Since the revelation last week that Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York state senate, misrepresented her Jewish identity, a firestorm has engulfed Jewish social media. Fundamental questions of identity have come to the fore, and the question of who is a Jew at the center of the firestorm.
As someone who has myself converted to Judaism, I find her narrative deeply troubling. Though tradition teaches that the convert is to not be reminded they are a convert, I must share a deeply personal story.
“I went through a conversion process with a Reform rabbi at [Columbia-Barnard] Hillel in 2012,” She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I essentially took a course and learned how to read Torah and had the option of going through a b’nai mitzvah ceremony (along with two other women who studied with me) but declined to do it.”
By her own account, Ms. Salazar has at best taken a two month introduction to Judaism course that she may or may not have finished. No one in her immediate family is Jewish and there are only unclear references to possible Sephardic roots somewhere in the past.
None of these meet the standard for Jewish identity.
Ours is a religion of actions, not beliefs. Simply affirming that you are a Jew is not enough. Merely “feeling” or “identifying” as Jewish is not the test. Jewish identity is an objective, binary test, it is positive or negative. It is to this test that Ms. Salazar scores a negative, irrespective as to what her feelings may be.
As a Jew by choice, I know this all too well.
I began life in a Lutheran household. I was baptized and confirmed in a large Missouri synod affiliate in the Chicagoland area. But something never felt quite right about my place in that spiritual context and I became what I called a devout agnostic soon after my confirmation. I remained in this state until my sophomore year of college when like many people, including Ms. Salazar, was introduced to a wide variety of new ideas.
The two ideas that had the most profound effect on me were Zionism and Judaism.
I have no known familial lineage of Judaism. My interest began in a purely intellectual form and grew into the spiritual realm.
I considered conversion for over a year. Convert.org was invaluable and felt like a refuge, but I did not want to hastily embark on this journey.
I first contacted a rabbi in June of 2004. It was awkward and intimidating to walk into a house of worship that I had only read about; for most people their synagogue, church or mosque are sanctuaries of the familiar, and I was nervous and excited.
As it happened, I didn’t feel a connection with that first rabbi, or the second one. It wasn’t until I met with the rabbi of a smaller congregation in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago that I felt the sort of rapport I was looking for.
I’ll never forget his first question.
“What would you like to talk about?”
I didn’t know.
“Want to talk about what happens after we die?” he asked.
“Ok,” I said.
“I don’t know what happens, but I can tell you what I think happens,” he said.
At that precise moment, I knew I had found the perfect teacher.
Thus began a year long process beginning with enrolling in an official introduction to Judaism course offered in the basement of a different synagogue. In tandem with this course, I was expected to start attending Shabbat services as often as possible, which I did with great enthusiasm, though I admit I was continually intimidated by the then unfamiliar prayers in Hebrew.
Of most comfort during those early services were the sonorous voice of the cantor and wonderfully welcoming nature of the congregants.
In addition to this, I wrote periodic essays directly to my rabbi on a topic of our mutual choosing in the realm of Jewish knowledge.
It wasn’t until late May of 2005 that my rabbi intimated to me that he thought I was ready for the rituals of conversion.
I was elated. There were points during the preceding years’ worth of study, prayer, writing and contemplation I thought that day would never come.
On the day itself, first came the beit dein which consisted of my rabbi, my cantor and the mohel, who would do a symbolic form of circumcision since I was already circumcised. I was asked the Talmudically proscribed questions, in addition to more I hadn’t expected. This interview, or test rather, lasted upwards of 30 minutes. I remember specifically that I elicited several smiles from those holding court when I quoted Isaiah to them in one of my responses.
Then it was time to meet with the mohel one on one (I’ll spare you the details).
Following this were the three immersions in the mikvah. The mikvah is fascinating in and of itself for all the requirements regarding temperature and composition of the water. I walked in naked as the day I was born and submerged myself three times, reading the transliterations of the prayers on the wall.
I walked out of the mikvah a Jew.
My rabbi is Reform.The mikvah was Conservative. I never thought to ask what denomination my mohel was (but he had a card!). If i were to do it over again, I’d convert Orthodox, because in my day to day life, I’m much more observant than the Reform or Conservative Jews I know. I might still do that in the future.
In the meantime, this entire process brought me along a journey of discovery unlike any I could have imagined, and it remains the most deeply fulfilling undertaking of my life.
I share my story of literal blood, time, effort, dedication, sacrifice and growth to demonstrate what a monumental charge joining the Jewish people is.
It is not to be taken likely and is of the utmost seriousness; intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
When those such as Ms. Salazar misappropriate Jewish identity without doing the heavy lifting required, it devalues the real labor of Jews by choice who have gone through all of the proscribed rituals (and more) to join a new nation, a new religion.
If Ms. Salazar aspires to join us, the path to doing so is clear and I’d be happy to offer whatever lay guidance I can as someone who has traveled the path. If and until then, I wish her well on wherever her journey takes her.
Brad Keil is a blogger, musician and strong opinion haver. Follow him on Twitter @clompthestrong.