It was cold the first night of my conversion class and Sara and I found the rest of our classmates huddled in the waiting room of the synagogue. The receptionist, a dutiful and serious woman, held us there until a critical mass had formed and then she ushered us through a security door and upstairs to our classroom. We seated ourselves around four banquet tables arranged in a square, most of us with our significant other, and so we staggered Jew, partner, Jew, partner.
We were a diverse crowd. I smiled as I surveyed the room, thinking that soon, people of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Vietnamese descent would be joining the Jewish ranks. I myself am about as Nordic looking as one can get. My blond hair and blue eyes stand out in synagogue and it's unlikely I'll ever be mistaken for a born Jew.
The staff welcomed us, checked our enrollment payments, passed around the sign-in sheet, issued security passes, and explained the synagogue's rules: no smoking; kosher food only; men must wear kippot (the traditional Jewish head covering); no entrance without your security pass; no more than three absences; and partial refunds only through the first three class sessions.
Classes at the Gerim Institute (now named Jewish Discovery Institute) met Wednesday nights from 7 to 9:30 on the second floor of a synagogue in Brookline, MA. Sara and I attended together, since those converting with the intention of marrying a Jewish spouse were expected to bring our partners to class.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein, a thoughtful, middle-aged man who taught fifth grade at a local Jewish day school, led our Gerim courses. The rabbi was an avid singer and at the beginning of each class, he led us in a rendition of "Shalom Aleichem," a song traditionally sung to welcome Shabbat. That first class, the born Jews and some more familiar with Jewish practice all sang as the uninitiated slowly picked up the tune and hummed self-consciously along.
"Shalom Aleichem" was followed each class by Hebrew lessons. We practiced with a hevruta, a study partner. Most of us were coached by a future spouse, as Rabbi Reinstein made his way around the room helping the neophytes with that elusive "kha" sound. We began with simple consonants and moved on to consonant-vowel combinations and then to words. By the 8th week of class, we could all read along with "Shalom Aleichem," which by this time had been transformed from a feeble sing-along to a resounding chorus.
Learning to read and speak Hebrew had a profound effect on my practice of Judaism and how I felt about the conversion process. For the first time in Sara's and my relationship, I was able to follow along with each blessing without falling mute and staring at my feet. Throughout our relationship, I had learned selected and simple blessings, but now I could read and pronounce each syllable. This vocalization added meaning. I could now speak the blessings and feel the sound, and this visceral act brought me closer to each ritual. I slowly shifted from observer to participant.
After the first few weeks, we diverged from the conversion issue and focused on learning Jewish history, theology, and holidays. Our curriculum worked its way from "distilling the Jewish essence" to the Torah and Jewish history, and then proceeded through the meaning of Shabbat and the high holidays.
Learning Jewish tradition and theology further enriched my Jewish experience. Learning Hebrew had allowed me to participate more actively in Judaism's songs, blessings, and holidays, but learning about tradition and belief gave me access to those rituals; previously hidden meanings slowly revealed themselves. I had experienced similar transitions at both the Thai and Belgian monasteries I had lived in, but despite my complete immersion in both settings and my increased understanding, I had still always felt like a tourist. I had been a tourist in Judaism as well for years, passively practicing with Sara and her family. But now I was able to find meaning in its history and practice and I brought that meaning into my observance.