish magazines and websites. I’ve read the Torah and have started to teach myself to read Hebrew, although languages have always been difficult for me. I go to a basic Judaism class every week at a local Reform synagogue.
I observe Shabbat and have done so for close to a year, long before I started my classes. During Shabbat, I don’t use my phone except on Friday night, to watch services on Zoom. I don’t do laundry or wash dishes. I will cook, but only because it is something I find restful and enjoyable. I try to celebrate the spirit of Shabbat as I understand it. It has been the defining aspect of my potential Judaism since I started down this path.
One of the things I haven’t done yet is attend in-person Friday night Shabbat services, even though I desperately want to go. Beyond the pandemic (an excellent reason!), the real reason I haven’t gone is that I’ve never been inside the synagogue and I don’t know anyone there, except for the two rabbis who teach my basic Judaism class. I am autistic, and new situations are a struggle.
A few weeks ago, I started composing an email to these rabbis, trying to explain my autism and fear of coming to services.
New physical spaces are difficult for me. This is even true of places I want to go, like a new restaurant or any unfamiliar building. I worry about where the right entrance is and what the flow of a body through space is supposed to look like. I’m afraid of walking in the wrong door or direction, or freezing because I don’t physically know what to do next.
Being able to visit a place when it is not busy or full of people helps me to orient myself and feel comfortable so that I can go back again later and know how to move in the space. I sometimes do a “dress rehearsal” of a new location I want to visit, at a time when I know there won’t be many people, in order to feel oriented, safe and confident if I go back later when it’s more crowded.
So I began this email to the rabbis explaining that I wanted to come to services, but I was freaked out because the synagogue was unfamiliar. I started to write out a request to come visit on a weekday so I could acquaint myself with where to enter and exit and sit. But as soon as I typed the words, I realized this was not a thing I could reasonably ask them to do. I started laughing at myself for even considering this as an option.
I was describing casing a synagogue, knowing all the entrances and exits, knowing where people typically sit and where I could enter and not be noticed. Everything about my request was suspicious and strange. For them, this would not feel like a safe request to grant.
I didn’t send the email. I still haven’t gone to an in-person Friday night Shabbat service.
This past Saturday, as I left the sanctuary of Shabbat and picked up my phone for the first time since the previous evening, one of the first posts I saw on social media was about the hostage situation at Beth Israel in Texas.
It was the first time that I faced the fear and shock of coming out of Shabbat to a nightmare scenario for American Jews — as an in-process Jewish convert. I was horrified and saddened and kept refreshing my feed every minute for updates on the hostages. I was unexpectedly overcome with a grief I didn’t feel entitled to. I kept saying to myself: I don’t count, or at least I don’t count yet.
I sat alone in this grief, this profound new sadness. I didn’t tell my husband about it. I didn’t reach out to any friends or post on social media. I refreshed my feed and cried. I cried for the rabbi and his family, for the other hostages. I cried for the rabbis who teach my classes, the calculations they were now surely making themselves, the conversations they were surely having behind closed doors. I cried, selfishly, for myself, because I was alone, and I didn’t feel like I was enough a part of the community to reach out to anyone about my grief.
Of course, before I was interested in conversion to Judaism, I was still horrified by synagogue shootings. But this was my first time facing this horror and feeling the wound personally: My own community, my chosen community, had been targeted.
What right did I have to feel this grief? I haven’t converted yet. I can’t even bring myself to go to Shabbat services in person. I have too many identities already. I’m too difficult: I’m non-binary and queer and middle aged and childless and married to a non-Jew and autistic and I don’t even like people very much. How can I belong when I struggle to make friends and fear most new people? This is a community-focused religion. What does my conversion mean if I don’t have children to share my practices with, or I can’t force myself to go to services and interact with the larger Jewish community? Is conversion really what I want to do?
But I know it is. I don’t know how to explain the feeling of knowing that this is my community, that these people are my people. I like questions, and I like ambiguity. I like interpreting texts, and I like to parse the subtleties of words. I like the big questions, the questions about what makes a meaningful life, and how to be good in the world. I like process and practice and ritual. I like lighting candles and the regularity of the calendar. I like making food for people and knowing I am nourishing them. I like that I don’t always have the answers, and I like that Judaism, as I understand it, embraces all of these things.
One of the rabbis in my first Basic Judaism class said, “Jews don’t have dogmas. We have texts.” I swallowed back tears when he said this. I grew up with dogmas and doctrine and set answers. When I left my fundamentalist Christian world in my twenties and subsequently came out, I lost my community and the closeness I had with my family. I’ve been drifting ever since. Almost two decades later, I know I’ve found a home in this community.
My fear of new spaces is small. The fear of harm that Jews have historically felt, and continue to feel, is large. And that large fear has helped me overcome my small one. So this Friday, I will be attending Shabbat services in person for the first time.