My Story: My Jewish Path and Rabbinic Path

How Am I Jewish?

Upon meeting me Jews of Ashkenazi descent like to ask me a myriad of  questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me, they are about the questioner’s own curiosity and trying to see how I fit into Judaism as if by answering these questions it will tell them everything they need to know about me.  When people ask me these questions, I never know how to respond, sometimes I will respond “I’m just Jewish,” but often want to respond with something comical.  I might even remind them that Jews have always been a multi-racial-cultural people. And I try to use my energy to educate other Jews about what it means to be Jewish in today’s society, but sometimes it is really exhausting.

I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe. I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal.  I’ve decided to tell my story here, a friend suggested that I use this link as a business card, and the next time someone asks I can just refer them here 😀

My Jewish Story

In my Junior year of college I joined the military and I spent most of my twenties in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While in the military I finished my bachelor’s degree, and graduated with honors from St. Leo University. It was at St. Leo University where my first real interest in Judaism arose. I took a class on the Old Testament, taught by Francis Githieya, Ph.D. I needed a humanities credit and Githieya’s class fulfilled that requirement, so I begrudgingly registered. I still remember to this day the first words Dr. Githieya said. He stated, in his very Kenyan accent, “You must read the textbook, and if you do not read the textbook you will fail my class.” Githieya went on to say that we should not come to class regurgitating words that our preacher told us, and if we did we would fail. He explained that this was a scholarly course and we would be studying the five books of Moses.” I remember thinking that I liked this guy, and that I could get an A out of this class, because I was not a Christian and would be free from any biases. I did exactly as Githieya describe and did get an A out of the class. The class provided my first real introduction to the Torah, and I was fascinated by the stories and the rich history of the text. The class also changed my view of religion.

My father was raised in a small black church in Blevins, Arkansas, and my mother never mentioned anything about attending a church or any other religious space when she was a kid. I grew up with very little knowledge of Christianity, I knew very little outside of the Jesus narrative. I was not raised in a religious household and had no formal religious education. My family did not go to church but we would on occasion when invited by neighbors. There were times when we would go more often than other times and then we would stop. Around the age of 12 or 13 I think we started going more often. My parents were having a hard time and I think that my mother saw this as a way to ensure that she retained custody. My mother knew that if they divorced that I would probably go and live with my dad, which would not have been a good thing because my dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who cheated on my mother whenever possible. And they had a very volatile relationship. I believe that my mother believed that she had to do whatever she had to do to get custody of my brother and I. At one point she hired a social worker and also she found a minister, who I did not like very much. His name was Rev. Stuart and I saw him as a creepy little man who spouted out homophobic rants, and sexist rants during his sermons. I found it strange as a 13 year old that we went to his church; I always saw my mother as a feminist and could not believe that we had to sit and listen to this guy. She would tell me that she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff.

As I got older I learned from my mother that the earliest relative in her family did not come to America as a slave. She told me that he immigrated to this country from Ethiopia and he was a Jew. She later told me that he married a non-Jew and the religion was not passed down. I also vaguely remember her saying that no one believed he was a Jew. This story for my mother and her sisters was a pretty powerful story because it meant to her, that her earliest ancestor was not a slave. We did not eat pork or shellfish and, looking back on it, I’m not really sure why. I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us. I wonder sometimes: If my mother’s oldest known ancestor had immigrated to this country and found it more hospitable to black people and welcoming to Jews of color, would my story have been different?

After the military, I became a personal trainer and ran my own personal training business. My life also became incredibly Jewish; I had Jewish clients, Jewish friends and a Jewish girlfriend, Laura (name changed). Dating Laura, also introduced me to her family. Laura’s sister, Maggie, Maggie’s husband and their kids always met for Shabbat dinner and always invited me. I loved the rituals and loved watching this very modern family slow down as everyone sat down for a meal. I even loved how this family opened themselves and their home to include me week after week, something that has stayed with me even to this day as I struggle to understand what it means to have a Jewish family and a Jewish home.

While I was dating Laura, I met a man who would forever change my life, Rabbi Joshua Lesser. Today he is one of my closest friends and one of my strongest supporters. I cannot even begin to tell you the impact he has had on my life. Josh hired me to be his personal trainer. As we worked together toward his goals, our relationship grew and so did my curiosity. I started to ask Josh questions about Judaism, and he invited me several times to come to his synagogue. I wanted to, but I was scared — mostly out of fear that I would be treated differently because I was black. At Josh’s synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), that never happened, in fact it was quite the opposite.

