Converting from a Jewish Label to a Jewish Life

Converting from a Jewish Label to a Jewish Life

When my older brother Scott was a senior in college, he wrote home about the new woman he was dating. Three pieces of information stuck out: 1) she had the same first name as his sister (that’s me), 2) she was from Minnesota (where’s that?) and 3) she was Jewish. While many Jewish families would have regarded that third detail as cause for either relief or celebration, our family took it as evidence that his new girlfriend was in a cult, and would certainly try to get my brother to drink the (kosher) Kool-Aid.

While our family was Jewish, we were Jewish in label only. Any appearance of living a Jewish life was an unintended result of living in New York City, where you are practically Jewish just by living in its grid. We believed that Judaism – and, by ecumenical extension, all organized religion – was an expression of compulsive neuroses (at best) and the cause of every war in the history of mankind (at worst). So when my brother shared this factoid about his new paramour, Debra, he had to know that we wouldn’t be pareve about it. Not that he even knew what "pareve" meant.

We did have our own traditions, of course. When faced with something we didn’t really understand, we did what we always did: we made jokes. Not at Debra, of course. But about what we knew (read: pretended to know) about living a Jewish life: a life that must be vacant without bacon, or stringent due to shul, or hamstrung by holidays that we didn’t observe. Over the years, as Scott and Debra’s commitment to each other grew, our teasing waned out of respect for the challenges my brother faced in shifting from a Jewish label to a Jewish life. He was the one who would be keeping a kosher home – not us. He was the one who would be blessing the wine and the challah each week – not us. He was the one who would be raising his children to believe in a God and a lifestyle he was only just learning about – not us. And with what I’m sure were many concessions on both sides, Scott and Debra got married, and are raising three bright, beautiful children who speak Hebrew, love Israel, lead synagogue services, and have their own well-educated opinions about what being Jewish means to them.

Ever-competitive with my big brother who was now living a Conservative Jewish life, I began dating a Modern Orthodox man when I was in my twenties. This experience would turn out to be the "Jewish Boot Camp" that I never knew I wanted, but am eternally grateful to have had. It’s little wonder that that first family members to whom I introduced my boyfriend was my brother and sister-in-law – a decision that saved me from a panic attack and my new flame from a wrongful arrest.

The first morning of our visit, I woke up and went downstairs to Scott and Debra’s kitchen to feed my little niece Shira her breakfast. As I spooned scrambled eggs into her mouth, Shira stopped chewing long enough to point over my shoulder and ask, "Aunt Deborah, what’s your friend doing?" I turned around to see my new friend slowly and painstakingly wrapping a black leather strap up his arm. I had seen enough Afterschool Specials on TV to deduce exactly what he was doing — and that it was about to involve some kind of needle, and eventually, require rehab. It was at the very moment that I was about to snatch my innocent niece from her highchair and run from the house that Debra came downstairs and explained to me the Jewish practice of laying tefillin. While I learned about the Torah’s commandment that we wear tefillin on our arms and our heads to remember that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, I was humbled by how much I had to learn, as well as how willing I was to turn my new boyfriend into the cops.

While the relationship didn’t last, what I had learned and begun to practice during our years together did. I learned how to bensch after meals and how to talk to God. I learned a little Hebrew and a lot about keeping a kosher home. I learned how to be Shomer Shabbos, and that I didn’t want to be. All of these Jewish rites and rituals that I learned out of love paved the way for me to meet and marry the love of my life, my husband Michael – who already kept a kosher home and had a relationship with God. And now, the two of us together have made a family of four who keep kosher, make Shabbat dinner, belong to a shul and regard Jewish practice a tenet of our daily lives.

Earlier this year, I was in L.A. for work and was delighted to have the opportunity to take my younger brother, Andrew, and his lovely new girlfriend, Lourdes, out for a birthday dinner. As Andrew drove down the freeway, Lourdes and I got to know each other. Born in Honduras, Lourdes was raised Catholic. She was baptized, and received her first communion and confirmation from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, due to her openness to religion in general, it didn’t seem strange for her to accept a coveted Early Childhood Educator position at the Alpert Jewish Community Center.

"I just got back from a fantastic workshop," she told me, "where my supervisor and I learned how to apply Pirkei Avot in the classroom."

"Pirkie A-what?" my brother Andrew asked. "What’s that?"

Here we go again, I smiled.

As Lourdes lovingly and correctly explained the collection of advice, ethics and insights of leading rabbinic scholars to her Jewish boyfriend, I realized that I had the honor of watching the next of our siblings get curious about what Judaism can offer beyond worries and wars.

What will stick for Andrew? What will last? How will this love story end up? Who knows. I do know that when Andrew asked Lourdes if she would convert to Judaism if they got married one day, her response was telling; she asked him "Will YOU?" The one thing I do know is that each of us went on a Jewish journey in the name of love, and we have moved along our own personal continua from Jewish label to Jewish life.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or Read previous ‘Success’ columns here.

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