I’m a Jewish convert. My path to conversion was long and complicated, and I’ve struggled with fitting into Jewish culture, and balancing my childhood traditions with a chosen religious tradition that’s very, very different.
But one thing I’ve never struggled with is my belief in God.
I didn’t convert specifically because I was married to a Jewish man, but the fact that I was raising Jewish children was a different story. I wanted them to have a strong spiritual foundation. I wanted them to own their heritage, and to be able to claim their Jewish identity. When I converted, our older daughter and our son went to the mikveh with me.
At 5 and 2, their memories of the mikveh aren’t good (they were both slightly–and in my son’s case, majorly–phobic about putting their heads under water), but they have grown up in the Jewish community, and it’s a major part of their identity. Our younger daughter, born a year and a half after the conversion, is blissfully, happily Jewish. She learned the blessing over the candles when she was two, and lists “rabbi” as one of her goals (along with foot massager and singer).
A year and a half ago, my son was in a terrible accident. He sustained a traumatic brain injury, and now has permanent optic nerve damage as a result of the psuedotumor cerebrei. He lost vision almost entirely in one eye, and the other eye is still well within the “visually impaired” range. He’s much better now, emotionally and physically, but it was hellishly hard for a long time for him.
After the accident, his previously diagnosed anxiety disorder tipped over into PTSD, and flirted with agoraphobia, and getting him to go anywhere (including the synagogue) was a battle. Our attendance at services got fragmented, my husband and daughters would go, I’d stay home with him. And while he’s improved in many ways, going to the synagogue is still incredibly, incredibly hard for him.
And something else has changed. He no longer believes in God. He believes in science and evolution and things you can prove. You can’t prove God, and to him, Adam and Eve are just stories. With the certainty of a tween, he’s positive that everything is black and white, and there is no middle ground.
As a convert, I was always just slightly smug, to myself, about Jewish identity. I wasn’t going to panic if my children didn’t marry other Jews. Spiritual identity, for me, was such a personal thing. Love who you want, I’d tell my children, just choose a spouse who honors you for who you are and respects your beliefs and traditions. I was so open-minded, I thought. But it just never occurred to me that they might not believe in God at all.
I find myself in this completely foreign place, where I’m trying to support my son, and give him a sense of safety and acceptance, and not drive myself crazy worrying about what this will mean for him in the future. I reassure my daughter that I believe in God, and things can be different for different people. It’s OK that Sammy doesn’t believe in God, and that she does.
We’ve had long conversations with our son about how so many of the greatest scientific minds were and are Jewish. We talk about our own spiritual path, how I chose Judaism when I was in my mid-thirties, how his dad studied Eastern religions, and how observance and belief can exist on a spectrum.
I’ve taught him about humanistic Judaism, and told him that whatever he believes or feels is perfectly okay with us. I’ve told him that he doesn’t have to attend services if it bothers him, but I really want him to attend community events with us—because we are a part of a Jewish community and regardless of what you believe, that’s still an important part of who we are as a family.
My oldest is going into high school in the fall, had a lovely bat mitzvah last year, and is very secure in her Jewish identity. My baby, who loves her big brother more than anything, but also loves being Jewish and wants to be a rabbi, struggles with how to reconcile his beliefs with hers.
I’ve also had long, long talks with my little one about how different people believe different things. Just like her best friend is Catholic, and Mama’s family isn’t Jewish, it’s okay for everyone to have their own beliefs.
So that’s where we are. We prepare Shabbat dinner every Friday, and when we light the candles, my daughter still recites the blessing. My husband blesses all of our children. Sam says the blessing over the challah. And I take a breath, knowing that while I can’t guarantee his belief in God, what I can do is establish traditions and memories that he’ll have to fall back on, and hopefully want to repeat with his own children someday.