The day I finally made it to CBH there was a potluck. Josh was on the bimah during the service, kids were running around and their parents were listening attentively. I was very fascinated by this, because the children were free to run around. Every church I had been to the children would have been forced to sit still in the pew as if somehow shackled. There was also a helper dog, Chance. Chance during the service was helping himself to all of the crumbs that were dropped by humans from the potluck. I watched with glee as the humans adjusted themselves in their pews so that Chance could get the crumbs. The children running around, the dog, all of this was happening during the service. Then there was this prayer called a Prayer for the End of Hiding, a prayer which begins “we as gay and lesbian Jews…” and the entire community was saying this prayer, even the straight folks. I fell in love with CBH then and knew that I had to be a part of the community.

For over a year I had started to think about conversion. Up until this time I had thought that I would move from Atlanta, I would find a different rabbi and start my conversion. One day it hit me that I should make Atlanta my home and I was not going to move. On Christmas Eve 2003 Josh and I had lunch and I proceeded to tell him that I wanted to be part of the CBH community and if that meant being Jewish then I wanted to be Jewish. I think I had a sense that I wanted full membership into the community and it was much clearer to me that being Jewish meant being part of the CBH community. I also told him that I wanted to work with him on conversion, but I did not want to do it if it meant messing up our friendship.

CBH became my spiritual home, and in 2004 and I officially entered into the Jewish covenant the day before my 34th birthday. Even though I went through a formal conversion, I don’t feel like I converted. I don’t even like the term “Jews by Choice.” I see the term as a fancy way of saying convert and another way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community. Once someone is Jewish, then they are Jewish. Any attempt to make someone different in the Jewish community, I see that as against Jewish law. I instead feel like I got in touch with my Jewish roots and I am back where my family should have been all along.

So Why Rabbinical School?

One Friday night Josh gave a sermon about Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sex Research in the 1920’s. Hirschfeld lived in pre-World War II Germany during the rise of Nazism. Josh related in his sermon that at this time in German history the Jewish community did not want to have anything to do with the gay community, and the gay community did not want to have anything to do with the Jewish community. Hirschfeld was both gay and Jewish. Josh proposed in his sermon a “what if.” What if Hirschfeld had used his identity as a gay Jew to be a bridge builder, and the Jewish community and the gay community worked together against the Nazis instead of working separately?

After hearing this sermon I recognized in myself that I had several separate isolated identities. I was gay over here, and Jewish over here and black over here. Looking back I guess I felt I would implode if my identities were all in the same place. After that sermon I made a conscious decision to unite all of my identities. In Atlanta, the Jews felt excluded from the black community, the black community was not connected with the Jewish community, the queer Jewish community felt excluded from the larger queer community. I felt that I could use my identities as a bridge builder.

Shortly after making this decision, Josh was invited to speak at the queer memorial service for Coretta Scott King. King was a wonderful friend to the LGBTQ community in Atlanta, and the community wanted to honor her. Josh could not attend and asked me to represent him. He knew that the audience for the service would be made up of mostly LGBT people of African descent. By doing this I would be making a very public statement that I was black, Jewish and a queer. After I read Josh’s words at the memorial service, a woman came up to me and she told me that she wanted to convert to Judaism. The two of us began a conversation that culminated a year or so later at her Bet Din. Josh told her that he had been very disappointed that he could not attend that memorial service, but looking back it may have been a blessing that he was not there because she may not have felt comfortable at that moment telling him that she wanted to convert. Maybe that day it was good that the face of Bet Haverim was another black queer woman.

I used to ask Josh, “what kind of Rabbi are you?” I had never seen a man espouse feminist values, a white man so connected to communities of color or anyone so devoted to helping others. I thought he was this unique individual who also happened to be a rabbi. One day I got the honor of attending the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Convention and soon realized there was this school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that trained rabbis that were like Josh, and I wanted to go to that school.

During this time I had become a lay leader at CBH and I started to do more interfaith work. I enjoyed working with clergy but I soon began to realize two things: One, if I wanted to effect real change I needed to have the title rabbi. The other reason was I really wanted to bring more attention to the racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community which meant becoming more than just a lay leader, it meant becoming a rabbi.

In Case You Are Still Wondering…

I am Jewish today, and a rabbinical student because a friend reached out to me and invited me to his spiritual home. We need to do more of that. We need to reach out to people and if they are friends invite them to our synagogues, and shabbat meals not to proselytize but to share. I believe Judaism is wonderful why wouldn’t I want to share it with others?

