He Raised Jewish Children. 20 Years In, He Officially Joined The Tribe.

This newsletter is now raining men! Hallelujah!

You’ll have to forgive me for missing last Thursday — I was taking my in-laws on a road trip through California for the very crucial purpose of introducing them to my parents, an event that was originally just a year or so past due but became almost suspiciously delayed thanks to covid.

I drove the Weisses from our new home in Los Angeles up and out to the Central Valley to see my dad at the family farm (there was even an onion harvest), then back in and up to my mom’s house in San Francisco. And not to toot my own horn but the whole trip was a hit.

On Friday, we got to go to our first in-person shabbat services, the first night our San Francisco shul was re-convening. I needed it. Shul over zoom doesn’t work for me, and it felt so good to be back again and see all the familiar faces. I hope my readers are doing the same wherever you are.

Now to business. Last week I put out a call for men, and . . . my inbox rained men! Hallelujah. And not just any men but great ones.

Our convert essay today is a piece by an investor and entrepreneur who also happens to be a very funny writer. That’s a rare combo. I’m so glad our essayist found this blog and so proud to feature him.

He is Tom Porter of Charlottesville. And this is his conversion story.

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I grew up without religion. My mother, a devout practicing Roman Catholic (emigrated from Naples IT) married my Presbyterian-raised father who had rejected all religion as 'tribal' by age 20. Notwithstanding his supportiveness in so many other ways, once married he forbade her to practice her faith for decades (he ultimately relented, repented, and fully supported her, but years late).

Needless to say, as children we had no religious upbringing, no baptism, etc. So I arrived at college and eagerly took comparative religion courses, loving the richness of the material and developing better understanding of what people believe, and how they sort themselves.

In my 30’s, I joined the Episcopal church with my wife (raised Methodist), and was baptised there along with our baby daughter on Pentacost Sunday, 1994. The marriage did not last, and I became involved (and now married 20 years) to Lisa.

Lisa is a warm and wonderful woman raised Jewish with activist, highly involved parents from Long Island, NY. Her father had been president of the synagogue, her mom very active as a speaker, lobbyist and major organizer in the Soviet Jewry movement throughout the 70’s-80’s.

Still technically an Episcopalian, though a quite estranged one, I joined my wife Lisa in the Jewish raising of her two children, and later our youngest daughter, through our synagogue affiliations in Potomac, MD, then Amherst, MA, and now Charlottesville, VA. In Amherst, Lisa served as co-President and President for 4 years and the synagogue became the center of our family life and our social and community activities. I participated in high holiday rituals, delighted in belting out all sorts of incantations, and I came to love the rhythm and the richness of the community practices. Still, I was not yet a Jew.

At high holidays 5777 (fall 2016) in Virginia, I joined others on the bimah when offered a chance to be recognized as “supportive non-Jewish partners.” Afterward, though, I felt unsettled. After decades of being part of the community, I decided on the spot to start a formal conversion—I wanted to be a real Jew, in full, and not a supporting player.

I’d stalled for those years for two reasons: I was afraid to disappoint and desert my mother, and I was intimidated about learning Hebrew, trope (incantations), and doing a year-long community service project along with the eighth graders. Upon investigation I was relieved to learn I need not first learn trope (although I'm doing that now at my own pace) nor do the project (ongoing: I'm saving the planet by recycling a Scotch bottle every couple of weeks). 

So I took the plunge, studied “Jew 101” with others in the congregation, drafted my personal faith journey, consulted over time with my Rabbi, ultimately had a full-on bris ceremony with house-call mohel & rabbi, prayers, bagels - the whole schmear. Trekked with Lisa to Richmond VA, submerged in mikvah, questioned by Beit Din, and dispatched with flying colors on 27 Tevet 5777. Oy!

About that bris: now, a man who’s converted can only get so far into telling the story before the inevitable question arises: Yes, conversion calls for circumcision (in my case, re- ). I enjoy addressing the question directly without blanching, as it makes for a lovely conversation starter and stopper—the men graphically wincing to hear of it, the women typically taking great delight in a macabre cross-examination. In my case, fear of re-circumcision was insignificant next to fear of Mom's judgment (my wise wife tells me susceptibility to maternal guilt is a sign I was always meant to be Jewish).

So the hurdle was telling my mother. Although she’d seen firsthand for almost twenty years how our family worshipped & kept a kosher kitchen, and she’d attended seders and b'nai mitzvahs for her granddaughters, I still agonized for years it would be a shocking betrayal. After all, I’d been the one in the family who worshipped alongside her on Easter. I actually wrote her a long, caring explanatory letter and mailed it — but so that it would arrive the day after I’d had the conversion!

Santa Mama's response: “Tom, I've been wondering for years what you were waiting for.”

Another punchline: In 1996, 39 years after their justice-of-the-peace wedding, my father did happily marry my mother in her Catholic church. Afterward the priest congratulated my father and commented on his converting from Judaism. “But I’m not Jewish,” Dad responded. “Oh, goodness,” the priest said, flummoxed — “Well, I just assumed, since you had waited so long, and your name was David, and you're a professor....”

Shalom,

Tom'i Ahava ben Avraham v'Sarah (ben David v'Rosalie)

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Thank you as always to our supporters who make it so all our essayists are paid. And thank you to our writers! New voices should find me here: nellie.writing@gmail.com