I warned the rabbis not to worry if they heard a lot of splashing in the mikveh, the ritual Jewish bath where I would immerse myself and say a prayer to mark my conversion to Judaism. At nine months pregnant, “I’m very buoyant,” I explained.
A few minutes (and some splashing) later, I emerged from the water a full-fledged Jew — one of those big life moments that felt... well, not that dramatic. After months of study, conversations and classes, I didn’t feel different.
Then the mikveh attendant, a nice older lady with a heavy accent, wrapped a robe around my shoulders.
“Mazel tov!” she said. “Now you can be a gut Yiddishe mama… a nice Jewish mother,” she translated.
Her sweet congratulations felt like an embrace as warm as that fuzzy robe.
Conversion is a journey full of surprises — some happy, some not so much. Americans are more "spiritually mobile" these days than ever before, not bound by the religious traditions in which they were raised. There are as many reasons for converting as there are converts, but we all share some common ground. Here are a few things that surprised me about the process, as well as thoughts from converts to Catholicism and Islam.
1. You will know more than many of your friends/family born into the religion. The only people who know the words to the Sabbath prayers by heart in my husband’s (Jewish) family are me and my sister-in-law… who also converted.
This actually makes a lot of sense. Growing up in a religion, faith is like the wallpaper in your mom's kitchen — familiar, comforting, but rarely noticed or studied. Converts choose a faith as adults, so we make it our business to know the things that everyone else learned, and mostly forgot, 30 years ago in Sunday or Hebrew school.
2. That said, you won’t know EVERYTHING — and some people will expect you to. You'll go from faith newbie to The Authority on Everything About [New Religion], no matter how much you protest. If your new religion encourages prayer, whisper a little thank you to God for the gift of Google.
If your faith involves a change in the way you dress, like it did for Muslim convert Hannah Nemec-Snider, a 24-year-old living in Los Angeles, you can expect even more questions. So very, many questions.
"You're about to become the token Muslim girl to Americans and the token convert to your Muslim friends. People are going to start talking to you about religion EVERYWHERE you are," says Nemec-Snider, who blogs at Convert Confessions. "From the lady buying grapefruit next to you in Kroger to the cute little couple trying to say hello to you in Arabic, to the little girl who will make your day by asking if you’re a princess… you’re going to have a LOT of conversations. Better get over it now, because it's your new favorite topic."
3. God works in mysterious ways. The conversion process isn't all heavenly light on the road to Damascus. There's a lot of work involved, and your reasons for converting in the first place might be more practical than spiritual. But God has a way of getting in there.
Jennifer Fulwiler started looking into religion as a philosophical investigation. She never expected to fall in love with Catholicism, a transformation she writes about in her book, "Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It."
"This is going to sound ridiculous, but my biggest surprise was that God is real," said Fulwiler, an Austin, Texas, mom of six who blogs at Conversion Diary. "Coming from a background of lifelong atheism, I thought of it all as a philosophical investigation. I didn't expect to encounter a real person whom I can turn to in the big (and little) moments of my life."
4. Sometimes you feel like you'll never fit it... and then, all of a sudden, you do.
A blonde, blue-eyed woman in my "Judaism 101" conversion class once complained that she felt like her appearance made her stand out at services. Another classmate, a stunning, 6-foot-tall African-American woman engaged to an Israeli Jew, cocked an eyebrow at her. "Oh yeah, like I really blend."
Every convert has those moments of feeling like a flamingo in a flock of starlings. But there will come a moment, usually imperceptible, when your pronouns shift. No longer "me" and "them," you'll start to think about "we" and "us."
Fulwiler had her moment at a noisy Catholic event with tons of kids running around. As an only child, the whole kid-friendly culture of Catholicism used to seem strange, and even annoy her at times (really, do kids need to be included in every event?). Fast forward: "I was at a Catholic event with my own herd of kids running around, and I realized that I felt completely at home. In fact, it would have seemed weird if there weren't the sounds of cooing babies and laughing children in the background of our adult conversation. That was a big turning point for me, when I realized that I now felt completely comfortable in Catholic culture."
Nemec-Snider despaired of ever being able to master prayers in Arabic, a totally foreign language. Now she not only knows thousands of Arabic words and dozens of prayers, she absolutely loves prayer.
Her message to future converts? "You got this."
5. Don't worry about mama drama... until you have to.
I psyched myself up to tell my parents I was converting from Episcopalian to Jewish. I carefully discussed all my points about how this choice was not a rejection of my upbringing; it was about how I wanted to raise my children in a united faith. I may have written an outline with bullets. Then I nervously waited for their response. It went something like this:
"Oh. OK honey, that's fine. We just want you to be happy. Did we tell you we're getting a new lawn mower?"
That was it. No tears, no big blow-out. And it wasn't a bluff. They really did just want me to be happy, whatever faith I chose. Now that I have children of my own, I both understand their response and find it all the more touching.
Fulwiler's family was equally supportive: "My parents always taught me to seek truth and follow it wherever it led me, and they respected the fact that I did that with my conversion, even when it was inconvenient."
To be sure, not everyone's conversion is so drama-free. One woman in my conversion class at Temple Rodeph Sholom got weekly phone calls from her evangelical Christian mother, sobbing because she truly believed her daughter would spend an eternity in hell if she converted. When Alana Raybon converted to Islam, it created a decade-long rift with her mother Patricia, a devout Christian. The Raybons eventually reconciled and even wrote a book about it, "Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace." (Click here to read an excerpt.)
Alana Raybontold TODAYshe encourages converts to be patient and empathetic with their parents. "Try to understand the hurt that your parents may be experiencing and show compassion for their feelings," she said.
6. You will see the invisible tie that binds us all together. Conversion is a journey into the unknown. But you'll find familiar markers along your way. Especially for the three "religions of Abraham" — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — we converts are always seeing common threads.
One Catholic convert to Judaism loved the ritual of lighting candles on the Sabbath, as it reminded her of lighting candles in church growing up. The language of The Lord's Prayer echoes the words of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. No matter how far from your original faith you roam, you'll meet constant reminders that we're all basically the same inside.
"Truly, we are all brothers living under the same God," Nemec-Snider said. "Don’t tell a Jewish mother, a Puerto Rican mother, or an Indian mother that you’re full — you’ll get yelled at. The only difference will be if it’s in Yiddish, Spanish or Urdu."