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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nothing Can Compare to Being Jewish

Nothing Can Compare to Being Jewish

Debbie Shapiro interviews Rivka Esther (a pseudonym)

Several years ago, my dear friend, Yael Aldrich, who was then living in Philadelphia (city changed to protect identity), sent me an email letting me know to expect a call from one of her regular Shabbos guests who was coming to Israel to learn for the year. "Oh, and by the way," she added at the end, "just so there won't be any surprises, Elizabeth is 5'9" and black."

Elizabeth, today Rivka Esther, and I hit it off immediately. I fell in love with her the moment she appeared at my door and handed me a box of chocolate chip cookies l'kavod Shabbos kodesh (cookies always hit my soft spot!). I loved, and still love,  her warmth and sincerity and she appreciated, and still appreciatesmy honesty. But Yael had forgotten to tell me one crucial detail. As I showed Elizabeth her bedroom, she broke into one of her heart-melting smiles ansaid, "Debbie, I'm still in the process of converting, so be careful with the wine and if you need a Shabbos goy, I'm available."

Elizabeth eventually became Rivka Esther. 

Rivka Esther: I grew up in a warm, loving home. Although my parents attended all black schools, they were very hard workers and never let segregation hold them back. As a result they succeeded in attaining an excellent education and were able to enter the professional world. Through their example, they taught us the importance of responsibility and hard work. As kids, we knew that we could never use race as an excuse. Prejudices were other people's problem – not ours.

My parents are Catholic, so I grew up going to church each Sunday. I can't say that I honestly believed in it, I just did what I was supposed to do and didn't think too deeply about it. As an adolescent, however, I refused to accept anything at face value and began asking lots of theological questions. But instead of receiving answers, I was told to accept everything on faith. 

When I was a bit older I saw a television documentary showing how Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. The show gave examples of how the Christians twisted Jewish concepts. One of the examples that stands out in my mind is that John the Baptist really should have been John the mikveh man! The documentary also included a short clip of little boy  asking his Sunday school teacher why they don't teach him Hebrew so that he can understand the Bible properly. Instead of answering the little boy's question, the horrified teacher responded: That's much too hard! We don't have time for such things! That little boy's question and subsequent non-answer mirrored my experiences. I was asking questions, but I was not receiving answers. The documentary validated my need to question; the questions were real, but the answers I was getting were not.

Out of respect for my parents, I still went to church with them every Sunday. But my heart wasn't in it. I felt that it was a total lie and didn't actively participate in the service. I had always believed in G-d, but now, I realized that that belief was crucial, and that it also came with a responsibility to find the proper way to serve Him and to become close to Him.

My mother was sensitive to my search for emes and urged me to clarify my own beliefs. I instinctively knew that the truth lay in Judaism. I had no doubt that that was the right path, but I had no idea how to get there. So I watched every television show and read every book that I could find that had anything to do with Jews and Judaism.

After high school, I attended a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia. My roommate, I'll call her Jill, was both Jewish and black– her mother was Jewish and her father was black, and they were the first interracial couple in the state of Texas! She even brought me to see a seder, but it was a cultural celebration and far from being religious. Jill, like so many other Jewish students, was extremely idealistic and intrinsically searching for emes. fter graduating college, she signed up for the Peace Corps and ended up in Uzbekistan. I often wonder what happened to her and can only pray that she found her way back.

After graduating college, I returned home and began attending Shabbos services at a nearby conservative synagogue. I chose to go to the conservative synagogue because I had been told that it was more traditional than the reform and I had never even heard of orthodoxy! Some of the people at the conservative synagogue recommended that I read some books on Judaism from the orthodox perspective. I was shocked when I learned that in today's modern world there are Jews who actually observe Shabbos and keep the laws of kashrus! I decided to learn more. I wanted the real McCoy.

Eventually I moved into the center of town, which is the area where the young people congregate. Every Shabbos I took the subway to the closest university to attend services at the Hillel House's orthodox minyan services. But although I was davening in a frum shul, I didn't know anything about Yiddishkeit. I wouldn't go to work on Shabbos, but I would cook, clean and drive my car. However, since I wasn’t Jewish, it wasn't an issue.

As I slowly started keeping more and more mitzvos, I realized that I needed to live in a more religious environment and moved into the Jewish neighborhood, which is where I met Yael Aldrich who eventually became my adopted mother/sister and closest friend and confidante. The first time I spoke with her, she told me, without mincing any words, exactly what I would need to do to be accepted as a convert – that I had to be part of a frum community, that I must choose a bais din to work with, and that I must begin studying seriously. She also invited me to come to her house for Shabbos whenever I felt like it, but I just assumed that she was trying to be nice and really didn't mean it. A month later when I called about something else, Yael caught me off guard when she asked, "Where were you? We've been expecting you to spend Shabbos with us!" For the next eight months I spent almost every Shabbos with them.

DEBBIE: I always thought that we're supposed to discourage the potential ger. But it sounds as if Yael welcomeyou with open arms.

