This Tisha B’av I joined a few colleagues and about a hundred Muslims and Jews for an interfaith break fast at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. As I sat at the table and ate the delicious halal and kosher food that was served, I realized that the two religions share much more than most care to understand.
This realization is nothing new. I’m always finding commonalities between Islam and Judaism; everything from similar language to similar religious ideologies, codes of dress and, of course, food. Who makes the better falafel? This is a war we should be fighting.
So it didn’t surprise me that an article on the Huffington Post’s Islam page caught my attention during the holy month of Ramadan. “Converts to Islam May Face a Lonely Ramadan” opens with a story from a gentleman who converted to Islam five years ago. He tells the author about the efforts he’s put into being a good Muslim: He hired tutors to teach him Arabic so he could read the Quran, attended a new convert’s class and works diligently at being active in his community. Yet last year on Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, he found himself breaking fast alone and longing for a community.
As I read the article, I thought back to my own first High Holiday experience. I hadn’t converted yet, but was taking a conversion class at a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I received a complimentary ticket from the synagogue and attended service alone. As members of the shul filed into the pews and seats were occupied around me, I watched. Congregants hugged one another and wished “L’shana Tovah!” to those they recognized. There were big, full smiles and a lot of laughter and chatting. Even as the cantor started singing there was a buzz all around me. I soaked it in and tried to feel connected, but couldn’t help but feel lost, alone and unintentionally unwelcome. At the end of the first night of Rosh Hashanah service, I left the synagogue with only one couple’s greeting for a good new year. No invitation to a meal and instead of going to service the next day with excitement, I dreaded it.
The following year I took Judaism by the reigns, so to speak, and I cobbled together a Judaism that felt more like me. I ditched the stuffy shul on the Upper East Side and settled into an awesome, diverse and welcoming shul in Brooklyn and decided that, if I was going to be a Jew, I’d need to create a community around me.
I invited over friends and stumbled through the Rosh Hashanah blessings leaning heavily on transliterations, but at the end of the night we’d dipped our apples in honey and noshed on Syrian Jewish fair. When our guests left our apartment there were piles of dishes but I felt more connected to and confident in the religion that I chose. Each year since deciding to convert we’ve celebrated holidays in our home surrounded by a diverse array of friends. As a convert to Judaism we sometimes lack the automatic family ties that Jews born into the religion have.
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fast approach I’m keenly aware of the fact that a lot of the Jews who have come to our religion by choice will spend their Rosh Hashanah meals alone and will break Yom Kippur fast without the company of other Jews. Through my blog, I receive emails each month from potential converts to Judaism who are turned off by the lack of welcome in their community and a sense of loneliness. Synagogues often offer community meals, but they are nothing in comparison to the warm feeling of being in someone’s home.
I’m not saying that you have to invite every random Jew sitting alone in a pew. I’m also not saying that it’s appropriate to “out” converts in order to ascertain if they have a place to eat. What I am saying is that we think more fully about the ways that we see other Jews and how we live this idea of “big tent Judaism” and “welcoming the stranger” — phrases we often throw around but sometimes find hard to practice.
Three years after my first Rosh Hashanah and two years after conversion, I’m happy to have received two invitations for Rosh Hashanah dinner — one from a Sephardi couple and another from an Ashkenazi friend. I’ll be attending services at my amazing shul where not everyone knows my name, but when I’m there it feels like they’re glad I came.