Born Jewish or Not, You Matter

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I’m a convert. I converted. I wasn’t “BORN” Jewish, whatever the heck that means.

Seventh grade was a formative year for me. That year, we studied the Holocaust, propelling me to reach out to my paternal grandmother who is a survivor. Her story inspired me to find my identity through the deliberate representation of my heritage and the honoring of her legacy. Finding an identity is an integral step to growing up in this crazy, confusing and kind of hostile world.

My role model for conversion was my aunt Kathy. She converted upon marrying my uncle, and I always loved going to her Passover seders. My memories of Judaism were always positive and included being with family, my cousins, the food, the smells and the sounds of the Hebrew language. My aunt and my uncle got divorced when I was in seventh grade, at the exact time I was struggling with those identity issues and going through the dreaded dark ages of puberty. Their divorce cut me off to all that I knew of Judaism; I felt like I had lost half of my identity because my dad didn’t really “do Judaism” in a traditional way.

So I did something abnormal for a twelve-year-old. I told my mom I wanted to convert. Then we decided I needed to be part of a greater community to help me grow into the identity I was choosing for myself. We found Temple Israel of Hollywood, where I met with a female rabbi I felt connected to instantly. The openness of this new environment encouraged me to have a conversion ceremony, to finalize what I was already feeling, learning, and going through.

Since I was raised with a Christian mother and converted as a teen, I didn’t have the traditional Jewish upbringing that entails ritual and tradition, etc. So, I really latched onto the social justice aspects of the Jewish peoplehood, especially after taking a social justice religious school class at my temple when I was 14 and traveling to Washington D.C. for the L’Taken (social justice) conference.

After hosting my very first Passover seder in college, I fell into the Peer Network Engagement fellowship at Columbia’s Hillel. I loved engaging with other Jewish students, especially empowering young women being that we struggle to represent ourselves in a way that makes us happy and acknowledges the pressures to conform to what society wants us to be like. I want to work in public health on campuses, because I love working with students, especially with community – and Judaism is more than just a religion, it’s a peoplehood that is a community like no other. Growing up, I had a difficult time grasping issues of diversity at my predominantly white upper-middle-class private school in Los Angeles, but ever since I was exposed to diversity programs and human rights courses at Columbia University, I have recognized my purpose as a Jewish social activist, especially drawing on both sides of my mixed heritage.

So I guess it doesn’t really matter that I’m a convert, does it? I can still be an impactful member of the Jewish community.

Elle Wisnicki

Columbia Hillel.

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