I've been meaning to blog about this for ages: just before I visited England, the rabbi asked me to be a witness for two women who were converting to Judaism. A major part of the conversion process is immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath, and the conversand needs to be watched to make sure she is completely submerged and has followed all the proper procedures. Since the immersion has to be performed naked, it would be really inappropriate for a male rabbi to be the witness for a woman's conversion. So he asked me instead.
On the one hand, this is a tremendous honour and responsibility. Witnesses are a keystone of the Jewish legal system and are expected to be religiously observant, morally and spiritually elevated people. And in the case of witnessing a conversion, it's even more critical, because the correctness of the immersion procedure determines whether the person actually becomes Jewish, with all the ritual and status implications for her and her future children that carries. I must admit I was really amazed to be asked; my first reaction was, surely you need someone important for that job! It was hard to overcome that without sliding into arrogance, and wanting to be a witness for purely ego-driven reasons would be really disrespecting the process.
I happened to speak to to redbird soon after getting this request, and she really helped me to come to terms with the idea. It is true that although I am a newcomer to the community, I have been getting involved as much as I can, and my contribution in the shape of turning up to weekday services regularly is not insignificant. I am hardly claiming to be a saint, but I am committed and knowledgeable.
The other issue was that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of mikvah. It's never been relevant in my life, so I know very little about the laws around it or even the practicalities of how it works. And also, the main reason a mikvah is used apart from conversion is menstrual purity, an observance which is mainly the province of the rightmost end of the Orthodox spectrum and one which it is hard for a liberal, egalitarian Jew to have positive associations with. Luckily, ploni_bat_ploni came to my rescue. She taught me some of the basic laws around mikvah, and explained the practical aspects so I knew what to expect, and made me feel a lot more comfortable about the whole idea. So much appreciation to redbird and ploni_bat_ploni for making it possible for me to do such an important thing well!
I couldn't be more glad I did it. It was such an inspiring and moving experience to be part of such an important moment in two women's lives, and to celebrate with them when they emerged as new Jews.
Talking of contributing to the community, ploni_bat_ploni and I have agreed to take over the running of the egalitarian / alternative service, which has been organized by the same two people for 7 years and they understandably want a break. We volunteered for this before the results of the vote when the community decided to be completely egal anyway, which somewhat diminishes the need for this alternative setup. But we both want some worship where the congregation participate directly and create a nice atmosphere, as opposed to the very formal setup of the main service, and I'm pretty sure we're not the only ones who feel this way. This Friday night was our first experiment in this direction, and it went very well indeed. There defininitely seems to be enthusiasm to make this a regular event.
We met up on Thursday evening to finalize the plans and buy food to offer people, and to start preparing meals for us to eat over shabbat as a 3:15 sunset time (and it's still got over a month to go of getting worse, argh!) leaves no time for any preparation on Friday afternoon. In many ways it was a good excuse to spend a relaxed evening together, as well as being practically necessary. So our prior organization meant we had a nice, non-stressful time between lighting candles on Friday afternoon and going to synagogue for the service itself.
ploni_bat_ploni and are excellently well-matched. I have a lot of experience and knowledge of leading services (such as the fact that I did so almost entirely single-handed for four years in Dundee!), while she is musical and knowledgeable and very good at getting people involved. And we work well together, both in the preparation stages and when we were actually in front of the congregation.
I think about 15 people turned up, people who all positively wanted to be there. And it went really well. Not absolutely without a blip but the general momentum and atmosphere were so good that a couple of minor hesitations were hardly even noticeable. ploni_bat_ploni got people into the spirit with her lovely singing and general presence, and I kept everything grounded and made sure the service flowed through in its proper order. Highly enjoyable, and we're resolved to tackle a full Saturday morning service in the new year.
Afterwards we were on a magnificent high having carried it off, and we went back to ploni_bat_ploni's place for a delicious meal and yet more chatting. ploni_bat_ploni had done something very impressive with a chicken (darcydodo, you should approve, cos she's being very good at reminding me to eat meat!), and something equally impressive with some pears for dessert. If I hadn't been ridiculously tired it would have been the perfect Friday night, and even with being tired it was great.
And after a night's sleep I had a lovely day yesterday as well. A Progressive service in the morning, which was delightful as ever (I read six verses from Torah, another little contribution to my community). And then lunch and a very fun afternoon with ploni_bat_ploni and a cool friend of hers who is visiting from Scotland.
And in a different context of contributing to the community, in the lab we've all been agreed for a while that it would be very sensible to start having group meetings again, so I decided to be the one to bell the cat and suggest this to my boss. His reaction was pretty much: sure, you go ahead and organize it! So I did so, and we had a preliminary meeting on Friday, in the course of which we learnt that our dear absent-minded professor has published two papers and bagged us a share in tens of millions of Kronor worth of funding, and never got round to telling us about it... So that's another way for me to feel more like a productive member of society rather than a pointless newcomer, anyway.