by Justin Womack, the first in a two part series of a couple’s mikveh experience
It was June 18, 2013,–Tzadik Lev’s birthday.
People always ask what does it feel to be an African-American man who converted to Judaism? I always wonder why that matters. A member of the tribe is a member of the tribe! My conversion experience had nothing to do with being black, and everything to do with me. My conversion was an experience of connecting with my true self and connecting with Hashem (God’s name).
I admit that I am a worry-wart and I worried about every aspect of the conversion, both before and after. I was obsessed with observing as many mitzvot (commandments) as I could, and doing everything “just right”—including how to prepare for and how to immerse in the mikveh itself. I asked the Mikveh Guide, the Mikveh Center Director, and my Rabbi tons of questions. Everyone was patient and kind, putting up with my neuroses.
I studied with my rabbi and wife; I did hatafat dam brit (ritual circumcision); I sat with and discussed my Jewish journey with the beit din (rabbinic court), yet still I was worried. Despite my anxiety, something that the Mikveh Guide told me stuck—Kasher! My immersion was kosher. I was a Jew. At some point, I need to stop worrying and enjoy the person I have become.
The shul (synagogue) we chose is wonderful and everyone is very welcoming and loving. This was evident by the way the entire congregation turned out on the evening of our conversion to witness our Jewish wedding. (My wife also converted at the same time, and we felt that we needed to take this next step to truly finalize the conversion process, and, so our marriage would be recognized throughout the Jewish community.) I felt this love every time I made an aliyah (called up to read or recite blessings before or after the Torah is read) or carried the Torah. I especially felt the love when the cantor gave me the opportunity to chant a Torah portion for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Despite the love, I still had doubts, but I realized the only person who can take anything away from this is me!
Weeks after this realization, I relaxed. I stopped worrying about what I couldn’t control and started enjoying the ride. A big part of my identity formation was the ensuring the world, not just the people in my shul, recognized me as a Jew. After my conversion, I began wearing tzitzit (ritual fringes) and a kippah (ritual head cover) frequently. I had been growing my hair out for quite some time, with the intent of cutting payot (ritual sidecurls), but then I decided to slow down and take things step by step. I began to doubt myself again. Was I still Jewish if I cut all my hair, forgoing payot? What if I decided to stop wearing a kippah and tzitzit?
Instead of spiraling, I remembered my own advice: the only person that can take away my Jewish experience is me.
After I calmed down, I realized there are many “small” ways I can engage with my Jewish community: helping as one of the ten people required for a minyan (quorum); saying kaddish for the loss of a friend’s relative; giving tzedakah (money to charity), etc.
I learned that my connection the Jewish people is more about what I do, not what the outside world sees. I still like the ritual and meaning offered by tzitzit and kippah, but now the mitzvah isn’t about what others see, it is about me.
Justin Womack (Tzadik Lev) was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Justin has always enjoyed the martial arts, has earned: a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, green belt in Chi Do Kwan Karate, and a green sash in Tien Shan Pai Kung-fu. Justin Womack is also a 2013 graduate of the JD/MBA program at Suffolk University Law School. Justin is married to the ever-lovely Nadia Womack. Together they raise their “son” a soon to be 8-year-old Boxer, Brutus. Justin and Nadia are members of Temple Shalom in Medford, and graduates of the Jewish Discovery Institute.
Stay tuned for Nadia’s thoughts on her conversion in next week’s blog!