RIVKA ESTHER: First of all, by this point I had come to the conclusion that the Torah is true and I had no doubt that I wanted to become a Jew. But yes, Yael really did try to discourage me. She made a point of reminding me of all the things I would not be able to do once I converted. So, for example, if we'd pass a treif restaurant she might say something like, "I've heard the food there is really good. Maybe you'd like to eat there…"

DEBBIE: Could you tell our readers some of the funny things that occurred to you during those years?

RIVKA ESTHER: When I was pretty much at the beginning of my path, I attended a shiur on Shmuel beis delivered by a prominent rosh yeshiva who spoke Yeshiva-English. After the class, I said to one of the other ladies,  "The shiur was amazing, but the Rosh Yeshiva continually spoke about one person that I never saw mentioned in Tanach – the Eibershter. Who's he?"

Although I wasn't halachically obligated to keep mitzvos, I did, which sometimes led to funny situation. Airline stewardesses would have a hard time figuring out why someone who looked like me and had a name like Elizabeth Smith would order a kosher meal.

DEBBIE: How long did you remain in Philadelphia?

Elizabeth: For two and a half years. Yael encouraged me to spend some time studying in Israel, and I felt that I couldn't convert without first going there to get some real learning under my belt. After all, even as a kid, long before I ever dreamt of becoming a Jew, I dreamed of traveling to Israel.

Leaving my job was very difficult. I had worked my way up the ladder and had a wonderful position. So in addition to giving up my financial security, I was leaving a fulfilling profession that I really enjoyed for the unknown. It was very frightening.

I could barely contain my excitement as we flew over the Mediterranean. I stared in disbelief at the approaching shoreline. I had to pinch myself; I was about to step foot on the holy land! It was an awesome moment. 

From the airport I took an airport shuttle to Har Nof, where I had arranged to board with a family. After throwing my belongings on the bed, I phoned a friend (actually, since it was very late at night, I woke her up, but she had told me beforehand that that would be okay) and we went together to the kosel. Standing in front of that ancient wall, I felt that I had finally come home!

Seminary was amazing. There were so many different types of girls from so many different backgrounds. Each one was at her own stage of growth, and we were all growing together. It was an incredibly broadening experience.

I spent nine months in sem, and I loved every moment of it. I grew close to many wonderful families, and felt that Israel was where I'd want to make my home. But I was unable to extend my foreign student visa and had to return to America to convert.

DEBBIE: Although the rabbonim in Israel felt that Rivka Esther was ready to convert, she encountered a long series of bureaucratic obstacles, such as missing visas and changing laws, that prevented her from taking the plunge (pun intended). While she was going through this extremely disappointing experience, I said to her, "Elizabeth, it must be so difficult to have to wait so long to become Jewish. You've been frum for years." Her response left me shaking: "Anything I would have to go through is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- compared to the zechus of being a member of the Chosen People!"

RIVKA ESTHER: The actual conversion was extremely emotional. I was physically shaking as I entered the mikveh. Before the actual immersion, the presiding rabbi said to me, "The first time you immerse in the mikveh's waters, you will go down as a gentile and come up as a Jew," so you can't imagine my exhilaration as I came up that first time. I wanted to dance and cry out, "I'M JEWISH." Instead, the mikveh lady instructed me to immerse again, and again, and again until she was positive that I had done it right. She, too, was visibly excited,; after all, she had just witnessed a birth, a new soul entering into Am Yisrael! It was, and most probably will always be, the most significant moment of my life.

DEBBIE: In Israel, we were anxiously waiting to hear the good news. When would the conversion actually take place? So you could imagine my excitement upon receiving the following email:

Debbie -

   I hope this email finds you well! I just wanted to let you know that there is a new member of Klal Yisrael, and its ME!!!! My new name is Rivka Esther. Mazal tov!!!

Kol tuv,


After all that waiting, how did it feel to finally be a Jew?

RIVKA ESTHER It was a real adjustment. I felt a tremendous weight of responsibility since as a Jew, I am obligated to keep the Torah. Before, although I was totally observant and keeping every mitzvah, I knew in the back of my mind that if I inadvertently made a mistake, it was no big deal. I could eat a cheeseburger if I really wanted to! But after I converted, it was a totally different ballgame. There is no practice run! Although people had warned me about this, I was taken completely off guard. After all, other than performing a small melachah each Shabbos I had been totally observant for several years.

DEBBIE When I was a senior in high school, I left my San Francisco public high school to attend the Bais Yaakov of Denver. As you can imagine, it was a totally different world and the adjustment was really challenging. Sometime in the middle of the year it suddenly dawned on me that even if I don't want to keep Torah, I was obligated to do so. Even as I accepted this reality – it's not called an ol, a yoke, for nuthin' – I felt a sense of sadness, as though I was giving up my freedom. Yes, of course I realized that as a Jew I had no choice, and that this yoke is studded with precious diamonds, yet I also felt the tremendous weight of that realization, and it was frightening.

 Can you tell me about your life today?

Rivka Esther: Today, I am very much a part of Philadelphia's frum community. I attend many shiurim and am involved in various chessed projects. I'm also making plans to come to Israel, where I hope to attend seminary, find a job and, most important of all, build a true bayis ne'eman b'Yisrael.

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