For Love of the Jewish People
by Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein
Almost nine years ago I began teaching Introduction to Judaism. I was a second year rabbinical student at HUC, just back from Israel. Fortunately for me there was a shortage of rabbis and more experienced rabbinical and cantorial students available to teach the class, so I was hired. As I approach my tenth year of teaching, I am reflecting on the privilege of teaching students who are eager for knowledge about our tradition. Some students are interfaith couples who have agreed to have a Jewish home once they marry–the non-Jewish partner may or may not convert. Other students come to the class drawn by connections–spiritual, intellectual, familial–to Judaism. Some have been married to Jews for many years and are raising Jewish children. Others are students I call “wandering Jews,” who didn’t get much of a Jewish education. They are African-American, Catholic, LGBT, Muslim, Asian-American, Korean, Turkish, Methodist, Iranian, and Israeli. They are police officers, ministers, graduate students, grandmothers, journalists, attorneys, physicians, and teachers. Some were raised without any religious tradition; others in a religious tradition with which they no longer feel comfortable.
Many students, like our biblical ancestor Ruth, choose to become part of the Jewish people because they love someone who is Jewish. This was the case with Nadya, who came to the US from Belarus. Soon after arriving in the US, Nadya met and fell in love with David. David’s family, which also came from the FSU, had somehow managed to hold onto Jewish traditions and practices. When she met David and his family, Nadya writes that she “stepped into the world of joy, happiness, mutual understanding and respect.” Nadya and David married, and—as she spent more time with his family—she found herself moving closer and closer to what she calls “a radical and firm decision.”
“I want to become a Jew, I want to dive into the world to know and experience to the full extent what Jews believe in, how they managed not to lose their sense of Jewish identity, even thought they were forced physically and mentally to refuse all those values and beliefs they held. They managed to survive. For me this was the miracle that millions of people witnessed and made them to be admired….Every day I am coming closer to that moment when I officially enter the Jewish community, when I am part of this world with its own laws, rules, customs, values, beliefs, and morals. I have decided to be a Jew by choice. And the reason why I put the emphasis on the word officially is that I feel I am a Jew already. Every day I wake up and realize that this religion, this way of living, these symbols, values, morals, beliefs and rituals are so close to me that we are merging in one whole. Being Jewish is an ongoing process of learning. And what my husband and I build now is the assurance that all our values and customs will be transmitted to our children so that they will be able to continue what all Jews throughout the whole history of Judaism have managed to create and preserve and also to transmit this knowledge to their children to keep the religion alive.”
I saw the joy in Nadya’s eyes after she completed the ritual of immersion in the mikveh. I watched as Nadya held the Torah for the first time and recited the Sh’ma, tears streaming down her face. I saw, through Nadya’s eyes, the beauty and richness of Jewish tradition—which those of us born as Jews sometimes take for granted.
Nadya and others who choose to join the Jewish people come with open hearts and minds, energy, enthusiasm, respect, and wonder. They bring new perspectives to Jewish tradition. They ask questions which help us to see our tradition in new ways. To keep the flame of Judaism burning is sacred work—and it takes a lot of effort. We need people like Nadya to join us.
The recent Pew Study of Jewish Americans raised important concerns about the future of the American Jewish community and had many in the Jewish world crying gevalt– although not everyone interpreted the findings so bleakly. The results of the Pew Study show that we must make more of an effort to reach out to those who may want to join the Jewish people. Zvi Zohar, a scholar at the Hartman Institute, suggests that we must do a better job of encouraging conversion.
We rejoice that Nadya—Shayna bat Avraham v’Sarah—is now our sister. May we encourage others to join her. May Nadya’s life as a member of Am Yisrael be long. And may the generations who come after her say, as did the poet Elisheva [Bichovsky] about her own journey from Russia to pre-state Israel:
When I die, let them say:
“She was a stranger who left her birthplace,
For she so loved the Jewish people…
May she find rest in the shadow
Of the eternal walls of Zion, our strength;
May she sleep a trustful sleep, be brightly blessed,
And from the heights of heaven,
May Judea’s sun shine on her forever.”
Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein is the Coordinator and Teacher for the URJ’s Introduction to Judaism program in the Washington, DC area. She is an adjunct rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, and she is a chaplain for Jewish Social Services.