Two weeks ago, the conversion step of my Jewish journey was completed. After close to two years of reading, journaling, soul-searching, and hours and hours of talking to my rabbi-turned-friend, I sat in front of her and two other rabbis at my beit din (Rabbinical court). We sat in the receiving room of the Seattle Mikvah, which is a wonderful facility on the campus of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue in the Seward Park neighborhood. I was nervous as I sat there in a squashy chair and answered their questions about who I am and why Judaism is right for me. As scary as it was, though, I found my voice. Answering honestly about the freedom and happiness I’ve found within Judaism and how my soul is in harmony with the Jewish people is easy, whenever and wherever the questions are asked.
Once the questioning was over, I was dismissed so that they could convene and discuss. I stood outside, my husband joining me from where he had been sitting in the car, and we waited. I remember two things about those minutes – the thorns on the vines lining the back wall of the property and the peace I felt. Minutes later, I was summoned back inside and told that my request for conversion was granted and that it was time to enter the mikvah.
When I first heard about the mikvah 18 months ago, I was not thrilled. Having to immerse naked in a pool of water while it is witnessed by someone else isn’t the type of thing that a person with body image issues is clamoring to do. Even with my apprehension so great, I pressed on because I knew it was required. The funny thing is that my worry was in vain. My rabbi was the witness because she was the only female, but she kept her eyes averted until the last possible moment. I felt no shame or embarrassment during the whole process, only a sense of “rightness.”
I wish now that I had snapped a picture of the mikvah that day because I can find no pictures of that exact mikvah online. It’s a small space, square and fully tiled, with five steps down into the water, which came up about four feet. I stood naked, my heart thundering in my chest because this was the moment. Once I went under, fully immersing myself in that warm water, and emerged again, I was officially a Jew. All that went before me was wiped away. I would like to say that I got profoundly emotional or had a serious “ah-ha” moment, but that wasn’t the case. Frankly, my “ah-ha” moments have been coming fast and fierce for the past 18 months. That moment wasn’t the time for a profound moment – thousands of little profound moments had carried me to that point.
When I was ready, I stood with my back to Rabbi Sarah, who was behind the railing above me, and centered myself. She began to chant the words in Hebrew to Psalm121 – Esa Eeinai el heharim – I lift my eyes to the mountains. I then took a deep breath and sunk below the surface, pulling my legs and feet up so that every part of me was touched by the holy waters. I stayed under for just a second or two, and when I emerged, Rabbi Sarah shouted “Asher!” (it is done) to the two male rabbis listening outside the door.
When I climbed back up those five steps, put that plush robe back on, and prayed the mikvah blessing, I did so as a Jewish woman. My Jewish name is Rachel Nira – my first name means “lamb” and my middle name means “meadow.” Even though my birth name – Rachel Leigh – is obviously very Hebrew already, I wanted something that more closely reflected my connection to Adonai, which comes through nature most of the time, so I chose Nira.
As I look back on the day now, I’m still almost at a loss for words. It’s hard for me to describe how I feel now. My eyes well up, my chest gets tight, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude of having found Judaism and a new life as a Jew by choice, but those flowery, inspired words just won’t come. I don’t think I can describe how I feel. I could only further solidify my experience by pilgrimaging this past weekend to Mt. Rainier National Park, a place that is nothing short of holy to me. I took in the grandeur and beauty around me, the blue glaciers on Rainier glinting in the sunlight from my vantage point in a subalpine meadow at 6400 feet elevation. I took a moment to recite a few blessings in Hebrew and thank Adonai for getting me to this place at this time in my own personal history.
I searched for meaning and for my “place” in the world via various denominations of Christianity for most of my life before realizing that I would never feel at home as a Christian because I didn’t believe in Christianity. I know without a doubt that if we hadn’t moved to Washington and still lived in Indiana, surrounded by my evangelical family and acquaintances in the Bible Belt, I would not be here. If I hadn’t sat in my office and stumbled on the website for the Union for Reform Judaism, where I found so many answers to questions I didn’t even know I had, I wouldn’t be here. If I hadn’t gotten up the nerve and sent that email on December 18, 2015 to a local rabbi about the Judaism 101 class she was offering that next month, I would not be here. If I hadn’t pushed past the worries about judgement from family and about giving up familiar holidays and traditions, I would not be here. So many things could have stopped me along the way, but the burning desire I had to live a Jewish life won out over everything. As my rabbi said to me in her congratulatory email sent the day after my conversion, “You have crossed a continent only to finally come home.”
So here I am, listening to fireworks boom outside on this July 4th while I selfishly celebrate my own independence. I’m a Jewish woman and I’ve never felt so free.