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Cherishing the Jewish Spirit

In my role at BJ, I have the honor of overseeing our conversion program. In a recent final meeting with a conversion candidate before heading to the mikvah, we came across blunt questions that the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 47a) instructs a Beit Din (rabbinical court) to ask potential converts:

What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? 

Though I have read these questions before, discussing them now pierced my heart. We all know that Jewish history has never been easy—but despite our familiarity with tough events, I don’t think that during the High Holy Days this September any of us ever imagined that this new year would bring about one of the most trying times for Jews in our history. I don’t think we could have guessed that we’d be mired in a period of antisemitism and unrest; that in modern-day America we would be living in a way that seemed to be a story of past generations. 

After our meeting, I couldn’t get these brutal, 2,000-year-old questions out of my head. It felt dishonest to walk many of my students through an exploration of Judaism, finding ways for them to love and embrace what it means to be Jewish, only to be confronted by the realization that the challenges of being Jewish in the world today remain similar to those of 2,000 years ago. Why would anyone want to be a part of a people with such a bleak history?

But this past Shabbat reminded me that the Jewish people are so much more than a timeline of sad events. We are a people that inspires and uplifts each other, transcending prayers and rituals, and we help each other navigate the unknown of life. I felt this Jewish spirit as I listened to Batia and Rotem Holin of Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Asaf Artel of Kibbutz Kissufim, survivors of the October 7 attacks. As they shared their experiences and reflected on their lives moving forward, I was moved to tears. The three of them captured the courage, heroism, and perseverance of the Jewish soul. 

After Shabbat ended, I saw another side to this Jewish neshamah through the Off Broadway show Death, Let Me Do My Show, a comedy by Jewish comedian and TV actress Rachel Bloom about how she coped with family trauma and the death of a dear friend in 2020. Without giving any spoilers, Bloom’s answer can be found in figuring out how to hold death and grief alongside comedy and silliness. In a show that’s both explicitly and implicitly theologically Jewish (Bloom confirmed this with me personally after the show), I saw the Jewish way alive on that stage that night. We are a people who hold the honey and the bee sting. We allow space to grieve and mourn and process. And we are a people with a lifesize sense of humor and the will to still find a reason to laugh. This too is the Jewish spirit. 

The next part of the Talmudic text tells us that if the conversion candidate says they understand the challenges of being a Jew and still want to convert, the Beit Din must accept them immediately. I’m happy to share that this candidate did just that, taking a leap of faith into what it means to be a Jew. This too, is the Jewish spirit. That despite it all, we are so lucky to be a part of this people, tradition, project, journey. 

In his instructions for how to approach someone interested in converting to Judaism, that ancient rabbi asks important questions. He’s right—it’s sometimes difficult to be Jewish. But he doesn’t ask the right questions. Let us reflect instead on the essence of the Jewish spirit that has sustained our people for centuries. What do you love about Judaism that keeps you hopeful during these dark days? What is it about being Jewish that inspires you?

It’s these answers that make me proud to be Jewish.

Shabbat shalom!