They travelled to Calabria, the toe of the boot, from all over the world. Eight adults and two children, they came to southern Italy from as far as China and as near as Venice to finish their long, multi-year, conversion process in the warm mikvah, the ritual bath, that is the Mediterranean Sea. Some had a Jewish grandparent or two, and felt like they were reentering the Jewish people. Some were spiritual seekers questing after Truth, and some felt drawn toward a religion constructed on foundations of doubt and constructive critical questioning.
The day before the mikvah, the beit din, the three rabbis who grant final approval to each convert, began convening in the fourth floor conference room of the Savant Hotel at around nine in the morning. One by one, each of the eight adults sat across from the beit din for about 45 minutes, answering questions about their journey and their commitment to Judaism. As this happened, I sat with the rest of the group three floors below and led a succession of seven classes about various topics: The burning bush, the prophets, Shabbat, Hasidic stories, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra, tefilin, and King David. I spoke for a few minutes on each topic, and then community formed as we shared our thoughts.
I had the privilege of sitting in on the eighth beit din session, that of a German man with a young family. The new Jew was asked about his Jewish household. He replied with a story about his three year old daughter. As she was presented with her birthday cake this year, she saw the candles and instinctively covered her eyes and began reciting ‘Baruch atah Adonai…’ A rabbi asked him whether he was fully aware of the negative consequences of being Jewish. He was aware. The rabbi asked him if he understood what it might mean for his family, because when a brick is thrown through his window, that house belongs to his entire family. He understood. The rabbi, performing his due diligence, asked both questions again with slightly different phrasing. The new Jew demonstrated that he fully understood and accepted the consequences of tossing his lot in with that of the Jewish people.
The next morning, we gathered at the Savant Hotel and travelled by bus to a secret spot along the Mediterranean Sea, accessible by parking off the highway shoulder and walking through an underpass. The beach was rocky, and there were a few locals looking for privacy and two stray dogs, one of which could trace his immediate ancestry to at least one wolf. I waded into the water, and one of my cheap flip flops from the China Store, where made in China products are exclusively sold in Calabria, was quickly lost in the rough surf. A rabbi gathered the group together and gave a talk about identity and transformation. In his charming English accent, he spoke of Jewish superheroes: Superman, Batman, and Dr. Who, and the perils and thrills of assuming a new role in life. Then, one by one, the new Jews waded out toward me into the sea, and I watched and helped them as they interspersed the mikvah blessings with full dips beneath the choppy waters and popped out of the water as full members of the Jewish people. I bear-hugged each person and wished them a safe journey, both in Jewish life and across the strong currents and the rocky path toward the welcoming shore. As I exited the water, the husband of one of the new Jews smiled and excitedly held up my lost flip flop. What was lost was found, and the moment seemed complete.
We held a Kiddush on the beach, boarded the bus, and went back to the Savant to eat lunch and to present the new Jews with their official conversion certificates. While the bus ride to the beach had been one of nervous chatter and anxious excitement, the ride back was quiet, contemplative, and reflective. A true transformation took place over these two days, and the Jewish journey had just begun anew.
Until next time... Arrivederci...
(To learn more about Rabbi Barbara Aiello and La Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, visit Rabbi Aiello’s website at www.rabbibarbara.com).