The following sermonette is from our recent Outreach Shabbat, which features the Jewish journey stories of those warmly welcomed into our community through conversion to Judaism, renewal of their Jewish connection, or raising Jewish children.
Shabbat Shalom. I was given the opportunity this evening to take a few minutes and talk about how I found my way to Judaism. It is an honor and a bit humbling to share some of my experience with everyone this evening.
As a quick background, I grew up in a middle class household outside of Chicago and later lived in Kansas City through high school. We were Catholic, but observed less the older I got.
The feelings I associated with Catholicism or Christianity from my childhood dissipated as I transitioned into college and began studying physics. As I immersed myself more and more in that foundation of math and science I developed my own conception of the world around me and how the universe worked within the confines of those rules. There is a common misconception that all scientists are atheists, which is not my experience. For me, and a lot of others, looking at the many miracles of nature and the slender thread that we exist by is a sign of the divine, not the lack there of. I became closer to an agnostic more than anything else during that time.
I did my undergraduate work at Drake University, in Des Moines, IA. It was late at my time at Drake that I was exposed to friends with strong religious roots that made me start to reconsider what I wanted my future family and life to look like. I truly appreciated the way that their beliefs shaped their family, but I was unable to relate to any form of Christianity at that point.
I started to seriously think of religious alternatives to the only option I had really ever been around, and I realized I had been exposed to another option without appreciating it. The previous year I had taken a general elective introduction to religion course that turned out to be Introduction to Judaism, taught by a Conservative Rabbi. I enjoyed the class, but more from a sociological or anthropological perspective than anything else. I was not in a place to take any religion seriously at that point, but it left an impression upon me.
The recollection of that class and my favorable observations of it led me to conduct a large amount of nerdy research and reading on my own. Through that work I was drawn to the academic nature of Judaism, not just the focus on study and commentary across Judaism, but the biblical scholarship reflected in the Reform movement specifically. I was cautiously optimistic enough about my feelings toward Reform Judaism that I took the next step, taking an introduction to Judaism class at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines. The class closely resembles the class here at CBI, and gave me all the information and perspective I had hoped for. I also was invited to my first Passover Seder at a home of one of the couples taking the class. It was a large family Seder, and it was chaotic, overwhelming and incredibly warm. The class and the Seder endeared me to the closeness of the community and to the strong connection to the Jewish experience throughout history.
I was an unlikely candidate for conversion at the beginning of that class. I had done little religiously in any capacity over the previous few years. I had grown up playing and watching football on Friday nights and Saturdays, and certainly enjoyed bacon, shrimp, and cheeseburgers. And while I considered most of my family open-minded and unconditional, Judaism was pretty far from what anyone I was close to considered normal. Even through all of that, by the time I completed that intro class I was certain that conversion was the path I wanted to pursue.
Some of the context to my story is that my junior year I had the realization that while I loved physics, I did not see myself staying in school for what seemed like forever and getting a Doctorate. I had friends that became nuclear engineers for the Navy, and they helped introduce me to my future profession. I signed up my junior year to get commissioned once I graduated, even though I had as much experience on the water as I had with Judaism when I started this process.
All of this led me to Newport, Rhode Island and my first real duty station after I graduated and was commissioned. After I arrived, I ended up at Temple Beth El on the historic east side of Providence. Temple Beth El was the largest and most diverse congregation near Newport, and I sought out the clergy there to start the conversion process. I studied for seven months closely with their associate Rabbi, Jonathan Blake, before performing my full conversion there in May of 2002. I was fortunate to work with Rabbi Blake, who is only a few years older than I am, and was incredibly energetic and supportive. He challenged me intellectually and spiritually and allowed me to go through the process at my own pace. The community as a whole was welcoming and inclusive, and I still have gifts around my home today that were given to me by some of the friends made there that were at my conversion ceremony.
Somehow that was twelve years ago. Since that time in Newport I have lived and been a part of congregations in Virginia Beach, Corpus Christi, Monterey, and here at CBI. There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, but I would not trade any of it. My decision to pursue Judaism is one of the best decisions I have ever made and I have always felt at home in every synagogue I have ever been in. There is something completely unique about sitting in the sanctuary while a prayer is chanted or a song is sung that brings me a certain peaceful calm in the midst of a chaotic existence that I have only otherwise experienced sitting in the middle of the ocean with only the sound of the waves and countless stars above. These feelings of connection and peace have stayed with me every time I have been here, and I am thankful for the opportunity to continue to be a part of the community and for the opportunity to speak tonight. Thank you.
Jonathan Blake saysSunday, October 29, 2017 at 1:02 pm
Dear J.J., What a special pleasure and honor it was to stumble across this posting. May God continue to inspire your work and bless you and your loved ones. If you are ever in the New York area, please let me know. I’d love to invite you to our synagogue, Westchester Reform Temple, in Scarsdale. Blessings! – Rabbi Jonathan Blake