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‘Converting’ to Canadian

What I learned about conversion to Judaism when I took the oath of citizenship

by
Micah Streiffer
July 20, 2021
kurt hoffman
kurt hoffman
kurt hoffman
kurt hoffman

This spring, after nearly 10 years of living, working, and raising my family in Canada, I became a Canadian citizen. It was, in many ways, a profound shift in my identity. I’m no stranger to moving around: In my 42 years I’ve lived in 13 cities in three different countries. But this was different. In fact, it was the closest I’ve ever come to “converting.”

As a rabbi, I have long described conversion as a type of citizenship/naturalization process: You spend time living among your new people, learning about its history, values, and way of life before adopting that identity for yourself. But I don’t think I really knew what that meant, since I had never actually converted.

Taking the oath to become a Canadian (dual) citizen gave me the opportunity to personally experience what it is to join a new people. And although it’s not exactly the same thing as conversion, I learned a few things along the way—about identity formation and about how we are enriched by newcomers.

“Do you feel any different?” This is a question that I’ve asked dozens of newly minted Jews after they emerged from the mikvah. Now, for the first time, I got to ask myself.

I wondered if I would feel different after taking the oath of citizenship. Would I suddenly be imbued with a profound new sense of belonging? Feel more like the “real thing”? Would I finally learn to like Tim Horton’s coffee and appreciate hockey? But when I checked in with myself after the ceremony I found that, although I felt excited and moved by the experience, I felt no more Canadian than I had before.

Upon reflection, I think there is a good reason for that: In many ways I already felt Canadian before taking the oath. Although I was born and raised in the United States, I have lived in Toronto since 2011, and my Canadian identity was formed over the course of the past decade through participation in the community: watching the news, forming political views, paying taxes, taking part in cultural practices, sending my children to school, working and volunteering. There was no single moment when I suddenly felt transformed; yet by the time I raised my right hand before a judge, I felt Canadian. In that sense the oath wasn’t the bestowal of identity, as much of the legal recognition of what I already was.

I hear all the time from candidates for conversion to Judaism that (usually) there is no single “magic moment” when they suddenly feel Jewish. Rather, Jewish identify is forged over time through participation in Jewish learning, ritual, practices, and community. Every candidate I’ve ever converted has told me that they already felt Jewish by the time they came before the Beit Din. (In fact, it’s one of the criteria that I use to determine when it is time for the Beit Din.) In that sense, while rabbis and religious courts may be able to confer Jewish status, they can’t confer identity. What they are really doing is recognizing the Jewish identity that the person already has.

This can help inform our attitude toward inclusion of non-Jewish people in Jewish life. If we think of Jewish identity as forged through ongoing engagement rather than conferred by status, then we will be less likely to hurry people toward conversion and more likely to celebrate every Jewish choice along the way. We will be more likely to say yes to the interfaith couple who seeks a rabbi for their wedding, to invite the non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah as their child becomes bar/bat mitzvah, to welcome the spouse who wants to join the shul’s Ritual Committee even though they aren’t (yet?) Jewish. These actions are the expressions of a Jewish identity in formation; celebrating and encouraging them can only be beneficial for that identity-formation process. In fact, it’s fair to say that one of the reasons I wanted to become Canadian was because I already felt a part of Canadian society.

“Did you give up your American citizenship?” This second question is the one I’ve been asked the most since becoming Canadian. The answer is no: I’m still American. I still care deeply about the values, history, and destiny of my country of origin. I don’t feel that I have to give up the one in order to be the other.

That’s an idea that has been reinforced to me by the official literature of the government of Canada, which celebrates diversity and encourages immigrants to bring elements of their cultures of origin to their new Canadian lives. The Canadian application for citizenship notes: “Canada is a country that embodies multiculturalism and diversity and encourages newcomers to achieve their full potential …”

Canada is telling me that as an immigrant, I am as Canadian as anyone else. In fact, to a certain extent being an immigrant is the Canadian experience. With the important exception of the Indigenous population, almost every citizen of Canada today is descended from people who weren’t originally from here. The country is a vast mosaic of cultural practices, histories, and traditions, distilled through a set of shared values. That’s what it means to be a “nation of immigrants.”

Judaism is actually the same. Our foundational stories, which tell who we are and where we come from, are essentially immigrant stories—in the sense of “immigration” into Judaism. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, weren’t born Jewish; the Torah says that they came to Judaism as older adults in their 70s. The story of the Exodus tells that their descendants were joined on the way out of Egypt by a “mixed multitude”—which Rashi explains was a group of non-Jews who became integrated into the Jewish people.

No matter how you look at it, the story of Judaism is, in part, the story of people joining the Jewish people. And it is the story of the ways that those former outsiders have continually enriched our way of life. The list of external contributions to Judaism goes on and on: the Babylonian New Year, the Persian story of Purim, the ancient pagan Festival of Lights, the Roman-inspired Passover Seder. Even matzo ball (kneidl) soup, that “most Jewish” of foods, bears an undeniable resemblance to Central European knödel suppe.

In the end, the Jewish way of life—like the Canadian and American ones—is a mosaic of elements, many of which have been contributed by the various societies in which we have lived and the people that have joined us. For that reason, we do a disservice to Judaism when we think of converts as lesser in their Jewishness, or when we teach that “real” Jewishness is defined either by lineage or by fluency in the trappings of Ashkenazi life (Yiddish language, Eastern European food, etc). Rather, “real” Jewishness has a much more varied look than that, and is enriched by the cultural, historical, and philosophical contributions of all of those who join us.

In the weekly podcast that I host, “Seven Minute Torah,” I have the honor of interviewing rabbis and thought leaders about the Torah portion. During these conversations, I am almost always struck by the incredible diversity of opinions and ideas present in Judaism. It is a constant reminder that Judaism has room for many points of view, that each member of the community has a unique contribution to make. That identity and sense of self are forged through engagement with texts, traditions, rituals, and communities.

That’s something like what I felt when I held up my hand to swear allegiance and become Canadian: that I am still in the process of forging my own identity. That my past shapes, but does not define, my present and future. That there is room for growth and there is still learning to be done.

I am proud to be part of three traditions—Jewish, Canadian, and American—which (at their best) value this kind of diversity and this kind of ongoing growth. In which ideas are continually being reformulated with one eye to the past and one to the future; in which profound shifts in identity are possible, and even celebrated; in which newcomers have the opportunity to make a real contribution because they are valued as full members of the community.

This is a story as old as Judaism itself, but it is also renewed every single day.

Micah Streiffer is a rabbi, writer, musician and teacher based in Toronto. He serves as spiritual leader of Kol Ami Congregation in Thornhill, Ontario, and is the host of the weekly 'Seven Minute Torah' podcast.

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