Celebrations | How my parents handled my conversion to Orthodox Judaism

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long it took me to say the entire grace after meals in Hebrew the first time I tried. I sat at my parents’ kitchen table and labored over each syllable, determined to finish it no matter how ridiculously long it took or how weird it seemed.

This is fairly representative of my approach to Judaism in those first heady years. As a classic overachiever (a former boss gave me the nickname Type Triple-A), it was natural for me to want to excel in this new pursuit, the pursuit of being an Orthodox Jew.

Raised in a suburban Protestant family, I attended church regularly and participated in youth group until college, when I became devoutly agnostic. After graduating, I had the unusual experience of people continually asking me if I was Jewish. This and some superficial investigation into my genealogy led me to wonder if I had Jewish ancestry, which then led me to explore Judaism.

By the time I confirmed that, no, I didn’t have any Jewish ancestors, I was smitten with Judaism.

I spent every Shabbos in the nearby Orthodox community, eventually moving in with a family who became like a second family to me. After completing my conversion, I traveled to Israel and studied at an ultra-Orthodox seminary.

When I started dating, I did so through a shadchan (matchmaker), though ultimately it was friends and family who set me up with my husband. We dated for about three months before getting engaged, and were engaged for about four months before getting married.

We’ve been married for seven years and have four children.

My mother and I speak on the phone nearly every day. She shared that at first she was nervous that she and my father would lose me as I integrated into the Orthodox community, and that they would no longer be involved in my life. But that’s not at all how it played out.

The families I spent Shabbos with often invited my parents for dinner or lunch. Through the many invitations my parents accepted, they not only developed warm relationships with many of the families in that Midwestern community, they got to see whom I was spending my time with.

Said my mom:  “ I viewed it as a learning experience, to learn about the Orthodox world.”

When I expressed my desire to travel to Israel and spend a year in study, my parents were very emotionally supportive.

Although my husband and I became engaged after dating for only three months, it wasn’t really an issue for my parents. They only dated for two weeks before my father proposed. They also were impressed with the way I was dating — how focused I was on seeing if my husband and I were compatible for marriage.

Since our wedding was full of traditions that were completely foreign to my parents, I brought my mother to an Orthodox wedding beforehand so she could at least see what the ceremony would look like before she was involved in ours. We involved my family as much as we could and to the degree to which they were comfortable.

We invited much of my extended family to the wedding. My mother was concerned how her Catholic family would feel about my conversion and the, well, Jewishness of my wedding. To our immense delight, they were fully accepting of me and had a wonderful time.

As an additional blessing, my husband’s family has been very welcoming to my parents. We often celebrate Sukkot and Pesach with my husband’s family, and they always extend an invitation to my parents.

Sure, there have been some awkward moments over the years, like when my mother started snapping pictures of my kids on Shabbos. I later emailed my rabbi for advice. While I don’t remember exactly what he said, we did ask my mother if she would be OK with not taking pictures on Shabbos (she was). We make sure to send pictures regularly, and recently I started making photo books and sending them to my parents after each trip. With a little sensitivity, we get to retain the atmosphere of Shabbos, and she gets pictures of the grandkids.

Recently, my dad told me, “I don’t get the point of not turning on lights on Shabbos, but I do appreciate the strength of your community and how you support each other. That’s wonderful.”

Well, Mom and Dad, I think you’re pretty wonderful, too. Thank you for everything.

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