20 Years a Jew: One Convert’s Observations in Seven Installments

Contributed by Athena Derasmo

Installment #1 The decision to convert: Simple, right?

In 1998, I attended Rosh Hashanah services at Sof Ma’arav with a friend. The next week, I returned for Yom Kippur services on my own. After that, I started attending weekly Shabbat Services. I remember that I would open my siddur from left to right and it took a while to break the habit. The congregants may have thought, “What is the deal with this little goyish woman?” but they didn’t let on. I was even set up with a completely transliterated siddur in a three-ring binder, which allowed me to participate in services without knowing a single word of Hebrew. Sof Ma’arav was then, and remains to this day, hospitable and kind to anyone who comes to services. I find this remarkable. It does not surprise me that so many conversion candidates have found their way to Sof Ma’arav.

Even though I am local to Hawai’i, Jews and things Jewish were not unfamiliar to me. My father was a Bronx New Yorker (Italian) who spoke Yiddish and had many Jewish friends. However, my knowledge was cultural and secular, so attending services was something brand new. After a couple of months, I informed my non-denominational family that I was seeking conversion to Judaism. I made my announcement over Thanksgiving dinner. My Grandmother exclaimed, “Oh thank G-d, I thought you were going to tell us you were pregnant!” My being divorced, I guess she thought being Jewish beat the hell out of being pregnant!

Rabbi Morris Goldfarb was to spearhead my conversion education in what proved to be a very busy 15 months. I attended Torah study, regular services, experienced all the Jewish holidays, started keeping kosher, and changed my personal style to Hawai’i modest, floral frum. A Bet Din was selected. On January 2, 2000, the Pacific Ocean was my Mikveh, and the Littmans threw me a lovely party.

Simple, right? Well, no. Conversion to Judaism is complicated. There is a reason it is infrequent and special.

Going back to that first Rosh Hashanah service, I was at a time in my life where I recognized something was missing. I came to understand that my spiritual life was lacking form and function. I remembered when asked if religion was necessary to have a spiritual life, the Dalai Lama said, “Religion is not necessary to have a spiritual life, but it can help!” Experiencing the apparent form and function of the High Holiday services was like a switch being flipped – I was very interested, and I wanted to know more!

Well here I am, 20 years later and very secure in the knowledge that, along with having my children, converting to Judaism is the most meaningful thing I have ever done. I am home. In the next six installments I will share some observations from my journey as a convert, a Jew, and a Woman. Welcome to my story and enjoy!

Installment 1 – “The Decision To Convert – Simple, Right?”

Installment 2 – “Why Judaism? What Made It Special (To Me)?”

Installment 3 – “What’s An Orphan To Do?”

Installment 4 – “Balancing Secular and Sacred” 

Installment 5 – “Modest Fashion and the Modern Woman”

Installment 6 – “Conversion and Jewish “Pedigree””

Installment 7 – “And Then There Was Israel…”