An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick
The Story of Walter Raubeson
“Mom says you can’t sleep over unless you go to religious school with me tomorrow,” Ari told me. “I have to go, and it’s too far to take me there and then take you home. It’s not so bad. Want to come?”
Ari was my best friend in third grade. We both liked baseball cards and doing wheelies on our bikes at the far end of his street. My mom says we were probably brothers in another lifetime, we spend so much time together. Sunday school was an OK trade for a sleepover.
I had no idea what Ari’s Sunday school would be like. He’s Jewish; my parents and I are Christian, but they haven’t gone to church in a long time. I didn’t go to any kind of Sunday school, but I figured, why not? It’s just one morning.
Ari’s teacher is great. There’s this neat feeling of closeness in the classroom. There’s not tons of heavy religious stuff, but there are a lot of games and a lot of talking back and forth. You learn things without really realizing it.
“Hey, Ari. Can I come back?”
“I guess so. You really want to?”
That was six years ago. Last year, I converted to Judaism the week before celebrating my bar mitzvah at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California, my friend Ari’s temple. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me, that I am Jewish and my family isn’t, but I guess it is. I live a Reform Jewish life. We celebrate Shabbat each Friday night. I recite the blessings. I go to Passover Seders. I bring my friends over for a Chanukah dinner every year. In the fall, our family builds a sukkah.
My mom was worried about my going to Ari’s temple at first. Not because she didn’t want me learning about Judaism—my parents are real open and encouraging about whatever we kids want to explore—but she was concerned about my being accepted in the temple. When she met the teachers and the rabbi and all, she was assured and then she let me continue.
Third grade ended, and when I wanted to go back for fourth grade, the school principal wasn’t sure what to do. The rule is kids can only go to religious school if their parents are members of the temple, but in my case, since my parents are Christian, that couldn’t happen. But the principal understood how important it was to me to keep learning about Judaism, so I was allowed to stay.
In the fourth grade the kids begin their preparation for bar mitzvah, so I did, too. We picked my bar mitzvah date and Torah portion. My Torah portion was to be Ki Tissa, which deals with Moses’ breaking of the Ten Commandments and the Children of Israel’s beginning again. That story seemed to fit my life. Learning about Judaism felt like a rebirth for me, too.
I hadn’t thought about officially converting until it came up just before my bar mitzvah. I had pretty much considered myself Jewish. I’d been learning for almost four years and celebrating Shabbat and all the holidays. But my rabbi told me the options of conversion, and I chose to make the experience complete by converting. So, two days before my bar mitzvah ceremony, I went to the mikvah.
The location of the mikvah reminded me of a synagogue in a way. There was a gift shop and all these different levels. My rabbi showed me into a little office. There were two doors. One was a bathroom where you showered and prepared; the other door led to the mikvah.
When I went through the door to the mikvah, I forgot about everything in the world. It was just me and the rabbi and God. I walked down the seven steps into the mikvah. Mixed into the mikvah water is melted ice from a natural stream. That’s required.
When I was in the water up to my chest, the rabbi recited the blessings and told me to repeat them. I did and then curled my body into the water and let it cover me completely. It’s hard to describe exactly how I felt. I walked out and felt different. I felt happy and responsible. I felt light on my feet like I was ready to take on the world.
Two days later I awoke to my bar mitzvah day. The night before, I was totally nervous, but the minute I got on the bimah I wasn’t nervous at all. As I read my Torah portion, I wasn’t aware of anything around me. I was totally engulfed in God and in theTorah and in the prayers. I had on my new tallis that Mom and I had picked out the day before. It’s white and has beautiful silver letters embroidered around the neck band. I kept running my fingers through the fringes at the end of my tallis. The fringes are a reminder of God’s commandments and our obligation to obey them. Now I was the one taking on the obligations.
Then, all of a sudden, I was done. I chanted the final blessings. My friend Ari came up and held the Torah while it was dressed. My parents were on the bimah with me. I looked over at them every once in a while and saw from the expressions on their faces how proud they were of me.
I believe in the teaching of the Torah. I live it as much as I can. My mom gave me a Torah commentary as a bar mitzvah gift, and I take it down and read it a lot. When I think about having kids (it’s a long way off; I’m still just a teen) I know I won’t force them to be Jewish, but I know I want them to have the option. It’s funny to think how all of this happened, how I came to be Jewish.
A year after my bar mitzvah, my family moved to Portland, Oregon. I joined the temple there. We have plans for my friend Ari to visit from California for a long weekend. I can’t wait to have the kids in my temple youth group meet him.
This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.
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