Growing up, I didn’t have a strong religious background. I never would have expected to become an Orthodox Jew.
Being non-affiliated was a choice my grandfather made that trickled down to my immediate family. Other Latino families had Catholic memorabilia donned all over their walls, but we didn’t. I was curious about God, and I wanted some type of formal education to learn more about Him. So, in college I minored in religious philosophy to do just that.
You may already know this, but college generally isn’t the best place to learn about religion. I basically came out of it being an atheist. I thought that I alone was in control of my destiny, and I held to that with vigor. I believed happiness came from a prestigious job title and money, so that’s what I pursued.
I didn’t refer to God as Hashem at the time, but looking back, I can see how He took care of me and led me on a path that taught me otherwise. Unfortunately, it started with a whirlwind love and a harsh breakup, which I credit to my pride and ego. Although I took the blame, I was shattered.
From the depths of this heartbreak is where my conversion story begins.
My best friend was there with me, when it truly felt like I was unraveling. She did what any twenty-something girlfriend would do to support her bestie during a breakup — she took me out clubbing.
And this was how Judaism came into my life.
An Unexpected Messenger
Now, the club scene isn’t necessarily the most spiritual environment, but there was no way Hashem was going to catch me anywhere else. We had a promoter whose job it was to get us into exclusive clubs. Eventually, we got to know our friendly neighborhood promoter and realized some interesting tidbits.
The club promoter wasn’t the most observant, but kept kosher. That was interesting to me.
Something else important to note: I had been exposed to Judaism before, but I also wasn’t going through an emotional train wreck at the time. The precise timing was so drastically important in this conversion story. Hashem picked the right time (post breakup), place (club) and person (me at 26) to make a shidduch (match) happen, and this was the moment He put me on the path that would lead me back to Him. I can now see that thread moving through the whole story.
Because it sparked my interest, I began Googling what kashrus was, then looked up Jewish history, and eventually started attending classes at a local Conservative synagogue about what Jews believe. It snowballed. I enjoyed learning; it was fun for me, but I didn’t see this going anywhere long term. So, on the last day of class, I was done with Judaism. I was ready to find a new distraction when Hashem intervened… again.
Right as I was about to walk out, the rabbi approached me and invited me to a Shabbos services. This service led to kiddushes, which led to being invited to meals and then volunteering at local Jewish events. Eventually, I forgot all about my distraction and began enjoying my time at shul. It made me happy. And so, this was the beginning of my religious learning and repairing my relationship with God.
Eventually, conversion started becoming a topic of discussion. I felt that there was something there for me that was real. It felt like I was meant to explore it further. At that point, I viewed Judaism as more of a social scene — going to events, taking the train to Shabbos services, no pork or shellfish, but eating everything else was okay. Without the halachos, Judaism wasn’t strong enough for me to take conversion seriously. However, I will say that this level of observance was powerful enough to make me change in other ways. It was still an impactful first step to becoming who I am now.
Soon after that, I moved away from my family and friends. Like Avraham Avinu when he left his father, I too had to leave my family to truly immerse myself in Judaism and give it a real chance. But there was fear and hesitation. What if conversion was still a post breakup distraction? What if I got tired of trying to do the right thing? What if God doesn’t really exist? And my biggest fear… what if becoming Jewish didn’t bring me happiness?
These fears put my ego in overdrive, which led to me making some very embarrassing mistakes during my conversion process. I ridiculed Jewish traditions and was highly overdramatic in curbing my secular ways. I was being a stubborn brat, showing off how worldly I was and how closed minded “frummies” were.
So, I got rejected by the beis din…
Seriously, can you blame them? I was being an idiot, and it almost ended my conversion.
Hashem didn’t give up on me, I see that so clearly. He put people in my life who saw my potential and they introduced me to a rabbi who took a chance on me to see my conversion to the end. The official conversion process took three years, but it was twelve years from that first encounter in the club until my conversion to fully understand why I became a Jew.
The thing about conversion is that you have to have emunah (faith) in yourself. You’re also in this relationship with Hashem. I had to believe in myself to know that I could change. That’s what my breakup started. And although it was one of the most painful experiences in my life, the way I reacted to that pain (by striving to get back up and try again) was what led me to free myself and become the person Hashem and I knew I was meant to be. This sincere drive led me to choose Judaism, and now it’s who I am.
Orthodox Judaism certainly isn’t for everyone, but change is. It’s important to make this decision with a clear perspective. I almost didn’t make it because I was focusing on the wrong things. Had I not had a good support system of strong women and a very patient rabbi who believed in me, I wouldn’t be here today as a frum Jew.
“But wait a minute, what was the moment you knew you wanted to become Jewish?” I get asked this all the time. There was no one “krias yam suf” (splitting of the sea) moment. Everything in this story (and there’s so much more) tells you exactly where Hashem intervened in my life to show me He exists. And if I know God exists, then I’m accepting all He has to offer. All of it. It just all kept coming back to Judaism.
“But wait, these are just coincidences!” I don’t believe that. These seemingly trivial moments were how Hashem revealed His plan for me. Once I humbled myself and stopped putting unrealistic expectations on Hashem, thinking He was going to reveal Himself to me in a grandiose way (chutzpah!), was when I saw Him. I realized I needed this Higher Power in Hashem in order to guide me through life. It was something I wanted, something that made my life better.
“And what about happiness? Did becoming Jewish make you happy?”” Well, this was an unrealistic expectation. Life isn’t happiness, life is real. You’re the one who makes it happy. Once I stopped looking at Judaism as a means to happiness, I was able to navigate my free choice, with clear and achievable expectations, to visualize my Orthodox Jewish life. Believe me, I’m much happier living this way.
“And what about your breakup? Is Judaism still a distraction?” This was the hardest question to face, and I know it’s why it took so long for me to get here. I really had to do teshuvah (repentance) for what I did, and letting go of the past was the last step before truly immersing myself in conversion to where it became my choice. I wasn’t going to let my mistakes define me or keep me from changing. Letting go doesn’t mean the pain or experience disappears. It’s still there. But how you react to the pain does change. It transforms into something else, and this is where you’ll find true peace and happiness.
When you make your choices out of complete and total sincerity – without ego, without ulterior motive — it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done or where you come from. Hashem is with you. Period. Whether you believe in Him or not, whether you become Jewish or not, whether you’re on the derech (path) or off the derech. Always remember that Hashem is with you and He’s just waiting for you to take that next step towards finding your true journey.