Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Molly Forrester's Conversion Essay

I grew up in northern Connecticut, the daughter of Mary Coleman, Catholic and Stanford Feit, Jewish. My parents met at Boston College, a Jesuit University, studying romance languages. My mother’s mother was hoping that she would meet a nice Catholic man, and she chose my father much to her family’s surprise. I wanted to start this story with my parents, because they are the reason for both my connection to and separation from Judaism growing up.


Growing up, my religious identity was very unclear to me. I was baptized and we would go to church on Christmas and Easter. We also went to Chanukah parties at my Bubbe’s house and celebrated Passover. In my adolescent head, there was no clear boundary between these faiths or faiths in general. My parents were united, and so were their religious practices despite how different they were. Often my friends would ask me what my religion was, I would say I am Catholic and Jewish. In high school and college, as I reflected back on my upbringing and my comprehension of my faith, I realized it was quite limited. My Jewish friends would ask me questions about my Judaism and Jewish practice, and I did not know how to answer. They grew up attending Hebrew School, summer camp, youth groups, and services on High Holy Days. I didn’t even know what some of these essential elements of Judaism were, both religious and cultural. Yet, I always felt a connection to Judaism through my dad and his side of the family, and desired to learn more. I finally knew that there was more to Judaism than what I was exposed to. I was not yet truly practicing Judaism, and I did not really know what that meant.


My father was a huge history buff and was always sharing information about World War II and the history of antisemitism. This history did not feel distant to me. I felt connected to it through my ancestry, through my distant relatives who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, and the Yom Kippur War. To sum it up, Judaism has always been a part of my life, perhaps in a different way than others, but nevertheless significant to me.


To compensate for the little I learned as a child, I tried desperately to learn online and on social media. I didn’t want people to know that I didn’t know or what I didn’t know. As someone who has struggled with OCD and continues to struggle, the unclear answer, or better yet, lack of answer, to the question of “who am I” was and is really difficult for me, especially in reference to my Jewishness. I have always sought certainty and definitive affirmation. I have always wanted to know. The question of “who is a Jew” certainly does not have one accepted answer. I began to ask myself constantly, “am I really Jewish? am I supposed to be here? do I belong?” and ultimately, “am I accepted?”


When I arrived at Barnard College, my questions were not answered, and yet I was comforted by the warm embrace of the Jewish community. One of my hall mates, who is actually from Stamford and grew up at Agudath Sholom, took me to the first Shabbat Dinner of the year at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know the Kiddush or the Hamotzi that everyone was reciting in unison before the meal. Nevertheless, I loved the people I met and wanted to get more involved. I got closer and closer not only with my Jewish Identity, but also with my peers.


Over my four years, I participated in multiple fellowships at the Kraft Center, such as “Judaism and Everyday Life,” in which we learned about the daily rituals of Jewish practice and how to integrate Judaism into our own lives, as well as “Ritual Lab,” where we created objects such as Seder plates, challah covers, and mezuzot. It felt like adult Hebrew School, but instead of macaroni menorahs, we etched glass Shabbat candle holders. The Rabbi who led these fellowships became a guiding mentor for me. I took Yiddish, inspired to learn the language of my Great Grandmother Raizel, during my senior year. My grandmother gave me her mother’s hand-embroidered Passover tablecloths. My dad gave me his kiddush cup from his Bar Mitzvah and a Magen David necklace from his mother from her travels to Israel. Judaism became tangible to me in this way. By inheriting these items, some of them used for Jewish practice and ritual, I felt in a way that I inherited this tradition, and I wanted to keep it going in my life.


To go off on a tangent, the winter of my freshman year, one of my close High School friends passed away very unexpectedly. I walked out of my English Class, received a call from my mother, and broke down into tears on the elevator ride to my friend’s dorm room. Richie was so special. Her parents had passed away in High School. Despite her devastating losses, she maintained a positive and uplifting perspective on life, which greatly inspired me. Through her being, her focus on doing good on a day-to-day basis, and her endless desire to help people, taught me so much about Judaism and its emphasis on community and Tikkun Olam. I feel lucky to have such amazing Jewish role models. I hope to continue her legacy in my actions and honor her life. The concept of yahrzeits and the emphasis on memory really speak to me. Judaism has allowed me to remember my friend, as she lives through me. Saying a name is more powerful than I would have thought.