20 thoughts on “My Story: My Jewish Path and Rabbinic Path

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  3. I’m Orthodox and…..yes, i agree with most of what you say. I don’t think that we need to reach out to others because that would be encouraging conversion and that’s not what Judaism is all about. But once someone reaches out to us, we need to be open, accepting, non-judgmental and supportive.

    • I think that’s interesting because when I converted I was told by my rabbi that Jews actually did actively proselytize and that it wasn’t until being a Jew was punishable by death that we stopped doing so. I believe there is text in the Talmud about a long journey to convert and coming back with only one convert being worth it. I, or course, am not sure where in the Talmud 🙂

      Funny enough, we had the conversation about proselytizing at the Jewish non-profit that I work for, the conversation was started by our ED at a staff meeting.

      While I don’t think many Jews today think of it as a “Jewish” thing I don’t think it’s a bad idea to hold our cards a little farther away from our chest, so to speak. Judaism is rich and beautiful and the sad fact is that for some people who don’t feel connected to Judaism, because of intermarriage and synagogues being unwelcoming to those inter-faith families, and because people simply walk away we’re not growing as a people, we’re shrinking.

      If we look at our text and how we are implored to welcome the stranger it seems to me that inviting a non-Jew to a Shabbat meal, into a synagogue community, at your Pesach table or at your Rosh Hashanah table would be a good mitzvah and, as they say, good for the Jews. And this idea of welcoming and being open is the same as reaching out.

      I think that we could learn a lot from faiths that encourage people to see what they’re about. I’m a New Yorker so not the crazy preachers, but can you imagine how awesomely dynamic the Jewish community would be if we extended ourselves more?

    • Hi @laurierappeport, thank you for reaching out. I’m so glad you posted. so far a lot of the dialogue around this blog has been on Facebook and Twitter, so I am excited to see a comment on my actual blog. I agree that I do not want to encourage conversion and I don’t believe in proselytizing, I will just say that sharing our experiences with friends and welcoming people into are homes, I see that as part of what Judaism teaches. I can only tell so much of my story on my blog, but a long the way I had many Jewish friends that shared their experiences with me, opened their homes to me and had shabbat meals with me and none of them were encouraging me to convert, in fact quite the opposite.

  4. Thanks for sharing. The motivation of my spiritual journey was based on a similar “Ethiopian” story that I had in my family as you had in yours. It no longer serves as a source of my motivation today as my spiritual journey has taken a different direction and has a different impetus, but I would not be where I am today had I not had it as a part of my family narrative. I am still “a part” of my reform Jewish community in Boston, but somehow when i look at the broader Jewish community and especially that in Israel, I am always reminded of how my Africanness will always in some ways keep me a “stranger” or “apart”. I am OK with that reality but it hurts to see so many of my brothers and sisters who are hurt by it and must struggle with it and who because of it go through extraordinary efforts to be accepted. I no longer do. For me it is the moral, ethical and philosophical message of Judaism and its potential for healing that keeps me connected and where I find relevance. I would like to know about the “End of Hiding” prayer.

    • @sidney I agree, I have seen too many friends jump to to many hurdles to be accepted and it’s crazy, Especially if the measure of acceptance keeps changing. I am however hopeful for the future of American Judaism largely because of the rabbinical students that I have met in ALL denominations,

  5. Thanks for sharing Sandra. I really appreciate your story. I especially connect to your words on conversion. I often struggle with the meaning of my conversion both to myself and others and your story validates many of my own obstacles, somehow strengthening my identity as a member of the CBH community and being Jewish. Thank you. Neil

    • @neil444 thank you for commenting. When I wrote this I just wanted to tell my story my way. I had no idea that so many people would read it, enjoy it, and relate to it. Thank you. I think in a lot of ways all of us are more connected than we think 😀

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  7. Your journey is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it. I agree, we of all faiths must open our homes and hearts to people of all religions. There is so much to share and so much to learn from each other. You never know what will affect your life or some one else’s life when you open up.

  8. I have certainly been guilty of being more interested in non-white converts than in other converts or even other Jews. I think it’s because non-white converts in America usually have some other identity. And that identity often (though not in your case) is also often tied up pretty strongly in another religion. In choosing to join the American Jewish community, non-white converts are also choosing to spend a lot of time around white people.

