San Francisco's Top Irishman on His Conversion to Judaism

I just love Tommy Collison, ok. There's no news peg.

When I called Tommy Collison today to go over an edit, he was stepping out for lunch after a half-day Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew lesson.

Tommy and I met at the Kitchen in SF, where we were both newbies, though he’s been much better at his studies than I have. Like, let’s say today: I was just outside sunning; Tommy’s deep into Hebrew study.

And so today here’s San Francisco’s best and newest Irish-Jewish tribesman on why and how he chose a Jewish life and how converting during the pandemic taught him about “lo ba-shamayim hi” (it’s not in heaven).

Shabbat shalom!

— NB

Israel and Ireland are roughly the same age, and I think that’s part of it. Everyone’s always asking for the neat story of my conversion, and the shortest answer is: I always had an academic interest in Israel.

Imagine if I met you at a bar and said, ‘Let me tell you a story. It’s a country that’s 70 years old. It’s surrounded by enemies. And it has more startups in the NASDAQ than any country in Europe.’ I mean it’s remarkable. Then I spent time in Israel, and my academic interest turned into an emotional one.

When I started going to The Kitchen, at first I loved it because these are just good people to hang out with. I enjoyed it. And there was the surprise of it: A popular religious institution in my city? I was curious! In SF, in this hyper-individualist world, Judaism puts forth the question: what if you should have more obligations to other people than you think you do? Judaism demands a standard of behavior that’s higher than I’d hold myself to alone.

I’m not sure if I was ever told this explicitly, but one of the reasons that prospective converts spend over a year studying with a rabbi is that it allows them to experience a full Jewish calendar year. Potential Jews spend the year getting in sync with the observances. Under the guidance of a rabbi, I learned to sort my Tisha B’Av from my Tu B’Shvat from my Tu B’Av. [Editors note: I did not.]

And so I began down the path. As I went down the path, I knew I could always step off. But I didn’t.

***

Given the importance of being around loved ones at most of the holidays, the shelter-in-place orders in 2020 made it particularly hard to feel part of a Jewish community. (Stressing the communal nature of the holidays, one of my favorite viral tweets categorizes each Jewish holiday as to whether they tried to kill us, and whether or not we get to eat.)

The shelter-in-place orders also made it difficult to be a convert: however hard born-Jews find it to create a Jewish practice on their own, or in their small family, many Jews-by-choice -- myself included -- found it especially difficult to create a meaningful observance.

All of this is how I found myself clicking on a Zoom link to attend my first ever Passover seder, hosted by a friend-of-a-friend in April 2020. This was before we got used to spending every waking moment on Zoom together. Our hosts tried to break the ice.

“So, yes, having a Zoom seder is unusual, but it’s not as if this is anyone’s first seder. Why don’t we go around and share a fond memory of seders growing up? Tommy, why don’t you start?” 

Whoops. 

My newness to Judaism came up again during the seder, when I couldn’t sing “Ma Nishtana.” It’s usually sung by the youngest child present, and while I’d read books about the seder during my conversion, I’d never actually heard the song performed.

This tension, having book knowledge but not experience of “doing Jewish,” was one of the defining aspects of converting for me. It makes sense: reading is a pandemic-friendly activity. The sedar I attended in 2020, Zoom and all, was a moving, enjoyable evening that was better than reading 10 books. 

If there’s one thing I’d change about my conversion experience, it would be to frontload the experiences of living Jewishly rather than reading too much and getting too much in my head. I like to think that the text backs up this approach. 

The people Israel accept the covenant that Moshe has just received on Mt. Sinai. Their response? Na’aseh ve-nishma — we will do and we will hear. That is, the Israelites agree to enter the covenant without (depending on how you translate the word “shma”) hearing or understanding it.

But the enduring wisdom of the Jewish calendar is that it’s cyclical. Each Yom Kippur gives us a chance to stake our claim as to what sort of person we want to be in the coming year. Each Passover is a chance to tell and retell the story of who we are. Each Tu BiShvat is a chance to think about how great trees are.

Converting felt like a process that culminated in the Beit Din. I woke up the morning after my mikveh date with a sense of.. well, what comes now? It took me a while to realize that “the rest of your Jewish life” is what comes now. I didn’t get to do a full traditional seder in 2021, but I was lucky enough to spend Passover 2021 with loved ones. I spent the 2020 High Holy Days sheltering-in-place at home, but this year gives me a chance to do them again.

“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, “rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands, in order to understand more than he does.” 

Converting during 2020 helped me gain a new appreciation for lo ba-shamayim hi — the idea (which comes from Devarim and translates as “It’s not in heaven”) that observing mitvzot is close to human hearts, and that Judaism is not solely practiced in the synagogue. My relationship to being Jewish, the one that I cultivated during the pandemic, by necessity, had to be within the walls of my home.

My Judaism is an action-based faith, one that stresses community. Next year in Jerusalem? I’ll settle for next year in person.

Tommy Collison is a writer, do-er of things at a startup, and a Jew-by-choice.