The Conversion Diaries – Part One
There is heavy starch on the white tablecloth. I can feel the silky residue as I smooth my hands over it, the perfect folds sitting firm against the sides of the table. Remnants of the Shabbat meal we have just shared still linger on the fresh linen, as we drain our glasses and rest. It will be my final kiddush in this room, at least for a long while, a house move is imminent and a new adventure ahead. It has been a difficult year and being here each week has been a sanctuary for me. I look around the table, then across to the old books and silver candlesticks, and know I will find it hard to say goodbye.
“I think you should consider pursuing conversion,” the rabbi says. His words startle me with their frank and direct delivery, yet they also offer relief. My head swims. “I would be delighted to sponsor you” he assures me, and with a lurch my heart agrees, as he tells me firmly – it is time.
Summer turns towards autumn, and now in a new city, and before a different rabbi, my tears fall as over coffee I try to tell my story, explaining my journey over the previous ten years and beyond. He looks at me with brimming eyes as my grief spills over the frothy milk – and once again my soul is laid bare. Against the chatter of the crowded café my words seem desperate and inadequate, but as we say goodbye in the glinting afternoon light, the rabbi gives me his approval, and I turn away taking deep breaths before emotions claim me once more.
The Conversion Diaries: An Introduction
In January 2018, after almost a decade of attending synagogue, I began my journey to convert to Judaism. When it was suggested that I should begin the process my initial response was that I was in no way ‘ready.’ But Judaism had already taken a central (and rightful) place in mine and my family’s life, and there was no reason not to take things further. Although nervous, I felt deeply that this unprompted invitation should not be declined, and the pull in my stomach told me that this was absolutely the right moment. And so, I began.
I attended my first conversion class, and for over a year continued to attend the monthly sessions, taking notes – and reading diligently in between to further my studies. I attended services, and became involved in activities and groups, whilst also being a wife, mother to three, and making my way professionally as we settled into our new home and surroundings. But despite my initial happiness things weren’t quite right. I wanted to be observant and honour my strong connection to Jewish tradition. I had imagined being immersed in a programme that took me deeper into my own self. Instead, I felt something was missing and found myself questioning my decision and wondering if I had made a mistake. Perhaps I’m just not Jewish enough, I told myself.
It was a phone call to a friend that changed everything, and for which I will be forever grateful. She suggested I speak to her rabbi – a man she felt would understand me and be able to offer advice on what steps I could take. That conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a decade after my first visit to synagogue, led me to the Masorti Small Communities programme and in March 2022 I recommenced my conversion studies anew. Along with my young son, I began attending a different community with the full support and understanding of our local rabbi in Edinburgh.
In my final interview before starting Masorti Judaism’s programme of classes, my supervising Rabbi, Josh Weiner, commented on the determination I had shown in finding this path. I was taken aback. In the moments when I had doubted and been unsure, surely it was that Judaism had held on, refusing to allow me to depart – not any conscious choice of my own. The past months of interviews and statements to Masorti Judaism’s Bet Din had served only to give me a conviction and sense of place that I had never experienced before. I reflected on the words from my initial application and felt more than ever their truth – “Judaism is not only where I belong, but where I was always meant to be.”
The Conversion Diaries is a new series of writings from Carmen McPherson, a student of the Masorti Small Communities Conversion Programme. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family.
Learn more about her at https://carmenjmcpherson.com/
Click here to learn more about conversion with Masorti Judaism.