Having been raised in an observant Italian Catholic household, I understand the importance of family, food, holidays, and motherly guilt. This week marks the 10th anniversary of my conversion to Judaism, a religion which also prides itself on a strong connection to family, food, holidays, and motherly guilt. While the choice to align myself with Judaism and the Jewish people was an easy decision, my new-found spiritual and cultural identity were extremely difficult at times for my friends and family.
I can connect my interest in Judaism to a silly undergrad Introduction to Judaism course which ignited an eventual whirlwind love affair with all things Jewish. Over the next few years, my academic interests slowly evolved into a personal practice of adopting Jewish customs and celebrating Jewish traditions. During the first few years, my family members felt as though I had rejected my heritage; as if there was something wrong with my grandmother’s non-kosher lasagna. Others viewed my lifestyle change as a phase that many twenty-somethings go through out of confusion or experimentation. When time and distance failed to prove their convictions and improve their level of acceptance, I realized that for many in my life, the attitudes surrounding my conversion had very little to do with me. Most of my friends and family had never met many Jews, had no understanding of Jewish laws or traditions, or perhaps had harbored anti-Semitic thoughts. I realized I needed to be not just a Jew that the Jewish people would be proud of, but a Jew that I would be proud of. This meant being an ambassador to non-Jews, starting with friends and family.
During the first few years, many of my closest friends and family members failed to appreciate or respect my decision to convert. They failed to recognize the love, the passion, and the joy that learning about and celebrating Judaism brought to my life. The evolution of my Jewish practice brought me from Conservative American Judaism, to Modern Orthodox Zionism in Israel to an eventual arrival at the progressive, pluralistic Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism. As my knowledge of Judaism evolved, so has my spiritual practice and adherence to Jewish laws. Whereas 10 years ago I would not eat anything in my parents’ house, today I appreciate the more pluralistic aspects of Judaism and the spirit of the Jewish law, as opposed to observing the strict letter of the law. Today, I keep kosher-style which allows me to eat vegetarian when eating in non-kosher establishments. In becoming an ambassador of Judaism and a multi-faith emissary, I realized I had to make Judaism and Jewish people accessible to non-Jews without compromising my own faith. This included how I would celebrate Judaism, in particular how observant I would be, in the presence of my friends and family.
I believe as Jews we need to do more to break down Jewish stereotypes that may create confusion, misunderstanding, and even Anti-Semitism. It is important that I have a strong, functioning relationship with non-Jewish communities, particularly in the Muslim American and Christian American communities. When we show ourselves as a diverse, eclectic group made up of people all over the racial, socioeconomic, gender/sexuality, and multi-faith spectrum, we help to alter many of the old-world preconceived notions about Jews and Judaism. When we accomplish this, we can begin to learn about the new and exciting ways that other faith-based people have evolved and have grown here in our shared communities.
A few weeks ago on the holy Jewish Sabbath, known as Shabbat, I sat quietly in a church paying my respects to a loved one who had recently passed away. Traditional Jews would never desecrate Shabbat by driving on Saturday, let alone step inside a non-Jewish house of worship. While I had intended to quietly duck into the back of the Catholic Church’s sanctuary unnoticed, my friend’s parents walked over and said, “David, I didn’t expect to see you here on a Saturday morning.” At the lunch that followed, I fielded questions ranging from Jewish participation in other religious services, to kashrut, to Jewish attitudes on death, dying, and the afterlife. Now perhaps, it was easier to ask the residential Jew about his faith rather than looking inward about what Catholicism says about these difficult topics, but I approached the discussion as not only my job as a future rabbi, but as a wonderful learning opportunity for Jews and non-Jews. To not acknowledge that in which we differ would be foolish and irresponsible, but to gloss over all that we share in common would be a missed opportunity in learning and growing from each other about our historical religious roots and our desire and responsibility to do God’s work in bringing more peace and understanding into our shared world.
I’m not sure how my rabbinical school professors would view my decision to skip synagogue in order to attend a memorial service, but in the interest of multi-faith dialogue, I hope they would have been proud of my decision to honor a loved one. By visiting this service I hope I was able to show that modern Jews can think for themselves and make personal decisions to help spread love, knowledge, and understanding between our religion and those of our friends, neighbors, and even family members. As Jews, we are an evolving people and Judaism is an evolving faith. When we, as spiritual vessels, acknowledge the complexity and richness of multi-faith families, we will be able to better ask our religion, whichever faith it may be, to give due respect and attention to the changing landscape of faith in relation to the new, modern spiritual family, and thus hopefully address the role that family plays in the larger multi-faith dialogue.
Image courtesy of Jews Down Under.