Omer Kavannot 5779: Darkeinu — Kay Gardiner

In conversation recently, someone asked me, “what does Judaism mean to you?” I responded, “It is my home in this world.”

It came out so quickly, and with such certainty, that it surprised me, as I don’t think I’d ever consciously asked myself that question.

I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and my family attended a little Lutheran church. Every Sunday, there was a reading from the Old Testament. I grew up learning the stories of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. I was taught that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and that Jesus was a Jew. If there was a whiff of judgment or antisemitism, and I dearly hope there wasn’t, I utterly missed it. While I doubt that it was Martin Luther’s intention, his intense, radical focus on reading the scriptures for ourselves was an excellent preparation for the Torah service on Shabbat morning. Like many young people, when I left home and moved to New York, I stopped going to church and essentially became a person without religion.

Twenty-seven years ago, I married a Jewish man. Peter was a first-generation American; his family had left Germany in the late 1930s. He was staunch in his Jewish identification, closely tied to his boyhood synagogue in Washington Heights, but he did not attend services regularly or observe Shabbat. For Peter, the important thing was that our children would be Jewish. I had no reservations about agreeing to that. I understood him completely and agreed with my whole heart.

I was open to the possibility of conversion, but resistant to conversion “just to get married.”  With his future kids’ Jewishness assured, Peter was fine with me taking time to think it over. Years and years of time, in which those hoped-for children were born, we attended many holiday services at his boyhood shul in Washington Heights, and eventually found BJ when we were looking for a Hebrew school for the kids.

So we became a BJ family. Before long, we were attending Hebrew School retreats, celebrations, and services.  I felt a little out of place. I found myself saying, “I’m not Jewish” to people, to be forthright. They were OK about it. I still belonged. My kids, who had been converted, were accepted as Jewish.  I loved BJ and started learning more about Judaism. I began to feel Jewish. I still did not convert. The conversion process seemed like such a big deal. In the busy-ness of our lives, it didn’t seem like a priority.

Then, ten years ago, Peter died. Our kids were 12 and 10. Our daughter was months away from her bat mitzvah. I would say that I turned to BJ in that time of sorrow, but what really happened was that BJ turned to me. Our family felt the full support of this community. It was very powerful. We still feel it today. During that year, I said kaddish for Peter, simply because I knew he had done it for his father. Attending the morning minyan at BJ was a source of comfort and it was also life-changing. I could no longer say I’m not Jewish. I felt it.

I also wanted to stand at the bimah at our daughter’s bat mitzvah, so I asked our rabbis if I could convert to Judaism. Despite the short timeline, the rabbis came through for me; Rabbi Felicia Sol guided me through the preparations and learning. In the midst of that sad time came one of the most surprising and joyful moments of my life: When, after I waited for what seemed like an hour for my conversion bet din to discuss my application, Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein came out and said: Welcome Home.

Sometimes, my fellow Jews have expressed surprise that I converted. As Jews by birth, they may not realize the degree to which Judaism—as a faith and as a people—is deeply compelling.  There are few experiences as profound as sitting in our Sanctuary on any Friday night, as saying the shema, as seeing your child blessed by his rabbi, as knowing that even death does not erase a Jewish life, that we will remember, and be remembered.

Written By Kay Gardiner

Kay Gardiner is a lawyer, writer, and small-time publisher in New York City.