My Conversion: My Birthday Present to Myself

Kay Lorraine

Image of a mikveNovember 24th was my birthday, but it was also the anniversary of my conversion to Judaism. Fifty-two years ago, on my 21st birthday, I went to the mikveh as my birthday present to myself. My conversion was an interesting journey that took two-and-a-half years to complete.

I was 18 years old and had a newborn child. My rabbi, Rabbi Baker took me in after refusing my application to convert three times. I learned that it is customary to turn down potential converts as many as three times. The most common explanation is that rabbis want to test the resolve and dedication of the potential convert. This Rabbi, however, described Judaism as a very difficult life, often filled with prejudice and discrimination. He said, “We set obstacles in your path so you can experience what it’s really like to be Jewish.” And just to prove it, he said “no” again. He turned me down three more times before finally relenting.

Converting Orthodox requires a course of both formal and informal Jewish education. The informal part happens through a network of congregants who taught me how to keep a kosher kitchen, how to prepare for Passover, and how to fit into Jewish society.  While the particulars of observance can be learned from books, the totality of Jewish life can only be experienced by living in a supportive, teaching community.  I became close with the rabbi’s wife.

I studied with the rabbi twice a week. I had to take a number of tests, both oral and written, on Jewish culture, customs, history and halakha. I was also required to show that I had performed enough mitzvahs to qualify as tikkun olam. In other words, I had to prove that I was good enough to be a Jew. I also took a year’s worth of night classes in Hebrew.  (Anyone who has ever sat in front of me in shul knows THAT didn’t take.)

My beth din consisted of three rabbis from our congregation. Because my shul was, at least at that time, borderline Hasidic, we had lots of rabbis to choose from. Once they had declared me ready, I had to wait for the rabbinical court to approve my conversion proceedings and set a mikveh date. I had specifically requested my 21st birthday.

On my birthday, I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. Just after noon, I entered the mikveh house (in Columbus, it really was an old house). The Rabbi’s wife was my escort. She examined me for any cuts or sores, which would prohibit my entering the mikveh bath. I had to remove any Band-Aids. My hair was thoroughly brushed. The Rebbetzin supervised as I closely clipped the nails on my hands and feet. There could also be no trace of cosmetics or nail polish. Because you are required to be thoroughly cleansed immediately before the immersion, I then took a long shower. Finally, I was ready for the mikveh.

My conversion had to be “witnessed” by my beth din. Since they were all men (remember, we’re ultra-Orthodox here) they were in the mikveh room but were behind a folding screen so they could hear but not see. For modesty purposes, I was instructed to wear a bathrobe to the mikveh water, just in case there might be one final, impromptu test by the beth din. Thankfully this did not happen. Once immersed, I removed the bathrobe and submerged my naked body totally. Not even a single hair can remain above the water.

Image of a mikvehWhen I came up for air, the Rebbetzin put a washcloth on my head before I said, “Barukh atah Adonai Elo-henu melekh ha’olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’tevillah.”  I said this blessing after the first immersion, but not before. The reason for this is that one cannot declare “G-d commanded us” if one is not commanded by G-d because he or she is not Jewish. The convert becomes a Jew only after the immersion is completed. I did this immersion and blessing twice more and finally, ta-da! I was a Jew.

Each conversion is unique.  I have heard of instances where the beth din requires you to vow to give up any former religions and take an oath to Judaism. I didn’t experience anything like that. I guess they thought that after 2½ years of non-stop learning, my dedication to Judaism was pretty much understood. I am also told that a big deal for most converts is the choosing of a Hebrew name.  A convert is as a newborn child, k’tinok she’nolad. A new person needs a new name. Once again, my conversion did not feature this, since my rabbi believed that all female converts automatically take the Hebrew name of Sara. Thus, I am Sara bat Abraham v`Sara or more formally, Sara bat Abraham Avinu v` Sara Imenu. 

When I removed the wet washrag from my head, I immediately put on my wig, my sheitel. My sheitel happened to be reddish with bangs. There are those in my old shul in Columbus who have never seen me without a sheitel and have no idea that I am blonde.

As soon as I left the mikveh house, I did what any right-minded Jew does: I headed over to Blocks Deli to celebrate. It was a good day.

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