We collectively remember the story of the Jewish People through Torah, and as we follow the Jewish Calendar, reflect on these stories on a yearly basis as well. Every year, we relate to the Torah differently, as it speaks to current events and our lived experiences. And sometimes, we struggle to follow the cycle of the holidays, as they meet us in times of sorrow and loss. This past Simchat Torah, I was at Beth-El celebrating with the children of the congregation as we experienced both reading the end and the beginning of the Torah. Simchat Torah is supposed to be a joyful holiday, as the name suggests, but I know I, and the rest of the community were struggling to experience that joy. If I remember correctly, it was the day after October 7th, and we were (and still are) mourning the loss of those killed by Hamas. One of the most important parts of my Jewish journey has been learning about Israel, showing up for my community, and as a result sympathy and empathy for all affected.


When I moved to Stamford this past June, the hometown of my longtime boyfriend, I knew it was time for me to find a Jewish home of my own. I had just graduated from college, started a new job; everything was brand new. I was scared to go to a synagogue where I knew no one. At Columbia, the services were full of my classmates and friends. I did some research about the different synagogues in Stamford and found Beth El; I am so happy I did. I have found wonderful friends and have experienced the beauty of Shabbat services, whether it be through the symbolism of the Kalah in L’cha Dodi or the meaning of the Amidah (by reading the English translation of course; my Hebrew is not quite there yet). I have learned from Rabbi Hammerman the concept of davening. For example, at the end of Aleinu, the Cantor does not say every word, yet we still connect to the sound of the melody. The act of prayer, not only the words themselves, are important in the service.


My conversations, across multiple subjects, with Rabbi Hammerman over the last few months have really homed in on the importance of unity (at least in my opinion). While the Sh’ma says that HaShem is one, I would like to argue that we also are one. Some may not agree with me on this. That does not mean that we must agree or even believe the same things, but instead that we are intrinsically united by our peoplehood. In contrast to unity, separation or distinction is equally important. We as Jews have customs and practices that are distinct from other people. Prayer marks our food as holy and bensching ends our meals. Shabbat is a separate holy day that is marked by the distinction of lighting Shabbat Candles to begin and the Havdalah Ceremony to end. In order to maintain our oneness, we must have distinction within Judaism and without Judaism.


My colleague, Mark Heutlinger, who has worked at Temple Emanu-El for over 30 years, told me that he thinks of Judaism as a diamond: the center as Torah, and the other facets of the gem reflect the perspective of the beholder. Without debate and difference of opinion, there would be no Mishna, Talmud, or Shulchan Aruch. I realized I no longer needed to be certain. There was no wrong answer. I could ask questions and each person I would ask would give me a different answer. It was up to me to decide what I believed. This made me feel free. This might seem so simple, but for me, it was very new and meaningful. I have always been a curious person, but my curiosity was reliant on answers. As a lifelong student, I have been taught that I always had to create my own interpretation unique from others. Rabbi Hammerman told me that I didn’t need an answer or to even add anything new when we had our meetings. That freed me as well. I have become a different kind of student, who can explore multiple interpretations, and find my own. I have Judaism to guide me. My resources are my friends, teachers, books, Halacha, and prayer. Last Shabbat, Rabbi Hammerman discussed a different approach to the Seder that we should consider: one of questioning and delving deeper into the rituals of the Seder.


The word that has really been guiding this journey for me is “connection,” which I have probably already wrote a hundred times in this paper. Connection to G-d, connection to current events, connection to my family and friends. Being so young and living away from home, just graduated from college, it is so important to me to establish a community and a place to continue learning about Judaism, which I am so passionate about. I view conversion as the beginning of my Jewish life, and certainly not the end. I am so excited to be able to participate in the rituals I have learned so much about by attending services, reading the Siddur, and in my Introduction to Judaism Course. My conversations with Rabbi Hammerman about the Jewish notion(s) of Heaven, Zionism, Messianism, and so many other topics, have inspired me to read more and learn more. I now know that there is so much I can do in my life to better the world. The Jewish emphasis on practice and action really speak to me.


Just last night, I went to see Frank Foer at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel speak about his article “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending.” Rabbi Hammerman’s sermon about this article and his questioning of the validity of Foer’s claims toward the end of his piece, made me want to hear from Foer himself. I end on this note to express that my Judaism does not end in the synagogue. It influences my day-to-day life and the way I look at the world. My pursuit of knowledge, rather than answers, of living well, and following the mitzvot, have enriched my life for the better. I am honored to be accepted into this Covenant and to hopefully add something positive to it.

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