Reflections on a Special Conversion

Written by Lisa Port White

One of my favorite tasks as a guide at Mayyim Hayyim is to witness conversion immersions and be the first to welcome someone into Judaism. I like it so much that I often scan the calendar and sign up when I know there is going to be a conversion.

Lisa Port White

Last spring, after I’d committed to a time, I received a follow up email from Carrie asking if I’d read the notes and to let her know if I had any questions or concerns. Of course I had not, so I went and checked and saw the particulars: XX is male-to-female transgender, pre-op. Rabbi is not requiring hatafat dam brit [symbolic drop of blood from the site of circumcision].

Did I have any questions or concerns? I didn’t want to. I like to think of myself as open and non-judgmental around sexuality. I’m sure I have questions, but not that would affect my guiding. My concern was only to be able to make the experience as easy and comfortable for her as possible. I also wanted to make 100% sure I was not motivated by curiosity. And I wanted to be honest—because if I am honest, I am curious. I am curious by nature. In fact, if I were any more curious, I’d be living with a man with a yellow hat and you’d be calling me George.

It did not take long to understand that I wanted and could accept this mitzvah and know I was doing so with a whole heart. I was glad I let myself worry and wonder, if briefly, so that I could let it go and really be present. I was very thankful, grateful, to Carrie for having me check out the notes. Being prepared for the visit helped it run smoothly.

There are three things that need to happen for a successful experience for the people I guide for and/or witness:

  • she has a relaxed and easeful experience as possible
  • she immerses completely
  • she comes up for air

Everything else is commentary, as far as I’m concerned.

There were a few things that were remarkable about this witnessing. The first was just how nervous the candidate was. At one point, when I was giving her friends a tour of the ‘dry side’ while she was going to wait for the rabbis in the beit din room to call her, I suggested she just sit and relax. Then I amended that to, ‘unless relaxing makes you nervous, then you just sit here and don’t relax because we don’t want extra stress.’ She seemed to appreciate that and said she would just wait nervously, so we were all set. I like a woman who knows she is more comfortable being anxious than calm. I am one of those myself.

The other moment came when she and I were going over opening the bor cap and the specific steps about what would happen once she was ready to immerse (I will ask if it is okay to remove the sheet, I’ll be holding it like this, I can check for stray hairs on your back if you’d like and remove them, etc.). She said, “You do know I’m a pre-op…” She did not finish the sentence. I assured her that I did.

I did make a mistake. I had misunderstood the guide who had greeted her and thought she’d told me that the woman’s parents were with her. I asked if she wanted her parents and guests to be present in the atrium with the rabbis. Her parents were not there and I felt as though I’d added/introduced pain that could have been avoided by just saying “guests.”

Then I did the usual thing, inviting her to take her time preparing, etc. and to let me know if she had any questions.

When she was ready and the guests and rabbis were gathered, I was behind that sheet like I have never been behind a sheet. While I had thought I was treating her like any other guest, I did not. I became aware of how, over the few years of guiding, my sheet holding has changed. Protecting our clients’ modesty is a boundary I thought I had been keeping—but it was clear with this experience that I have become lax. I have seen a breast here and there, a tattoo, a buttock or belly. Not this time. Well, I did see her back and her bottom at one point when I needed to see if she’d immersed completely.

I was exhausted at the end of my shift. It seemed as though I had had to exude more calmness than I felt—not that I was nervous with her, but to counter her nervousness. I was disappointed in myself when I realized that I had let my sheet-work slip. I was unnerved that I did not, after all, treat her like all other guests in that particular regard. However, I left with a renewed sense of protecting the privacy of all the women I will witness in the future, and I met the three goals. She immersed completely; she came up for air, and she had the most relaxed and easeful experience she could have had.

Baruch HaShem.

Lisa Port White gives massage and Reiki treatments to people in hospice. She is an active volunteer at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek and at Mayyim Hayyim as a mikveh guide. To learn more about her, visit her blog at www.lisaportwhite.com.

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