Usually the first thing people ask me when I reveal that I am converting is “Why?” It’s a fair question. I grew up in Oak Cliff, a place not exactly known for its Jewish population, I never stepped into a synagogue until 2011, and the only Hebrew I knew was “Shalom.” Yet, now as I look back I can see little glints of Judaism shining through: my Aunt Eva showing me how to make a Star of David, my mom buying me a book of Jewish fables, my first boyfriend who just happened to be Jewish, and an unexplainable desire to know more about this foreign religion.
I’m naturally a student; I devour books, love learning new things, and even went through two rounds of grad school (because you have genuinely love learning and also be a little crazy to do that.) With that studious nature comes a curiosity that is never quite satisfied. It used to be that I could sit quietly in Sunday School and take everything at face value, but as my curiosity grew, so did my list of questions and questions are not exactly welcome in a church setting. I’ve also never been someone who could sit through services, which only exacerbated my growing discontent with my birth religion. When my grandma died, I essentially gave up; I was angry with God for taking her from me, angry that my life changed so drastically. My anger eventually leveled out into a passive agnosticism and I thought that the fact that I believed in God was enough. But, as it often turns out, it wasn’t. I needed more than just my belief.
So, I went on a tour of sorts. I explored Catholicism (too rigid), Quakerism (too quiet), returned to my Baptist roots (too painful), and then gave up again until August of 2011. I was struggling mentally in a job I loathed and I needed some kind of stability. I don’t remember why I searched for Dallas synagogues on Google, just that it led me to Temple Emanu-El and, finally, some light.
You can call it a series of coincidences, but I truly see it as an act of God. That Google search led me to Temple Emanu-El, which just happens to sit next to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. An email to their offices led to enrollment in Stepping Stones, along with a fervent need to get to know the community. Around that time, I just happened to come across a volunteer opportunity at Tycher which led to an internship, which has led me into a career field that I would not have ever imagined myself in yet now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
One thing I’ve struggled with is acceptance: accepting myself for who I’ve grown into and being accepted by others. Coming to Temple for the first time felt like a familiar setting, somewhere safe. I cried at my first service because I was so overwhelmed with how at ease I finally felt. Judaism accepts me as I am, flaws and all. My world has expanded so much in the past year and a half; I never could have imagined that a simple email could bring such radical and wonderful change into my life.
During this process I’ve struggled with reconciling my background with my new religion. I often worried that I’m somehow diluting my heritage, but I can look at my life now and see the two cultures intertwining in beautiful and unexpected ways.
My mom always taught me that I have to be mindful of others and appreciate what I have been given. This has translated into my full embrace of Tzedakah, or charity. I have been so incredibly lucky, in so many ways, and after a particularly inspiring class, I realized that I needed to give back. This has led me to support our local Federation both financially and with my time, which led to another blessing of a job that I love. My mindset has changed from just focusing on getting through the day to wondering what I can do next to help the people I see every day.
My love of learning is also inexplicably intertwined with Hispanic and Jewish roots. My grandma always taught that education was important and when I struggled during high school, my mom pushed me to follow my dreams at a time when I was ready to give up. She is still the person I run to with my problems and her opinion is the one I value the most. Jews are often referred to as the people of the book, which is perfectly suited for someone who once broke a bookcase because she had too many books in it.
My religion may have changed, but I’m basically still the same; I just see life through a Jewish lens now. I chose my Hebrew name to reflect who I am and where I come from. Miriam means “strong-willed” and perfectly describes my mom and the women in my family who molded me into the stubborn, ambitious person I am today. This name is also in honor of my grandma, Maria, who has been a large influence on my life even though she has been gone for 15 years now. Miriam is also the name of Moses’ sister in the Bible and though she may have felt God’s wrath for speaking out against his new wife, she was not afraid to say what she thought and knew that you have to celebrate the little victories in life.
Ora means “light”; I often describe some of the toughest times in my life as “going down the rabbit hole” or “moving around in darkness”, but Temple has brought light to my life and has made my soul light by teaching me to let go of things that were weighing me down. Tikvah means “hope.” I didn’t know what to expect when I sent that first email, but a tiny piece of hope evidently went with it and blossomed.
Today I stand before you as a Jew-by-choice, but I don’t really see this as making a choice. There’s a midrash that says the Israelites accepted the Torah in large part because God literally held Mt. Sinai over their heads. They had two choices: either become one with the mountain and forever be flattened or accept the Torah and enjoy the continued use of their limbs. Though not exactly as dramatic, I faced a similar choice: continue down an aimless path or take a chance and see what happened. This forced choice has led to things I never could have imagined.
So, back to the original question, “Why did you convert?”
How could I not? Judaism accepts my questions, even encourages them. Judaism forces me to look at our world and say “What else can I do to help?” Judaism gives it to me straight: if no one has an answer, then everyone at least has two or three opinions. Judaism allows me to make mistakes, but only once because I should take care to learn from them. Judaism reminds me to respect everyone because we are all equal. Judaism tells me to give as much as I can, to invite the stranger in, to embrace life to the fullest. Judaism has burst open my world and I wouldn’t want it any other way.