Stepping Forward
In my Torah portion, Numbers 8:14—16, the Lord reiterates that the first born of the sons of Israel (as well as of the animals) were wholly his by right because he had preserved their lives when the Angel of Death took the firstborn of only Egypt. Despite this debt, God decided instead to take the Levites for himself. This led me to ask “Why the Levites?” Going back to Exodus 32, after Moses came down from the mountain with the ten commandments, finding the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, Moses said, ”Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” and all the Levites rallied to him.” Perhaps the Levites were chosen to serve the Lord because they had not been involved with the worship of the Golden Calf, but more likely they were chosen for their loyalty and their readiness to step forward when called by Moses and to carry out the Lord’s terrible punishment to the idol worshippers.
I believe that there are times when one must step forward, even when it is not clear where one is going or what the outcome will be. There are many reasons why I decided to convert to Judaism before my marriage to Bob. Most obviously, one was that I had always felt connected in some way. My Congregationalist mother, as my first grade Sunday School teacher, had led us in making mezuzot, writing out the Shema, and reciting it in English. Later she would take our Pilgrim Fellowship Youth group to visit a Jewish Home for the Elderly because she said they knew the right way to care for old people. It is no surprise that my younger sister also converted, so half of my mother’s grandchildren are Jewish.
But the decisive influence was a dream that I had before conversion: I am standing on a train platform with my blonde little girl (then only a vague future thought) watching a train full of people pulling out of the station. She turns to me and says, “But we don’t have to go.” When I woke I realized what the dream meant and vowed that neither I nor my children would ever be in a position to stand back and watch, to separate ourselves from the fate of my husband-to-be and the Jewish people, but instead to step forward and say in the words of Ruth to Naomi, “Whither thou goest, I will go.” When we sing the “Veshameru” we are reminded of the berit olam, or “covenant that binds the Jewish people to the Jewish faith and Jewish fate, the steadfast devotion (hesed) to all that God would want for us and demand of us” (Kol Haneshamah 307).
When I converted to Judaism in 1968 I took Ruth as my Hebrew name and accepted a new identity as a Jew, but I did not completely give up my old one. Just as my husband’s family had come to the United States to escape religious persecution, so had my Puritan and Quaker ancestors. In the late 1960’s we both valued the role of the individual conscience, the obligation to work for social justice, and the importance of “speaking truth to power.” Like Ruth, when I met Bob I was childless and newly widowed, but unlike the established Boaz, he was young and getting ready to go to Africa with the Peace Corps. When he returned amidst the chaos of the assassination of Martin Luther King, I left the theatre, we got married and took the night train to Grenada Mississippi to integrate a Black elementary school set down amidst the cotton fields. We did not mind being too poor to own a car because that meant the Klan could not waylay us on the road at night.
Our early involvement in the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s rights movements surprisingly led to 15 years of political campaigns and winning party office in Western Queens. Throughout these years we worked at creating a Jewish home and community for our children, hosting Hanukkah and Passover events and even holding a secular shule in our home. Our search for religious education for our children in the end led us to a Reform synagogue where I felt very welcomed, but also rather ignorant, having forgotten the little Hebrew I had learned before my conversion. I promised myself that when the demands of teaching at Hostos Community College (CUNY) and of raising our children stopped taking up all my energy, I would learn more about the prayers and be able to stop faking it so much during the service.
Our move to Amherst in 2010 to play a bigger role in our grandchildren’s lives brought us to The Jewish Community of Amherst, our first Reconstructionist synagogue. In my brief exposure to the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan I feel as if I am moving back to the inner core of my beliefs, a recognition of what I have believed all along, which blends nicely with aspects of my New England Transcendentalism. My new action will be learning more about Kaplan and his contribution to modern Judaism.
I feel very lucky to be here in the first years of Rabbi Weiner’s service and admire his courage in leading this large class of adults in their bar and bat mitzvah studies. I greatly appreciate his commitment, great learning, and sense of humor. I also thank my fellow students who join in this process with me, as well as Batya Perman and Deena Rubin who have worked to teach me Hebrew and to sing trope. And finally, I appreciate my family’s forbearance with me as I have labored to learn enough Hebrew and trope to participate in this eventful day when I step forward to start the process of being a full member of the congregation.
Dorothy S. Pam