My Path to Conversion—Jake’s Three-Year Journey to Judaism

A note from Jake…

Since the beginning of our relationship, I have been enamored with Leah’s background and culture. She was the first in her family to be born in the United States and although she never had first-hand experience of her family’s time before coming to the U.S., she has stories from her parents and grandparents. A lot of the things she shared with me about her family and her childhood were entwined with Jewish practices and values. I loved and still love listening to those stories. She spoke with enthusiasm and passion about her beliefs. This is where my curiosity about Judaism began.

Over the first few years of our relationship I was slowly learning more and more about Jewish customs. I would watch Leah light Shabbat candles on Friday evenings, (occasionally even being the one to remind her it was time to light them). In solidarity, I would refrain from eating chametz during Passover and would fast during Yom Kippur. It was in 2017 when we learned about an Introduction to Judaism course in Denver. We decided to go through the course, but my initial intention was not necessarily to convert upon completion. Most of the couples in the course were already engaged and while I respect their choices, I didn’t want to convert just for Leah. I wanted to do it if it felt right for me.

Together we started the Introduction to Judaism course in Denver on May 25, 2017 without the expectation that I would convert at the end of it. However, the more I learned, the more I started to enjoy the values and practices. By the end I knew I wanted to convert but I didn’t feel I was ready.  And embarrassingly enough, my sponsoring Rabbi agreed with me and recommended I spend more time attending services. Unfortunately, my career was taking me to Santa Fe, which threw another wrench in the plan. In January 2018, a week before my final class, Leah and I moved to Santa Fe. I was told I could find a Rabbi in Santa Fe to further my studies and eventually, with the Rabbi’s blessing, I could return to Denver and go through the conversion ceremony.

In Santa Fe, I met Rabbi Neil of Temple Beth Shalom. For the first time, I felt comfortable going to services. Leah and I even went to a few Saturday morning Torah study sessions. To further my understanding of Judaism in the modern world, I wrote a research paper for Rabbi Neil on medical ethics in Jewish Law, specifically on the topic of abortion, organ donation, and euthanasia. It was hard, but also some of the most rewarding effort I’ve ever put into anything. After working with Rabbi Neil for a year and a half, we decided together I was ready. He provided his blessing for me to convert.

However, after several lengthy conversations with the coordinator of the Intro to Judaism program in Denver, it turned out that I was not able to return to Denver for a Beit Din without a sponsoring Rabbi physically in Denver. I reached out to several Rabbis in Denver, all of which rejected standing up for me. But after several discussions with Rabbi Neil, it was decided that I would sit for a Beit Din in Santa Fe. Of course, this is when my career once again moved us in October 2019, to Dallas this time.

I didn’t care though, because we had a plan and I was finally going to be converted. My Beit Din and Mikvah ceremony was slated for early summer 2020. I studied as often as I could, read Torah portion every week, and even pushed Leah to put down the cleaning supplies on Saturdays. Those are our days now.

However, G-d had other plans for me. Several weeks before I was supposed to travel back to Santa Fe for my conversion ceremony, the world shut down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, my Beit Din was postponed for another few weeks, before eventually being moved to a virtual meeting via Zoom. (Thank goodness for modern technology!)

I spent days preparing what I was going to say to the Rabbis that held the power to recognize my conversion. Nothing seemed quite right. But then, ironically, it all clicked. Below is the opening statement that I read to the three Rabbis during my Beit Din.

I started this journey not necessarily with the intent to convert. I wanted to learn more for Leah. But as I began, I started to appreciate Judaism’s ethical values. The ethics of the Torah are brought on by human acts, not just passive beliefs. Living a Jewish life for years with Leah constantly made me want to learn more. I bought books to learn on my own. I enjoyed going to Shabbat services where something new seemed to pop up every week. And each holiday celebration was fun, meaningful, and full of Jewish history and traditions. But, for the longest time, there was always one problem. When people would ask me if I was converting or if I felt ready to convert, I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t feel like I was the perfect Jewish person or had all the knowledge to be perfect. In short, I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t feel like I had all the answers or that I knew enough to take that step into conversion. I was waiting in this limbo for a moment when it would all click. Waiting for some sort of sign to tell me I was ready. But there was a point while I waited for this nonexistent sign that I started to realize a change in my life. I started using the terms “us” and “we” when talking about Jewish people. And I would get disappointed when we missed services. I started really looking forward to Friday nights, when Shabbat began, and Leah and I would put away the work and chores to read and talk. And without really knowing it, I started to feel more and more Jewish.

And then it clicked. It wasn’t the sign I was looking for, but it was the realization that I didn’t need to know everything or be perfect to be ready for conversion. Because one of the things I’ve grown to love about Judaism is that we are always growing and learning. I spent a long time thinking that conversion was the end game when in reality it is just the beginning.

After being asked a variety of questions, explaining the reasoning behind choosing Joseph as my Jewish name, and the like, one of the Rabbis said something that I will never forget. They mentioned that traditionally individuals seeking to convert are to be turned away three times before being accepted into the Jewish faith. They went on to say that while that tradition is no longer strictly observed, it is obvious that I overcame many (if not exactly three) obstacles in order to be here today.

It’ll never be a single moment that I feel more or less Jewish. I will always be growing and learning. However, in that moment, I will admit that I felt the strength and resilience that the Jewish people are known for a little more. And after keeping this news to myself for a little while, I am proud to announce that as of July 1, 2020 I am a fully recognized Jewish individual—now and forever. Sh’ma Yisrael.

A smiling Jake after his conversion ceremony.
Photo Credit: David Shimenko.

Until next time,

Jacob Joseph Ost

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