This piece was published in The Pasadena Star News on March 24, 2002.
So few are the sweet moments in life that we savor forever. Most often they
occur unexpectedly. Rarely do they occur by design.
Take, for example, wedding ceremonies. By design, they should be the happiest
day of a young couple’s life. It is the moment they make a lifelong commitment in front of loving friends and family. Yeah, right.
Most of the moments we civilized humans engineer are fraught with pitfalls, pain and
misunderstanding. Rarely does the highly anticipated and over-planned ceremony
result in the magic moment young adults dream of.
People who have attended a ceremony or two can describe a racooned-eyed bride with
mascara that wasn’t waterproof after all, a drunken brother-in-law who pawed the
nieces at the Bar Mitzvah party or an ugly scene between the mother-of-the-bride and
the mother-of-the-groom at the rehearsal dinner.
Once in a great while a ceremony brings together a group of people who, for a tiny
moment, become one with the celebrant. The ceremony envelops them with a spirit
that sweeps in and holds them together. Such moments are cherished.
I will long remember a conversion ceremony. We were rather surprised that our friend
was converting, as she had been married to a Jewish man for almost twenty years.
Although the couple had raised their three children in the Jewish faith, our friend was
just now making a formal commitment to Judaism.
We were a small group, less than 20 people, gathered at the front of the synagogue.
The rabbi invited us to stand close by, on the bimah. It was an August evening, at the
end of a hot summer day. Soft light filtered through the stained glass.
The rabbi talked to us in a quite, intimate way. She spoke from the heart as she talked
about community, commitment and love.
Then she placed the Torah in the arms of our friend and asked her to recite Sh’ma, the
prayer that proclaims there is one God. As one who converted 17 years earlier, I
recalled Sh’ma as the first prayer I memorized. When my friend spoke it for the first
time as a Jew, her body shuddered, she caught her breath and recited the words
through her tears.
Most of us had tears as well, as we listened to her recite the ancient prayer. Everyone
held their breath.Surely the rabbi was reminded of why she chose her profession. A
moment of spirit was felt by all as a new Jewish soul found its place.
The conversion document had to be signed by two witnesses. The first witness was her
husband, the second, her best friend. Both of them were so moved they had trouble
writing their own name. At that profound moment, all of us felt part of the tribe of Sarah
The word Israel means “struggle with God.” As she held the precious Torah in her
arms, among friends and family, the convert determined to continue her struggle as a
member of her adopted tribe. Jews do not proselytize, indeed, they do not encourage
people to convert. However, once a person has demonstrated her unfailing
determination to take up the struggle, she is welcomed and supported.
I will always be grateful for that transcending moment of spirit and love. I wish more
ceremonies would bestow upon its participants a time of reflection and joy.Such ceremonies do not require a cake, a DJ or abundant bouquets of roses. All that is
needed is an open heart, a commitment to faith and a joyous gathering of family and
Kathleen Vallee Stein