Choosing to be a Jew

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Last week I went to synagogue and witnessed a ceremony to welcome a woman who had just converted to Judaism. I met this woman earlier in the week, at Mayyim Hayyim, where she marked her new Jewish life with an immersion in our mikveh.

At the synagogue, the rabbi offered a blessing. His words on giyur, or conversion, were in the spirit of our work at Mayyim Hayyim.

The rabbi said to the woman, “When you speak, it will no longer be them or they, but us. And we need you as much as you need this community.”  I looked at the woman standing at the bima, holding the Torah in her arms. At first she looked scared, but as the rabbi spoke, her fear gave way to pride, her face breaking into a smile — at her partner and her parents, seated in the front row.

As I sat behind them, I recalled a time when I saw conversion as a confusing part of Jewish culture.  I remember wondering as a child, why would anyone want to be Jewish?!

My grandparents and parents carried memories of Soviet-era anti-Semitism like luggage from Uzbekistan.  Familial sweetnesses were wrapped in warnings about outside dangers. So I made a bold teenage decision: I wasn’t going to be Jewish anymore.

I discarded my Jewish identity because being Jewish felt unsafe and useless.  Rituals and customs, though so familiar, felt like imposed strictures and divided movements.

After high school, I went west.  I thought I could become my own person there.  Ironically, when I arrived, it was Jewish communities reimagining Jewish practice that made me feel most like myself.  I found Jews praying in living-rooms and singing wordless melodies, niggunim, into the night.  We rejoiced in rehashing two-thousand-year-old debates from the Talmud, our tradition’s oral Torah and its written commentaries.

Similar to a person who converts to Judaism, I had to decide for myself, “these are my people, these practices are mine.”  Mayyim Hayyim was created because its founders wanted a place where any Jew or soon-to-be Jew could come and know that mikveh, and Jewish tradition in general, is fully theirs.

As the new Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim, I am thrilled that my path of reconnecting to Judaism and becoming a Jewish educator has put me in a position to offer learning and connection to others.  We at Mayyim Hayyim are excited to explore, with you, the many facets of being and becoming a Jew.

Leeza Negelev is Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She has developed and taught art- and theatre- inspired Jewish learning programs for people of all ages. Most recently, Leeza was an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and taught at Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. 



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