My choice to convert seemed like an organic act. It felt like the path I was meant to take.
My parents were from Puerto Rico, and I grew up in a predominantly Latino and African American neighborhood in the Bronx. Though I grew up in a Catholic family, we didn’t go to church or observe any holidays. Christmas was a day of opening gifts, gathering with family and friends, and eating traditional Puerto Rican foods. Being a parent to my three sons has allowed me to vicariously have a Jewish childhood.
My knowledge of Judaism came from books I read and from interactions with Jewish coworkers and friends. Not until I met my husband, Stephen, did spirituality or religion begin to play a more significant role in my life. As our relationship grew, we started synagogue shopping in Manhattan, including at BJ. After we began conversion classes with Rabbi Stephen Lerner, he recommended joining the SAJ (Society for the Advancement of Judaism).
Throughout the process, the feedback I got from friends and family was mostly positive, although there were exceptions. My non-religious family was confused by my wanting to adopt any religion. (The biggest issue for my mom was that I was no longer able to eat most of her food. While studying with Rabbi Lerner, Stephen and I stopped eating non-kosher meat). I was told by a couple of Jewish friends that I would be praying to Jesus on my deathbed, that my conversion wasn’t “real.” That I was converting “only to marry Stephen.” “What if Stephen and I broke up? Of course I would go back to who I was before, right?” Most people didn’t realize: This is who I was meant to be.
I don’t “look Jewish,” so I have been mistaken for the help on more than one occasion. I was told more than a few times, that my previous (non-Jewish) life is no longer relevant. I’m Jewish now; i.e., Jewish only, no longer Puerto Rican. Having lived on the Upper West Side for over 24 years, I am often the only person of color at gatherings. Thirty years after taking that dip in the mikvah, I still hear: “Who are you really?” “Where are you from? “This is my Puerto Rican friend who’s now Jewish and keeps kosher!”
On the flip side, my family of origin sees me as mostly white—the neighborhood I live in, the schools I’ve sent my children to, my life being guided by Jewish principles. But my decisions as a wife, mother, and human being—all influenced by what I’ve learned from studying Torah, from the synagogues I’ve attended, and from the teachings of all my rabbis—have not distanced me from my family of origin.
Accepting and embracing the various aspects of my identity—including those by birth and by choice—has strengthened my sense of self which, I believe, has always contained a Jewish essence. BJ has played a tremendous role in allowing me to mature and evolve as a thoughtful and involved member of the Jewish faith community.