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Project Conversion

No journey is complete without a map, and that is exactly what Michael Solender is for my month with Judaism. From the moment I stepped out of my car after a 2 1/2 hour trek to meet him, Michael had a plan for my 36 hour visit: immerse Andrew in as much Judaism as possible in the shortest amount of time before his head explodes. His wife, whom he calls “Sweetie,” is a convert to Judaism and was part of the game as well.

And what a fantastic game it was!

Two things were constantly present in the home of my Mentor: awesome Jewish recipes being either consumed or created, and Michael and Sweetie regaling me with stories of their families, pasts, and beliefs. Their home was warm and, from the moment I crossed the threshold I felt like family. They indeed treated me like an adopted son, and in doing so, the entire weekend was spent introducing me to my new extended family: the Jews.

After Michael buzzed me through a tour of Charlotte, NC at break-neck speed, we met up with Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Groner. Rabbi Groner had alloted 30 minutes for our interview. The meeting lasted for 1 1/2 hours.

Outside the Levine Jewish Community Center

The "Firebird" outside of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Rabbi Groner

 

Rabbi Groner represents the Orthodox branch of Judaism and therefore adheres to the most conservative and traditional tenets of the faith. He is the senior rabbi of his synagogue and is heavily involved in inmate ministry/counseling. I have to admit that upon entering his office, I was intimidated. Rabbi Groner sized me up immediately and opened our discussion with “I don’t like religion.”

“It’s a filter,” he said, “that separates us from a relationship with God.” Indeed, he described our interactions with God as being threefold: emotional, intellectual, and practical. “Faith,” he said, “not grounded in knowledge is childish.” He described his job as rabbi as one that “elevates the soul.” There is more…so much more, that we discussed. The nature of God. What is the soul? The afterlife. What is our relationship with God/each other?

My Mentor’s eyes slowly crossed. Rabbi Groner and I had slipped into our element and the connection sparked. In fact, as he spoke about his work with prison inmates as helping them find God (not necessarily via the Jewish tradition) and helping them see that they are still part of society, I was reminded of stories my mother told me about my grandfather. He was a Baptist preacher, and every Sunday visited the local prison and took inmates on a country drive. There was no goal of conversion, just a relationship, a…”I’m here. I care. And God cares too.”

Michael and I left that meeting completely inspired and wiser than when we had entered. I was on a theological high…and there was more to come.

Next, Sweetie prepared a few Jewish dishes and brought out the challah, a type of egg bread that serves as a centerpiece for Shabbat (Sabbath) and other holiday meals. This was our Shabbat dinner before service at a local Reform synagogue.

Yes, challah tastes as awesome as it looks.

Reform Judaism, in the broadest sense, is the liberal wing of the faith. Rabbi Groner described the difference being that Reform Jews prioritize social action within the faith instead of strict adherence to a majority of the 613 mitzvot prescribed for religious and daily life. That isn’t to say they are less pious; just that their appearance is noticeably modern and their piety is expressed in different ways. The service was wonderful and fully engages the congregation. Birthdays, anniversaries, and honoring the passing of loved ones takes place every service. Prayers and hymns are sung by a Cantor, a professional vocalist fluent in Hebrew, along with the congregation during certain times. There is a brief reading of the Torah followed by a short commentary, and for the most part, that concludes the service. Conservative services are similar to Reform; the only difference is the dress code of the congregation involves every man and woman wearing the kippa/yarmulke, men wearing a tallit (a special shawl worn in the synagogue and during prayers). Women can be seen wearing them as well.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, folks. I was dunked into the world of Judaism this weekend and now I must explore the traditions and figure out the best way to function this month. I asked Rabbi Groner how one might cope with being an observant Jew (in the Orthodox context) in a household where others are not Jewish. His advice? Don’t, because the difficulty is too great and frustration leads to ill-will. The rabbi described two relationships: The horizontal one we have with our fellow Creation, and the vertical one we have with God. We are called to live both with wisdom, humility, devotion, love, and balance. One cannot do that if there is persistent conflict inherent in the living conditions. Wise counsel. So I will spend the rest of today pouring over the mitzvot; what CAN I live by? How far can I go without causing discomfort and tension for everyone else in my home? What can I do to live as a Jew and walk this month in their shoes? This is my soul search–what will set the tone for my daily routine for the rest of the month.

I’m really looking forward to this journey and I hope you’ll join me. If you’re Jewish, please–I implore you–to contact me and offer your stories, guidance, and perspective. As I’ve mentioned before, I have one Mentor, but many teachers. Let us reason and learn together.

I want to thank Michael and “Sweetie” again for bringing me into their home. I hope our paths cross again. I also want to close this post with something interesting that happened during my visit. During a recent trip to India, “Sweetie,” who is a huge lover of religion as it is expressed in art, developed a connection and interest with the Hindu deity, Ganesha. Ganesha is that iconic and beloved elephant-headed god who is said to remove all obstacles. He is also the son of Lord Shiva.

Ganesha

I was a Shiva devotee during January.

Is there a connection? Is this divine providence saying “Hey old friend. Just stopping by,”? I don’t know, and such speculation can make you crazy, but I cannot ignore the fact that those little images of Ganesha comforted me and helped me remember my lessons so far. Afterall, forgetfulness is an obstical, and Ganesha is famous for their removal. 

Shalom.

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