I chose a non-Jew as a partner and the non-Jew chose Judaism

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Recently Daphne, my partner of 15 years, chose Judaism. She appeared before a beit din. She descended the seven steps into the mikvah. She submerged. She chanted the blessings.

The attendant proclaimed "Kasher!" when she resurfaced.

In synagogue the following Shabbat, Daphne put on her tallit. She led the congregation in the Sh'ma. She carried the Torah around the sanctuary. The rabbi introduced her by her Hebrew name.

Afterwards, people surrounded me.

"Mazel tov!" a friend shouted.

"You have so much more in common now," another observed.

Six-pointed stars now hung from both our necks, and after the mikvah it was Daphne's idea to get Chinese food.

Still, my partner's conversion did more to highlight our differences than our similarities.

My own relationship to Judaism has often shifted. During childhood, watching my grandfather daven, I questioned the existence of a God that science could not prove. At adolescence, hearing my parents' admonition against interfaith dating, I deemed their religion clannish and paranoid. As a teenager, understanding enough Hebrew to know that God bore a man's name, I judged the prayer sexist.

And when I left for college, discovering escarole and cabernet, I decided that matzah balls and Manischewitz were provincial.

Then a friend died. I stumbled into a San Francisco shul to recite the Mourner's Kaddish. Around me, men and women chanted melodies that felt engraved on my DNA. The following week I crept into the back of the sanctuary and found my place in the siddur. I returned for a month of Shabbatot.

By Elul, I had reacquainted myself with the liturgy and the collective memory. At the next congregational seder, I chanted the Four Questions with my new community. By the time the next year's cycle was complete, I had pledged my annual dues and become a lay service leader.

So, how has Daphne's conversion highlighted our differences? There are three answers. First, Daphne would not have changed jobs or homes without seeking my opinion, yet she had made a life-altering decision alone. Yes, we had discussed her transition, but my role was to ask questions, then to listen as she answered them.

So when she went to the beit din I saw someone not like me in our couplehood, but distinct from me in her singularity.

Second, Daphne had made a choice I would never be challenged to make. Some say that by returning to a Jewish life I, too, have "chosen" Judaism. But if switching from secular to observant is a choice, that choice feels superficial, like opting for Streit's over Goodman's, in comparison to Daphne's decision.

Because of that, part of her internal world remains a mystery to me.

But the most significant difference between us is how we define ourselves as Jews, or how we relate to our Jewish selves. I may have moved from the back pew to the bimah, but if you ask what makes me a Jew, I might answer Hebrew or tunes in minor keys or a connection to family or to a people. I might mention the Holocaust, or Israel, or Yiddishkeit. I might discuss falafel, or the bread of affliction, or a bissel of chopped liver on a cracker.

What is missing from this list? A dialogue with God.

This, then, is the biggest difference between us. I am a Jew regardless of my relationship to God. But Daphne, lacking the baggage of Hebrew school, gefilte fish or Zionism, is a Jew because of her relationship to God.

Still, because I was born a Jew, I've been permitted to define myself by culture, ethnicity or history. And because I was born a Jew, no beit din has checked this list to see if a connection to God is on it.

During the coming season of teshuvah, of repentance, self-discovery and forgiveness, we will stand, poised, invited to choose between an examined and an unexamined life. Rabbi Avraham Kook writes that true repentance lies in the drive to return to the purity that existed at birth, before sin. If wrongdoing isolates a person from God, repentance helps overcome that isolation.

Perhaps the Jew-by-choice is like the newborn, in a state of ritual purity. For the mikvah is a kind of birth chamber from which the new Jew emerges spiritually cleansed, and into which he or she descends only after repentance, after standing poised between two worlds, after making a choice.

Like the Israelites after the Exodus, celebrating physical survival at the Sea of Reeds, the person choosing Judaism cleanses the body before journeying into the mikvah. And like the Israelites celebrating spiritual survival at the end of their desert ordeal 40 years later, she accepts the divine and receives her passport to the promised land.

Between Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah we will read in the Torah about the end of the Israelites' 40 years of wandering. Although God has given Canaan to the people, that gift is withheld from Moses. Instead, God instructs Moses to climb Mount Nevo, where Moses will die. But first, God tells Moses, look out at Canaan, the land that you will not enter, but that will be inherited by the Jewish people.

Shortly after Daphne's conversion, I confessed my struggle with faith and belief to a friend. Raised an evangelical Christian, he has detached from the religion of his childhood but remains in deep conversation with God.

Because he knows the place Jewish ritual occupies in my life, he could not have been more astonished at my doubt than if I had started speaking in tongues.

"Whether or not you feel God's presence," he said, "God has been good to you."

Now, after 15 years of lighting our Shabbat candles, I hand the matches to Daphne. I feel like Moses 40 years after the Exodus, who led the Israelites to Canaan only to die at the border. I shlep my Jewish baggage to the crest of Mount Nevo and survey the promised land.

Daphne looks back at me from across the boundary and beckons. Unlike hers, my faith remains challenged. Unlike my Christian friend, I cannot yet converse freely with God.

But I can observe God's mitzvot. On Rosh Hashanah, I can chant Avinu Malkeinu with my community. On Yom Kippur, I can abstain from food and recall my forgotten sins.

The rest of the year, I can separate meat from dairy. I can daven on Shabbat. And just as we retell the story of creation year after year, I have another chance to move closer to God.

I may not emerge from the season of teshuvah as if I had emerged from the mikvah, but I can exit a bit more self-aware. My 40 years of wandering remains incomplete.

As my friend says, God has been good to me.

On Simchat Torah, we will re-roll the holy scroll. And just as we repeat the story of creation year after year, my struggle to reach Canaan will begin again.