Star of David kippah. by the Forward

Let’s talk about the imposter syndrome that follows converting to Judaism

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We don’t really talk about the imposter syndrome that comes after converting to Judaism.

I identified as being Jewish since a very young age. Very young. Be it born with a Jewish soul, or lost Jewish lineage in my family tree wanting to be finally heard, I always knew that I was a Jew before fully knowing what it meant to be Jewish. My soul was at Sinai and there was no way of escaping that.

Growing up I heard the stories about the Nazis and how my grandfather was in a camp as a child. (I was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian, all I know is that my grandfather joined the church after the war.) When I was 18 sitting in his study he caught me scribbling the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew. (I wanted it as a tattoo in tribute of him.) He asked me what I was doing and I replied meekly “I think we’re Jewish.” He looked at me, patted me on the back and said “I’m proud of you boy” and walked away.

(My grandmother after discovering the true intentions of the Hebrew writing did give me a very stern lecture about what happened to Jews with tattoos during the Holocaust.)

As I grew into my 20s the urge to be Jewish became stronger and stronger. I talked to rabbis, took classes, joined a Jewish Community Center, started celebrating the holidays… and as time passed I slowly became more and more “Jewish.”

In my early 30s at a turning point in my life I doubled down on my faith, becoming even more observant. I eventually moved to a kibbutz in Israel for 6 months, and finally I became shomer Shabbos.

The question of conversion came up before in my mind, but it never seemed like a pressing issue until it became all consuming. In Israel I knew I had to do the right thing (not knowing wasn’t good enough for me anymore) and the only right way to me was Orthodox.

A rabbi was suggested to me, I started studying even more, and here I am— weeks after going in front of a beth din, seeing a mohel, plunging into a mikvah, and receiving a piece of paper signed by three Orthodox rabbis with my new Hebrew name on it… Yonatan ben Avram … I feel like an imposter.

The years of studying and becoming more observant went out the window. The deep meaning I found in my faith was sidelined by crippling anxiety. Days after the conversion, all of this backstory seemed to be tearing apart. I felt like I was at the very beginning of this journey all over again. Here I am now “officially” a Jew and I was back on the kibbutz staring at infinity and desperately trying not to blink.

And then I blinked.

I blinked because I had to. My imposter syndrome was tearing me apart from the inside out. I blinked because I realized that this was part of the process, a reset moment on my Jewish spiritual journey. The mikvah symbolizes rebirth, but it also is a symbol for death as well. The death of the old ego (Rivash).

I also realized that a portion of my Jewish identity was wrapped up in where I was going, what I was becoming. I used to not like the phrase “Jew of choice,” but I’ve now come to terms with it and accepted that I am one. Before converting I would say I didn’t have a choice in this, I knew I had a Jewish soul from the very beginning and conversion was just a formality.

That’s true to a point… but, I could have also decided to stay in limbo. I chose not to. It wasn’t good enough to just feel something and live in a world where I comfortably pieced together family anecdotes. I chose to become Jewish, however it wasn’t on the day I went into the mikvah. On that day I became halachically Jewish beyond any doubt. I am a Jew of choice because there was a time long ago when I chose to listen to my Jewish soul and decided to let it guide me through this. I chose to keep going.

Imposter syndrome can be a good thing because it strips everything away. You are there laid bare with all your faults, your anxieties, your mistakes. You’re alone with these demons raining down on you. You’re forced to be self-reflective and to dig deep within because you are constantly bombarded by the storm of emotions. Your only shelter is to finally tear everything down and rebuild. Death and then rebirth.

This is not buyer’s remorse. It’s something much more spiritual than that. We are the people who wrestle with angels. Being self-reflective, and the self-doubt that comes with it, no matter how hard or painful it is, is part of that wrestling.

It’s very easy in these moments to forget the guiding hand that’s been there for you. All of the “coincidences” that lined up to make this all happen. It’s extremely easy to forget the journey you took— the sacrifices you made, the blood, sweat, and tears you shed while trying to figure out the right thing to do.

Buyer’s remorse means you want out. Imposter syndrome means you want in so desperately that you’re scared it’s all going to fall apart because you feel like you don’t belong there no matter how hard you try. You keep doing the right things but it still won’t ever be good enough.

The fact of the matter is, if you let the imposter syndrome win you’ll spend the rest of your life chasing an impossible standard that doesn’t exist. If it does all “fall apart” (whatever that actually means and looks like), at the end of the day I am still halachically Jewish because of the choice I made. That’s now a matter of fact. I am no longer a stranger at the gate.

To be Jewish is a daunting task for all of us. I know I won’t be able to live up to that perfect standard, but with courage, patience, and faith I chose each day to try and be the best possible Jew that I can be. All Jews make this decision— this choice isn’t unique just to me. This is our communal struggle.

In the meantime, I’ll keep wrestling while living my best possible Jewish life.

John Kunza is the news director of The Forward. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Imposter syndrome and converting to Judaism

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