Note: I edited the last portion of this post on September 26, 2014 to include links to the different books and resources I was citing.

I have been engaged in recent months with the self-study program for adoption (an alternate term used in lieu of “conversion”) by the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

As part of my final assignment, I have written an essay that explains my decision to become Jewish, while also maintaining my identity as a Mennonite. I have decided to share it here, because it is a pretty big step in my life (and today is Rosh Hoshanah – the Jewish New Year – so it feels like the right time to step into a new stage of life).

Here is my essay…

A Short Essay on why I want to be identified with Humanistic Judaism

by James M. Branum

I have struggled with writing this essay for several months. Every time I decided to sit down and write it, I would convince myself that I just needed to study more and that I didn’t really understand what to say to such a huge question: Why do I want to be a Jew? –- But as the Jewish calendar has been approaching the mile marker of another Rosh Hoshana, I decided that this was the time for me to make my commitment and move forward on the process of adoption into the Jewish community.

Rosh Hoshana is significant to me, partly because of the powerful symbolism of a fresh start with a new year, but also because it was Rosh Hoshana that was my first real introduction to Jewish ritual practices. My wife has written about our first Rosh Hoshana more eloquently than I can at, but in short I can say that the powerful connection between the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis and Rosh Hoshana falling at the same time, was one that we wanted to celebrate.

And so we read up on Rosh Hoshana and celebrated it in a simple way at home. The experience meant a lot to us, particularly since it was a moment of deep connection for us as a fairly new family unit (my wife and I married nine months previous, which meant that I was also a newly minted step-dad to a tjen six-year old).

The experience was so powerful that we decided to start celebrating other Jewish holidays, especially Shabbat. We decided early on that we would give ourselves permission to adopt those practices that were life-affirming and helpful and discard those practices that felt dry, lifeless or just not helpful to us in our context, and so we started with Shabbat suppers on Friday nights. Later on we added other holidays, our favorites being Sukkot (yes, I did build a shack in the backyard where we ate some meals), Haunakah, and Purim. In all of these holidays, we did this with a spirit of playfulness, seeking to make these times joyful for us but also kid-friendly.

During this time the issue of identity started to pop up. We had read some books and resources on the Jewish holidays that tried to “christianize” the holidays with new meanings, but this just didn’t feel right to us. While we were willing to pick and choose specific practices we engaged in, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to try to give the practices we were doing a new meaning.

At the same, my wife and I were (and still are) active in a small very open-minded urban Mennonite church, and I am a part-time seminary student (through the distance learning program of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We love the community we are a part of, many of whom I work alongside on a regular basis in peace and social justice activism. I couldn’t imagine leaving that community, but thankfully this group does not seem to be threatened by us having a bi-religious identity. In fact we are known as a church that is ok with agnostic members who are stirred by the ethical teachings of Jesus, even if they are not sure if they believe in God.

My son also picked up on the issue. One day he came from school, asking his mom “Are we Joes?” We then asked him what he meant, and he said, “you know, the people that Esther saved on Purim. One of the kids at school asked me, and I didn’t know.” In this moment, it was clear to me that my son was frankly gaining more from our home observance of Judaism than he was from the experience of going to church. (again my wife has written about this incident much more eloquently than I did here. )

And then finally there was the issue of cultural misappropriation. One of my close friends expressed concern about this, in that he thought it was inappropriate and even offensive for a Christian to adopt Jewish spiritual practices. At first I was offended by the question, but in time I came to see that he had a point. There is a big difference between choosing to adopt another culture’s practices and actively joining another community and becoming a part of.

In light of this, I decided that I wanted to find a way to be Jewish without abandoning my current community. This led me to a process of reading and study, as well as reaching out to different Jewish communities, both locally and online. It quickly became clear to me that for almost all Jewish communities, that it would be unacceptable for me to retain my ties to the Mennonite Church while also adopting Judaism. Some communities were somewhat ok with interfaith families participating in their worship, but it was also very clear that the delineation between who is a Jew, and who is not a Jew, was pretty ironclad. This hostility (while understandable give the long history of anti-semitism in many parts of Christendom), still felt pretty hurtful, especially given the fact many Jews do in fact practice more than one religion (my favorite being Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author who is also a practicing Jew). I did not want to choose to being either/or.

Some friends suggested that the obvious solution was to affiliate with a Messianic Jewish community, but this was not a real possibility for me, as I am not “christian” enough in my theology for them. –- In short, I waver between agnosticism, deism and Unitarian theism. I also see Jesus as a great ethical teacher and prophet, but not as a substitute blood sacrifice to appease an angry God (which is the primary concern of so-called Messianic Judaism).

I of course also considered the possibility of just self-identifying as a Jew and leaving it at that, but I felt that this would also be disrespectful to the value of community and cultural identity of Judaism. To try to keep some kind of connection, I participated in online worship services of several Jewish communities, but I still felt a sense of distance. I wanted to know that I was a real Jew, and not just a curious outsider.

From my explorations, I narrowed my consideration to the Jewish Universalists of Sim Shalom and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, both of whom were welcoming of individuals who identified with more than one religious identity. The SHJ was in the end the best fit, because of its humanistic orientation.

I probably am more “religious” than most other members of the SHJ (i.e. I pray) but I find common ground with the humanistic approach that focuses the individual’s and community’s attention on the human-centered values that we hold in common.

So going back to the original question – I want to be a Jew, because I want to participate in the ritual life, culture, history and traditions of Judaism, as a participant, not as an observer.

And I want to be a Humanistic Jew, because I think that Judaism only makes sense through the lens of universal human values, that affirms those parts of the tradition that good and life affirming and discards those parts (such as homophobia, genocide, patriarchy, etc.) that are not.

In writing this essay I commit myself to the ongoing journey of living a Jewish life, understanding that it will often be messy and complicated. I acknowledge that my journey will be even more complicated than most, in that I am choosing to be connected to two spiritual/cultural communities, but I believe that this is part of what it means to be human. All of us have to spend our lives bridging cultural differences. As hard as it might be, this process can be a good and life-affirming one.

A list of some of the readings I did in my process of self-study
note: Some of these books I studied in detail, others were more of a quick read, and some I am still working my way through (most notably A Provocative People).