For as long as I can remember, Judaism has always fascinated me. There was something so familiar about it, yet, I was born into a Catholic family, and given a Catholic education. This never stopped me from having many Jewish friends, and attending their holidays and celebrations. I remember attending many bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, and feeling such a strong connection to the events and traditions… as if I belonged.
Many years after my divorce, and knowing, as my kids approached their late teenage years, it was time for me to pursue what had been calling me for so long.
I decided to register for an Introduction to Judaism class at the temple five minutes from my house. I had already been taking conversational Hebrew classes for a few years, and realized I needed to learn more about Jewish history, traditions and customs if I was seriously considering conversion.
My class had about 50 participants, but about half were partners of each student, and their future Jewish spouse. Most were converting and preparing for marriage. Some were already married to a Jewish spouse, and a few were Jewish and just wanted to learn more about their history. There were a handful of us who wanted to convert for ourselves… because we felt we were already Jewish in our soul, and we were being called back, to return to Judaism.
The first day of class we were given many carefully chosen books (my favorites: The Jewish Home, Settings of Silver, and Introduction to Judaism – Sourcebook), a Jewish calendar, and a Hebrew language workbook. The first 50 minutes of each class was dedicated to learning to read Hebrew. I think this is very important since all the prayers are in Hebrew, a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language is crucial. Our Hebrew teacher works at an elementary school, and her energy and enthusiasm was great. She even brought M&M’s when she taught us nikud (vowels).
Each class topic had assigned readings from the various books. I chose to read the passages after each class so that I could relate what I had heard in class, and delve more deeply into each subject.
The most important topics ranging from all the Jewish holidays and traditions to prayer, Torah, God, the Holocaust and history of the State of Israel were presented during the three and a half month course. What I enjoyed most about the classes was that every class was taught by a different rabbi. Having a different teacher for each class offered exceptionally diverse teaching styles while maintaining the course’s focus and prospective. I looked forward to every class, and was curious to see how each rabbi would approach his/her assigned topic.
During the classes, we were encouraged to ask questions, but we were also very hands on. We met in the temple kitchen to braid challah and bake hamentaschen. We prepared a model Seder dinner, and sang Passover songs with a cantor. We even took a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial, and had dinner at an Israeli restaurant. I met frequently with my rabbi, and started attending Shabbat services so I could put into practice everything I was learning.
I signed up for the class, knowing I was ready for conversion. I had known in my heart I belonged with the Jewish people for so long, it was just a matter of making it official. This class gave me deeper historical knowledge and cultural understanding of Jewish traditions. But most importantly, it linked the gap between what I had observed in Jewish life, and what I am now living in my Jewish life. This class also opened many doors in my Jewish journey, and introduced me to many new people both in class and at synagogue.
My ancestors are from Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Maybe they were forced to convert at the inquisition? I don’t know… what I do know is that I feel Jewish in my heart and soul. At my conversion, when I stepped out of the mikveh, I felt lifted up, when my rabbi chanted an ancient priestly blessing as I held the torah in my arms at my presentation to the congregation, I was again lifted up, and when I prayed in Israel at the Kotel this month, it finally came full circle. If my ancestors had been calling me back Judaism, their call was heard. I am proud to stand with the Jewish people, to light my Shabbat candles on Friday, and to continue to learn. I am living a Jewish life based on values and traditions, with a passion for advocating goodness, acceptance, respect, humility and love.
Cristina Fernandes, lives in Coral Gables, has a 17 year-old daughter, and 19 year-old son. She runs her own business in the healthcare industry, and is a journalist.