Choosing Judaism – A Statement on Conversion to Judaism by Dr. Chad Deal at Fairmount Temple

This post to “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is excerpted from the remarks of Dr. Chad Deal at his public conversion celebration during Shabbat Worship at Fairmount Temple, on July 11th. So many individuals and families in attendance that night asked to read and review Dr. Deal’s inspiring statement of his journey to choose the Jewish faith that we place it here for your responses, thoughts, postings, sharing and inquiry.

My wife reminded me that if her father (Stanley) were alive, his response to my conversion after so many years, would be what took you so long?  So I would remind him to review Genesis 12, when the Lord told Abram that he would be a blessing Abram was 48, he was 99 when he became a Jew and the covenant of circumcision was established, 51 years latter.

In reality, I made this decision long ago, when fell in love and married a Jew. I promised our Rabbi Chaim Stern, the author of the Gates of Prayer, to raise a Jewish family.  I would love to have the opportunity tell Rabbi Stern about my family and my conversion if he were alive. For we kept our promise, and we did raise a Jewish family.

But why did I make this decision now and not many years  ago when we married, or had children, a brit and naming, or at their bar and bat mitzvah, or at their confirmation?  The answer became evident to me in the last year as my son and future daughter-in-law began to plan a Jewish wedding, my daughter moved back to Cleveland and brought with her our grandson, Logan and joined Fairmount Temple. We had raised a Jewish family but I wasn’t a Jew myself. Our Jewish mission is to pass our traditions to our children, to protect this critical chain from generation to generation, L’dor Vador. I know, as do you, that Jewish children and marriage in the our faith are not inevitable, but we all try to make it happen. Too many chains have been broken either by choice or in the past by coercion.

When we read the Vahavta we say V’shinatam l’vanecha, “you shall impress these words upon your children.”  After the years of telling our children how much importance we place on their being Jews, I decided it is time impress the words on them with action and demonstrate to them how much value I place in their Jewish identity by formally declaring mine.

in this complex world.  Both of our children have chosen to be Jews. We chose them to be our children when they were adopted, there was only a Jewish father among the four birth parents, yet both are committed to this faith. Both certainly could have chosen a different path but did not. Now we have the pleasure of seeing another generation, our grandson Logan, at Shabbat services. Although he does not know it or appreciate it yet, he has started along the path, one I hope will lead to a commitment to Judaism. Now a second generation Deal will be a Jew, and I hope a third generation will be able to say that her great-grandfather chose Judaism.  In October, when Cantor Sager marries Amanda and Adam, the ketubah will be signed and I will be under the chuppah as a Jew.  These are the reasons for why now is the time!

The answer to why not many years ago is harder to explain. Raised in a family with a father who spent time as a Christian minister, we attended church 3 times a week and were very committed. I never the I had never read the bible critically before. What I thought I knew and believed changed, the foundation of my faith was shaken and I questioned God. I left Christianity long before I married. I thought about choosing Judaism many times over the last decades but asked myself how faith in God  might be a prerequisite for choosing a religion. For all these years, I felt that choosing Judaism would be intellectually dishonest.

I know that we all struggle with many questions about God, how we can explain suffering and death and evil in the world. Ethnic Jews are often categorized as secular, religious or cultural, if I had felt that I could have converted and become a “secular Jew”, I would have done so long ago. The term secular Jew is often use to describe 80% of the Israeli population, Einstein, Chagall, and Herzl the founder of the Zionist movement were all secular. Sigmund Freud said he was a godless Jew but a Jew nevertheless and in later life made this clear despite exposing atheism. But I am not an ethnic Jew and so not an option.

Will I ever be certain?…I do not know with certainty that God exists. I do know that when I have felt closest to “something” it has been here in this synagogue, in High Holiday services, losing myself in the music, in watching others with faith, in seeing others in acts to promote social justice and chesed, acts of loving kindness. I am glad that I can stand here in this synagogue and say what I say without having to fear retribution for this choice. I am not naïve there are still those who hate us. The disease of anti-semitism seems never to go away. Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun “the past is never dead; it’s not even the past”. Last year Andrea and I traveled to Hungary, over 10% of the Hungarian parliament is Neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic plays are produced and shown in theaters in Budapest. The Holocaust memorial on the Danube is routinely desecrated.

The last thing I want to say regards Israel. I want to declare my commitment to its survival. It was on a Farimount Temple trip in 2006 that we sat in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and heard the story of Israel’s birth and heard voices sing Ha Tikvah “The Hope”. The history of the Jews is one of persecutions, expulsions, and sadly holocaust. Jews in Rome were forced into a ghetto in the 16th century with the words “these Jews live among us in peace after they crucified Christ.” Rome’s Jews were forced to build and pay for their own ghetto walls, they were banned from all professions other that money exchange.

The ghetto existed until 1870. In 1943 the Jews of Rome were back in the ghetto when the Nazi’s demanded 50 kilograms of gold to spare them deportation to concentration camps of Europe, and got it. Two weeks later they were herded onto trains. . How different would the narrative of WWII have been had there been a safe haven for European Jews. No Pope, as far as we know, had ever entered a synagogue until John Paul II came to the great synagogue of Rome in 1986 and formally denounced any collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. While we may disagree with some policies of the Israeli government, if anyone, Jew, Jew by choice or Gentile doubts the importance of Israel to the Jewish people, they do not know history.

The cycle of violence has flared again in Israel. Three Jewish teenagers were murdered, and a Palestinian youth is murdered in return. Rockets rain from the sky. It is no wonder that Jews have always longed for peace. Some of the most beautiful blessings in our liturgy are for peace, Shalom, a word so powerful that over 300 words in many languages derive from it. Hashkiveinu Adonai  elohenu shalom ; “spread the shelter of your peace over us, save us for the sake for your name, shield us from hatred, sorrow and pain”. In the morning Amidah we say Sim Shalom: “bless us with peace this moment and every hour.” At the end of the evening Shalom Rav al Yisrael amcha tasim le’olam: “grant abundant peace over Israel, your people, forever”.  And yet peace seems so elusive. We all pray for Peace.

Choosing Judaism took me a long time. The choice was possible because of the warm reception I have s parents, Stan and Irene, in congregations in Little Rock, Boston and now Cleveland. By holding the door open to participation we create the possibility that non-Jews can find a path to Judaism. In the US, one in 37 Jews today is a Jews by choice. We should ask more or our non-Jewish spouses to consider choosing Judaism and not be shy about it.

Cantor Sager gave me a book to help me in my studies, Choosing Judaism by Anita Diamant. The author recounts a story about Louis Brandeis whowas told by his peers in college that he was brilliant and could be a Supreme Court judge one day if only he wasn’t Jewish. He said nothing at the time but later, when inducted into a legal honor society he said “I am sorry that I was born a Jew , for he only wished he had the honor to choose to be a Jew then standing and applause.

Suspended in a state in which you cannot breathe, and cannot live for more than a moment, as the waters of the mikvah washed over me, not only for cleansing but to symbolize a spiritual rebirth, a change-of-soul, you emerge, born anew like a baby taking its first s parents were from the Middle East and for many years I had a feeling that somewhere in previous generations there was a Jew  among my ancestors, who chose or was forced not to be a Jew.

There is a Kabbalistic teaching from the 14th century, a gilgul neshamot, literally means cycle of the soul. A Jewish soul separated from Judaism yearns for its identity until the yearning  grows so overwhelming, that it finds a home again. I have found my home.