    You have to admit that is going to be a more interesting, more rich, and more dynamic story than the story of a white person who was raised nominally Protestant and who chose to convert when they got married. We’ve heard that other story. We know your story is better. We know it takes a lot more something (risk, belief, guts, something) for a black person to choose to be Jewish. That something makes you a more interesting and more compelling person than the other people at shabbat lunch. Time is limited. I want to hear the best story available. That’s all.

    I understand that this does not come off that well and that it probably looks or feels like a challenge to your Jewishness and that while this is the first story like yours I may have heard, you have told the damn story 10,000 times. So I think the blog post is perfect and in fact, if I were you I would create some courtesy cards to hand out to people. On the one side, it could say “Yes, I am black, Jewish and gay. I do exist” and on the other, you can have a link to your story. That makes it pretty clear to whoever is asking that you get asked that question a lot. Everyone needs courtesy cards “Yes, I am in the right bathroom.” “Yes, I am Muslim. No, I am not a terrorist.” Etc.

    I just want to encourage you to see the questioner with slightly different eyes. They sense that you are not an ordinary person and they want to get closer to that. It’s the same reason we are drawn to anyone with spiritual gifts or spiritual power. There’s nothing wrong with that impulse, it’s just a lot to handle, and you are under no obligation to tell the same story 10,000 times. So manage it however is most comfortable for you. But when you have a choice about how to view the question, I would choose to see it as a recognition of your power and uniqueness, not as a challenge. We should try to judge others favorably.

    Sometimes, I’ve wondered if I should just assume that all people are converts and then I could be surprised if someone was born Jewish. That might be a good change.

    • Thank you for commenting. Sorry for taking so long to reply, I just moved back from NYC to Philadelphia. I want to challenge you a little on your comment.
      All of us have different identities regardless of our racial or ethnic upbringing. Our culture tends to spend a lot of time focusing on our racial and ethnic make-up. Most converts in this country come from another religious tradition it is rarer for someone to have no religious upbringing.

      I have heard some amazing stories of Jewish return and conversion from many people, some who are white and some who were not and to this day the most amazing stories of conversion that I have heard have actually come from people who are white. When Jews focus on the story from the person of color we miss out on hearing other stories.

      As a rabbi I hope to get to a place where the Jewish community that I am a part of focuses on what connects all of us. Today Judaism is thriving in non-white parts of the world. And American Judaism is starting to reflect the same diversity that we see in America.

      Thanks for reaching out and I hope we continue to connect in the future 😀

  9. Thanks for such a fascinating post. I look forward to reading more installments of your life journey and wish you the best of luck along the way.

    I’m a member of the first, and so far only, Reconstructionist synagogue in San Francisco (Or Shalom Jewish Community: http://www.OrShalom.org). We are progressive, egalitarian, inclusive, vegetarian (I recent;y edited our veg community cookbook: http://justicecookbook.wordpress.com/), spiritual, musical, fun-loving, informal, and compassionate with a wonderful spiritual leader, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi.

    You might be interested in Jewish Vegetarians of North America at JewishVeg.com (also on Facebook) as well as my The Vegetarian Mitzvah at http://www.brook.com/jveg.

    I also like that you’re a sociologist, something I teach at a nearby university. I wrote Social Truths (www.smashwords.com/books/view/242645) as a sociology e-primer.

    Those interested in a spiritual journey might also be interested in An Alef-Bet Kabalah: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1653

    Anyway, keep doing what you’re doing and stay strong and inspired, so you can continue to strengthen and inspire others!

  10. Thanks for such a fascinating post. I look forward to reading more installments of your life journey and wish you the best of luck along the way.

    I’m a member of the first, and so far only, Reconstructionist synagogue in San Francisco (Or Shalom Jewish Community: http://www.OrShalom.org). We are progressive, egalitarian, inclusive, vegetarian (I recent;y edited our veg community cookbook: http://justicecookbook.wordpress.com/), spiritual, musical, fun-loving, informal, and compassionate with a wonderful spiritual leader, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi.

    You might be interested in Jewish Vegetarians of North America at JewishVeg.com (also on Facebook) as well as my The Vegetarian Mitzvah at http://www.brook.com/jveg.

    I also like that you’re a sociologist, something I teach at a nearby university. I wrote Social Truths (www.smashwords.com/books/view/242645) as a sociology e-primer.

    Those interested in a spiritual journey might also be interested in An Alef-Bet Kabalah: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1653

    Anyway, keep doing what you’re doing and stay strong and inspired, so you can continue to strengthen and inspire others!

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