Lech Lecha: A Conversion Fellow’s Unexpected Journey
by Andi Rosenthal
No one was more surprised than I when I was approached by our congregation president on the train platform in Larchmont that spring morning in 2003. All I knew was that she was a powerful, warm presence on our bimah every Friday night. But I had no idea why she wanted to speak with me. As it turned out, she had big news: she had recommended to our rabbi that I attend a training session at the Hebrew Union College campus in Cincinnati, and wondered if I would be interested ingoing. “It’s perfect for you,” she said. “And I really think it will help the congregation, too.” What I didn’t realize was that I was in for five days that would change my life – and my Jewish journey – forever.
In that summer of2003, I had been Jewish for barely a year and a half. In my congregation, Larchmont Temple, I absolutely saw myself more as a follower than a leader; someone who could finally, happily, occupy a place to learn at the table of our tradition,but who could only aspire to someday become a teacher. I knew that there was much about Jewish life, synagogue life, and living life as a new Jew, that I had yet to learn. But what I also knew, judging from the electrifying effect that a talk about my Jewish journey had on the attendees at our Shabbat Outreach service, that being a Jew by Choice was a potent and powerful thing. I found that on a frequent basis, many of my fellow congregants asked me why I was choosing to become a Jew, almost shyly, almost, I thought, as if they wanted to hear in my answer something of their own reasons for wanting to preserve and cherish our tradition. And I longed to find an answer that would help me – and them – to see not only the value of my own journey, but would also reflect the value of every Jewish journey that chooses to embrace our tradition.
When I arrived at Conversion Fellows training on a hot August afternoon, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a community of passionate, dedicated teachers and learners devoted to not simply inviting others into Jewish life, but genuinely embracing of souls on the path to becoming. I was inspired to become an active participant in my community, not a passive observer of congregational life. By observing my “fellow Fellows,” who came from all parts of North America and all walks of life, I was able to see, for the very first time, anew and vibrant perspective on Reform Judaism: how our movement’s embrace of Jews by Choice has invigorated and energized synagogue life, and how the Reform community empowers the process of transforming these newly-minted Jewish souls into leaders, teachers and agents of progressive change.
But what was most life-changing for me was that, even as a new Jew, I was taking part in a conversation that I knew would impact the way I would return to serve my own community. When I took part in daily Tefilah, in Torah study, in learning sessions, long talks with new friends, and even joyfully muddling my way through chanting my very first Birkat HaMazon, I knew that this new place at the Conversion Fellows table would forever change the place I occupied at my congregation’s table. Becoming a Fellow not only provided me with a new sense of meaning for my own conversion, but also inspired me to do whatever I could to touch the future of Jewish life by helping to guide and shape the journeys of other souls like mine. By the time the class of 2003 gathered for a rooftop Havdalah before our departure the next morning, I knew that I had come to this training as a student, but I was leaving as a teacher.
Since returning from that unforgettable experience, I have had a role in guiding the journeys of more than a dozen members of my congregation, where I work in partnership with my wonderful rabbi, Jeffrey Sirkman, to help not only those who are embracing Judaism, but also ensuring that the welcome extended by my fellow Larchmont Temple congregants embraces in return, integrating new Jews by Choice into synagogue life and enabling them to confidently take their own places at our table. Being a Conversion Fellow has inspired me to higher levels of leadership as well, as in addition to my duties as a Fellow, I also serve as co-chair of our temple’s Ritual Committee, lead Shabbat services for our congregation every summer, and serve as a High Holiday cantorial soloist in a local community nursing home. It even inspired in me the confidence to apply to the rabbinic program at HUC-JIR, to which I was conditionally accepted in 2007.
Eight years later, I am proud to say that my role continues to be a vibrant and vital part of life at Larchmont Temple. When I teach the session on Conversion to Intro to Judaism classes, I frequently advise people in the process of conversion to find a congregation where they will have the opportunity to work with a ConversionFellow as well as a rabbi or cantor. Being a part of this wonderful program has enabled me to take part in the sacred spark of tradition and bright new energy that has always characterized and empowered Reform Judaism. It has given me friendships with other Fellows that continually inspire insights into how our welcoming congregations are transforming the future. And while I still, and ever will remain, a student in our tradition, being a Conversion Fellow has given me the confidence to teach others that the power of one’s faith journey -following that timeless call to Lech Lecha – can bring blessings as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Andi Rosenthal is the author of the novel The Bookseller’s Sonnets (O Books, 2010), which was acclaimed by InterfaithFamily.com as “a book that looks at Jewish life in the present day, is refreshingly honest in its portrayal of people in interfaith relationships and interfaith families in today’s Jewish community, and captures the nuances of a Jewish experience froma perspective most Jews usually don’t hear.” She is a member of LarchmontTemple in Larchmont, NY, where she is congregational Outreach Fellow, Ritual co-chair and serves on the Board of Trustees. Andi is a proud member of the Schindler Outreach Fellows classes of 2003, 2004, and 2010.
Editor’s Note: Learn more and register for this year’s Schindler Fellows Program for Conversion Certification, part of the Summer Learning Institute.