Posted on July 17th, 2011 | Filed under Book Review, Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Theology
Tagged with Belief, Christian, Coming Out Jewish, Conversion, disorientation, Divinity, God, Hope, Israel, jewish tradition, joy, Judaism, notion, people, Understanding, unitarian universalist
Trembling slightly, I pulled the folded paper out of my pocket and opened it. I held it tightly; I needed that paper. On it were the printed words that would guide my dry mouth and racing thoughts through the next few minutes. As I walked to the microphone in front of the faculty, staff and fellow students of my Christian seminary, I took a deep breath.
The day before, classes were canceled and our campus had been on lockdown for several hours. Right next door at the University of Texas, a man with a gun was running around campus shooting things—and then, tragically, himself, but we didn’t know the details then. During those hours, those of us who were on campus were stuck, advised not to leave the building in which we found ourselves. Tensions were high. We heard campus alerts in the distance, police sirens, and circling helicopters. There were rumors of multiple gunmen, and the not-knowing made us all feel vulnerable.
Standing at the microphone, I would address the previous day’s events and offer a prayer; but first, there was something else I needed to say to the assembled community. Glancing frequently at the creased paper in my hands, I told them that completely unexpectedly, I’d had a profound religious encounter in the Jewish tradition; that I was no longer pursuing ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, but was instead converting to Judaism; that my interfaith ministry path had not changed and I was still learning a lot at the seminary, so I didn’t want to leave; that I was grateful to the seminary, fellow students and caring professors for teaching me so much, and I looked forward to more learning along with them. I told them that in some universe—maybe this one—all of this made sense.
I told them that this had been all manner of disorienting, overwhelming, and wonderful all at the same time, and I invited them to talk with me later if they had questions. And then—Methodists, prepare yourselves for a denominational founding father and Aldersgate reference—I told them that I felt a kind of kinship with John Wesley. “Although,” I said, “I can imagine him saying that if my heart has been warmed, it’s been very strangely warmed, indeed.”
This “coming out Jewish” was something I had to do. The religious encounter or conversion experience or whatever we want to call it had happened in January and left me reeling. Here I was, studying at a Christian seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Add to that, raised by Sufis (to read about that, see my previous post). And now, somehow deeply moved and compelled to join my life with that of the Jewish people. Really, how ridiculous could one’s religious journey be? And yet, this was my heart, my truth, my life—and I could not turn away.
The spring semester following that January religious encounter was difficult. There was so much to think about and try to sort out; meanwhile, I had family responsibilities, a part-time job and a full course load. I confided in my family, co-workers and close friends. I started attending services at a synagogue. I sought out the advice of a few trusted professors at the seminary—religious experts, I figured, who would understand this kind of thing. And they were, in fact, very helpful and supportive. Perhaps because they sensed some of my struggle, though, they encouraged me to keep a “low profile” about converting to Judaism while at the seminary. One of them told me, “There’s really no paradigm for this.” And while that may have been true, I’d sort of been hoping for a paradigm; sometimes paradigms are comforting.
That summer was a sigh of relief. I inhaled books about Judaism and about religious experience. I read the autobiographies of Eboo Patel, Dorothy Day and Howard Thurman. I read about Jewish history, prayer, practice and theology. I bought a siddur, a Jewish prayer book, and started learning some prayers and blessings. I journaled. A lot.
By the beginning of the fall semester, I was feeling pretty settled. The doubt and second-guessing that had plagued me in the spring was gone; that I was converting to Judaism—joyfully, with a full and grateful heart—was clear. I was also definitely staying at the Christian seminary, though I would change my degree from a Master of Divinity to a Master of Theological Studies. As for how to be at the seminary, I decided to be honest but not flauntingly so. No need to wear a “Jew By Choice” t-shirt to class, for example. I met privately with each of my professors before the semester began to tell them about my new religious position in the universe, and I told my seminarian friends. I was ready.
After just a couple of weeks of class, though, I had the growing feeling that I was spying on someone’s private conversations. Here I was, privy to the theological and spiritual wrestlings of Christian seminarians in this place where they should be safe to express their doubts and challenge beliefs in a caring and sympathetic community—and I felt like an impostor. During some classroom conversations, I found myself wishing for that “Jew By Choice” t-shirt.
So when a friend asked if I would lead prayer during a “Mid-week Manna” community gathering, I said yes—and then sought the support of my seminarian friends in taking that opportunity to “out” myself. None of us could have known that the day before would be an emotional, lock-down rollercoaster for the seminary community and the whole city. I wondered whether to proceed as planned, thinking that my disclosure might seem inappropriate, given the moment and the circumstances. But the need to proclaim my faith so that I could be in honest and authentic relationship with faculty, staff, students, God and myself, was too great; I would proceed.
And so it was that one Wednesday last fall, I came out Jewish at my Christian seminary. Still standing before them, I thanked the community for letting me share my truth. “Not that you really had a choice, I guess, since I have the microphone,” I joked. Then I paused, looked up and said, “now let us pray,” and all heads bowed. “As we pray, I invite you to hold in your hearts the family and friends of the student who died at UT yesterday, and all those who were affected by yesterday’s tragic events.”
“The Lord be with you,” I said.
“And also with you,” came the response.
“Open my mouth, Adonai, and my lips will proclaim your praise.
Blessed are you, Holy One,
You who are known by many different names, who is revealed in different ways, and whose mysteries abound—
Please continue to teach us and guide us as we seek to live our lives in service to You,
That we may bring to a hurting world even just a little bit of shalom.
In the name of all that is Holy, let us say, ‘Amen.’”
And we said together in one voice, “Amen.”
The title from this post came from Coming Out Jewish, by Jon Stratton.
Yaira is Jewish, married, and mother to two boys who make her laugh every day. As Associate Director of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, she works with Texas religious communities to promote social and environmental justice. She recently completed her Master's of Theological Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Yaira is fueled by gratitude, laughter, and sometimes unhealthy amounts of coffee.