I was the storyteller for one of the breakout rooms today. I was asked to tell a personal story about what learning means to me as a Jew. I was pretty nervous, but it went well. My story is below.
My mom was a voracious reader, something that she passed on to me. She indulged my love of books and always made sure that the books she bought gave me a variety of perspectives and life stories that showed me the richness and diversity of the world. It was in this way that she first piqued my interest in Judaism. She bought me a book of folktales from around the world, which included a Jewish one. I went to a Baptist church with my aunts until I was about 10 and reading this folktale intrigued me. Seeing my interest, my mom bought me several children’s books with Jewish themes, which I happily devoured. My aunts didn’t like this so much, but my mom brushed them off, telling them it was important for me to understand religions and cultures outside of my own. Eventually she told them to mind their own business when they refused to drop it.
This inspired me to ask lots of questions at Sunday School, to which my teachers responded that I simply needed to “have faith” and “just believe,” which did not satisfy my curiosity. I stopped going to church after my grandma died and was told that she was “in a better place” and I shouldn’t be sad and to stop asking why God took her away. This was not comforting to my ten year old self and I instead pursued my own spiritual path, exploring other religions and eventually settling on a sort of passive belief in God.
When I went to college, I was totally in my element. I had access to a huge library and databases, plus my professors and fellow students were just as passionate as I was about learning. This led me to pursue a Masters in criminal justice. When I came home after graduation, I felt lost. I was in a job I hated and I just didn’t know what to do. My depression had deepened, getting to the point where I was seriously considering suicide because it felt like the world didn’t have space for me. I’ll never really understand why I felt the need to go to Google and search for the nearest synagogue, but that search led me to Temple, which just happens to sit next to the cemetery where my grandma is buried. I sent an email to Temple inquiring about conversion. They answered within an hour and this led to me enrolling in Stepping Stones, the precursor to Introduction to Judaism.
Going to Temple was a revelation. I felt at home as soon as I walked into the building. My teachers were engaging and I was a bit startled when they told us that questioning and challenging was at the heart of Judaism. The idea that this was encouraged and a core value of Judaism fascinated me. I learned so much from the people I met in the year and a half before my conversion was completed. They welcomed me into the community and taught me through their words and actions, not just through the texts, what it means to be a Jew.
Around the same time I started studying for conversion, I had started my library science degree and found a volunteer position at the Tycher Library at the Jewish Federation, which eventually turned into a full time job that I held for three years before going to work at Temple, where I’ve been for the last eight.
I began teaching religious school about a year after my conversion and was assigned to fourth grade. I wanted to give back to the community that had welcomed me. However, I wasn’t a natural teacher, having been an only child who never babysat, so my first year was rocky. It wasn’t until my second year that I realized that I could write my own lessons, which is when I decided to teach my class about Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Well, that was part of the reason; the other part was that I just really disliked the lesson I had been given. I had also begun struggling with what it meant to be a Jew of Color in a predominantly white congregation and was trying to find a way to bring my ethnic heritage into my Judaism. In teaching Dia de los Muertos, I wanted to teach the class about other cultures and their customs and to sneak in some Jewish learning, much like my mother had done for me.
When I told the class that we would be talking about this, I could tell that some of them were confused and one even asked why we were learning about something that wasn’t Jewish. I just smiled and played a short clip about the holiday. Afterwards, I asked them what they noticed about the video, which was brightly colored and used distinctly upbeat Mexican music. From there, we read the Kaddish prayer, where they made the same observation that I did during my conversion classes that death is not mentioned. I explained that when people we love die, it’s okay to be sad, but it’s also important to remember their life. Judaism gives us a prescribed method of mourning, one that allows us to grieve while also gently pushing us back into our own lives.
Teaching about Dia de los Muertos has become one of my favorite lessons. It’s an unexpected topic, so it automatically gets their attention, and they learn more about Judaism’s view on death and mourning in a way that makes sense to them. The lesson has also become a way for me to indirectly show the class that our Jewish community is multiracial and diverse, that just because the person next you may have darker skin or different traditions, that doesn’t make them any less of a Jew. I am now in my tenth year as a religious school teacher, which is pretty remarkable for someone who swore she was not good with kids. Though it’s not always easy, my hope is that I pass on even a tiny bit of my love of Judaism and learning to them because they also teach me about what it means to be a Jew.
About five years ago, I was promoted to Director of Libraries and Archives, which afforded me an opportunity to expand my role as an educator to the entire congregation. From developing education trunks for the religious school to curating exhibits to creating driving tours that took participants around Dallas and highlighted Temple’s incredible contributions to the community, I am able to teach in many different ways and indulge my love of learning, while also hopefully passing that on in some small way.
A couple of years ago, I took over the conversion program at Temple, the very same one I went through. It’s been a great privilege to come full circle to work with people who are pursuing conversion, alongside many of the teachers that taught me over a decade ago. I have also been able to help overhaul the curriculum to make it more meaningful and engaging for those who take the classes, whether they are already Jewish and wanting to refresh their education or are considering becoming Jewish.
My mom died earlier this year in February. Though she wasn’t Jewish, she is the one who first taught me about the value of learning, how it is a life-long pursuit, and how important it is to learn from others with different perspective. In this way, I have been a Jew my entire life, not just since 2013, and it is to her that I dedicate this story.