By: Jennifer Kouba
During the spring and summer of 2015 I experienced many transitions, personal challenges, and new opportunities. During this time I found myself seeking a spiritual space to help me find meaning in the more difficult and heartbreaking moments, ground me during the transitions, and guide me during the time of change.
I was raised Catholic, but it had never quite felt right on my skin. The values that were instilled in me during my upbringing in a Catholic household and with a Catholic education are still very much part of who I am today. Despite that, I’ve always known that it just isn’t quite right for me. I remember attending a Catholic mass during one of the Service Immersion Trips I led at DePaul and watching members of the community really get into it. They were visibly having a spiritual connection and a beautiful, meaningful experience. I teared up with appreciation for the opportunity to witness their connection to their faith, but it also generated a deeper longing for my own spiritual connection. So I decided to embark on a spiritual journey and visit different faith communities that I felt called to explore. I first tried out a few new Catholic parishes, I visited a couple non-denominational Christian services, I went to a Buddhist temple, and had previously attended a few United Church of Christ services as well as a Lutheran funeral service. I could recognize the value and meaningful traditions at each, but did not feel a spark or a flutter in my soul until I went to a Mishkan Friday night Shabbat service at Bodhi. Shalva, my one and only Jewish friend at the time, went with me to serve as a support, but also quite literally a guide. I remember fumbling with the Siddur, eyes wide for all the foreign feeling moments, and the overwhelming feeling of YES. I loved that I could physically feel the music, energy, and spirit immediately upon entering the space. In my heart, I had a feeling I had found my spiritual home, but it took me awhile to commit to the decision that truly felt like it had been made for me.
I continued to attend services at Mishkan when I could and continued to feel an overwhelming feeling of YES when I did. Even though I’m super introverted with Ellie’s suggestion, I decided to attend Mishkamp in 2016. It was there that I made new friends, learned new traditions and rituals, but most importantly, I had my most powerful prayer experience of my life. We had Saturday morning services outside on the most gorgeous day with plentiful sunshine, dewy grass, and birds chirping. When we took a moment for personal prayer, I remember closing my eyes and turning my face toward the sun and feeling overwhelmed with G-d’s love and presence. It felt like the sun shining on my face was really G-d’s light and love fully enveloping me and shining on the path set before me. I felt more affirmed than ever before and this overpowering feeling of gratitude took over and I was moved to tears. After services I felt refreshed and cleansed. I continue to have similar moments in services from time to time and am always grateful for the regrounding and affirmation in my decision. My biggest YES moment was at my family’s Easter Sunday meal last year. I asked to recite the HaMotzi and after I did my cousin asked if I planned to convert and I simply stated, “yes.”
I experienced many transformations during the conversion process. The most significant change has been learning to own my choice more. I stopped shrinking when I spoke about my faith and have begun to take pride in it. I have learned to be more public with my faith. I used to apologize at services in dialogue with other community members and let them know that I was actually Catholic so I didn’t know much. I don’t do that anymore. With Rabbi Ally’s suggestion, I began owning it in other ways. I started wearing a hamsa necklace with a Star of David. I put up a mezuzah and I purchased a havdalah candle. I started saying the Shema every night. I have also built my Jewish community. Even though I didn’t pursue Judaism for the community, it’s been incredibly special to connect with people in the same position and to develop new meaningful relationships during this process. Most importantly, the conversion process has helped me to begin accepting that I do not need to know everything all at once or do everything perfectly. I have begun to celebrate my unique Jewishness and my personal relationship with G-d that is the foundation of my faith practice.
My relationship with G-d is rooted in gratitude.
The focus and emphasis on gratitude is one of my favorite elements of Judaism. During the Amidah at services, I always find myself on the gratitude meditation page and having a heart-opening conversation with G-d about how thankful I am for the beauty marks and dark spots in my life and everything in between. These moments in prayer, especially at services, help keep my feet firmly planted on the ground and my heart wide open. I feel like the path I’m carving is lit by G-d’s light and love and I’m in charge of carving it with my own love and light.
From the start of this journey, I’ve been drawn to the idea that we are responsible for building the type of world in which we want to live and that it is not up to anyone but us. I value the understanding that G-d has given us everything we need within us to work toward a just and more perfect world. I selected Meira (one who gives light) Tova (goodness) for my Hebrew name. I chose this name for myself because I aspire to be one who gives light and creates goodness in the world in which I live. Judaism helps me turn closer toward the person I aspire to be.
I still have so much to learn. I am excited and eager to continue to grow and develop my relationship with and understanding of Judaism. I will continue to work on my faith practice outside of services. I am currently exploring my own Shabbat practices and rituals at home, trying to keep kosher, using Hebrew flashcards, and utilizing different learning tools now that class is coming to an end. My main goal is to know more about Israel and its people and to spend more time studying Torah.
I am honored to have been part of this cohort, to be part of Mishkan, to learn with Rabbi Lizzi, Rabbi Lauren, and Rabbi Ally, and to have the opportunity to formally enter the Jewish community.