My Conversion to Judaism

Editor Note:  Kelli shared her conversion story at Shabbat services on June 15, as part of our tradition where a different congregant will share their conversion story each year when we read from the Book of Ruth on Shavuot.

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Good morning, everyone. It is a privilege to stand before you today to share the story of my conversion, at long last, to Judaism.

It started with Shehechiyanu.

Almost twenty years ago now, I was a college junior studying abroad in Ghana, West Africa. Our semester abroad was dedicated to better understanding the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the African diaspora.

During a tour of the infamous Cape Coast Castle, where captured Africans were held until ships arrived to take them to the New World, we came to “the door of no return.” This door, which opens out to the Atlantic Ocean, marked the final passage through which countless enslaved Africans left their homeland for the horrors of American slavery, never to return.

The weight of that moment was overwhelming. I felt angry and sad, but I also felt gratitude. Despite 400 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow and civil rights abuses, there I was, a descendant of enslaved African people, returning to the door of no return.

The moment was made even more profound when a classmate of mine spontaneously recited the Shehechiyanu. Her translation has stayed with me: “Holy One of Blessings, your presence fills Creation. You have kept us alive. You have sustained us. You have brought us to this moment.”

These ancient words perfectly encapsulated my mixed emotions of despair and gratitude, and I had to know more. My love of Judaism was sparked.

I began to explore Judaism and its differences from Christianity, the religion of my upbringing. One concept that particularly captivated me was tikkun olam, the commandment to repair the world. Where my experience of Christianity often encouraged us to give our problems to God or wait for our treasure in Heaven, Judaism placed the responsibility on each of us to do the work to repair the world and to do it now.

This call to action—to actively work towards making the world a better place—resonated deeply with me.

After returning home from Ghana, I intended to convert. However, life had other plans. My father, a devoted lay leader in his church, seemed hurt by my decision. He quite awkwardly responded: I feel like you’re just rejecting Jesus. Not wanting to disappoint him, and with the demands of the LSAT and law school applications ahead of me, I set aside my conversion plans.

In law school, I connected with many observant Jewish peers, further deepening my respect for Judaism. Although somewhat discouraged by the tradition of turning away would-be converts three times, I remained interested in converting. Yet, life continued to intervene. After graduating law school, I navigated the demands of a legal career, marriage, and motherhood, leaving little time to dwell on the meaning of life.

However, my connection to Judaism persisted. When my children were born, I knew I wanted to give them a set of values that would guide them when I wasn’t around. Without questioning it, we enrolled them in the Austin JCC’s early childhood program. When we moved to Montclair, we reached out to Ner Tamid and Shomrei to learn more about the preschools. As fate would have it, Ner Tamid didn’t have room for Henry, but Shomrei did. I can’t imagine we could have been more blessed than we have been here in the Shomrei community.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost two years now since we joined Shomrei as preschool members. When I enrolled Henry in preK last year, it dawned on me that this would be our final year as a Jewish preschool family. Our last year to have an excuse to celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and the values we’ve grown to love as a family. It would be our last year, unless…

Unless I finally made the leap and fulfilled the dream that started almost 20 years ago.

Around the time I was considering our family’s continued connection to Judaism, I read a quote about habit building. It said – if you want to run a mile every day, you don’t say “I am going to run a mile every day,” you say “I am a runner.” You own that identity. I read that line and instantly converted it in my head to “if you want to live Jewish values, you don’t say “I am going to live Jewish values” you say “I am Jewish.”

That was it. I was going to convert.

I reached out to Rabbi Julie sharing a bit of my story and my desire to convert. She graciously agreed to shepherd me through this process, which officially began a year ago – I remember going to a Chabad Shavuot event last Shavuot and feeling different, feeling a deeper connection than I would have if we were just going for fun for the kids.

We were talking about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and I thought how I, and other converts like myself, are similar to Moses in that moment. Unlike people who were born into Judaism, we weren’t given this guide at birth; like Moses, we had to call out to God and ask for guidance. Like Moses, God answered our call with commandments – some of which we can’t really understand but all of which remind us to live a more observant, present life.

With the support of my family—my father included—I began the conversion process. It has been a beautiful, commitment-deepening conversion year. I went to services here at Shomrei for Tisha b’Av, leaning on my dear friend Jill Tarlowe to give me pointers of where to sit and what to do. I brought my parents to high holiday services and felt a sense of connection realizing how many friends I have here to introduce them to. I had a sukkah in my backyard for Sukkot, installed by Ehud and loaned to us for the week by Shomrei. We hosted old friends like the Tarlowes, the Slepian’s, and the Grobman Weiss family in the sukkah as well as a new family we met at Rosh Hashanah services, Todd Stone and his mother Merrill. We celebrated all 8 days of Hanukah, where previously we might have only celebrated one or two days. I made a cheese and fruit board with Suzanna and the Chabad crew for Tu b’shevat. We delivered misloach manot to friends around town for Purim. I led a Seder for my family the first night of passover and joined Lou and Sarita at their home for the second night Seder.

And now here we are, having just celebrated Shavuot again. Another Shavuot, but different this time. This time, I’m officially Jewish.

The final part of the conversion process involves going before a beit din – a court of three rabbis. They ask questions about your intention to convert to Judaism. I shared my story of hearing the shehekiyanu with the beit din and one of the rabbis asked me if I had any other shehekiyanu moments in my life. I don’t know if it was my nerves, but I just didn’t really grasp what he was asking and felt like I gave him a weak answer.

They let me convert anyway, but I couldn’t shake that particular question. I dwelled on it some more and it dawned on me that life is full of shehekiyanu moments, if we’re looking for them. Beyond the traditional use of the prayer – the first time we do something that year, like lighting the Hanukah candles or hearing the shofar – we can also use the prayer whenever we realize the miracle of the moment in which we find ourselves.

After almost twenty years of considering Judaism – is it not a miracle that I find myself in front of this congregation for the first time as a Jewish person?

Baruch ata Adonai, Elo heinu melech ha olam. Sheheckiyanu,Vicky manu, vihigiyanu, lazman hazeh.

As I stand here today, I am filled with gratitude for Rabbi Julie, the Shomrei community, and my family for guiding and supporting me on this journey. Converting to Judaism has been an amazing process, one that has brought immense joy and purpose to my life and has only just begun.

Thank you all for being a part of this journey with me.

Shabbat Shalom.

Kelli Mason
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3 thoughts on “My Conversion to Judaism

  1. yasher koach on such a courageous and meaningful deed. As happy we are that you chose our people, as happy we are you chose our community, I am so grateful that you shared this teaching to look for the shecheyanus… May they be always too numerous for you to count.

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