Judi's Journal 03-04-2011

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A quest for knowledge: One woman’s spiritual journey to Judaism

By Judi Siegal

What do a Christian research nurse, a Jewish writer and a former female Presbyterian lawyer, now rabbi have in common? The answer lies in a chance comment that led to a remarkable story of spiritual longing and a quest for knowledge.
I have for several months now been involved with a research study. My contact person, a Christian nurse, was querying me on my religious background and how it helps me to cope with everyday living. When I discussed with her my involvement with Judaism, quite surprisingly she told me her aunt was a rabbi. This sparked my curiosity and when I asked her what branch of Judaism her aunt was affiliated with, she mentioned she had graduated from “some school in California” and I surmised she had probably been ordained by the liberal Reform movement. The niece agreed and I was given contact information about her aunt.
The nurse’s aunt turned out to be Aviva Berg, the rabbi at Temple Beth David in Rochester, New York. After I introduced myself, Aviva was very willing to share the story of her spiritual journey with me. In a soft-spoken and relaxed manner she related her story.
Rabbi Berg was born in California but moved to Chicago where she grew up. Her family was Presbyterian but open minded about religion. This well-educated family pursed spiritual paths in different directions. One sister married a minister of the Evangelical Christian faith (she was the research nurse’s mother that I have been in contact with) and another sister dabbled in Eastern faiths. Religion did not become a major comment of her life until she married a Jew.
Her in-laws were most warm and ecumenical toward her. But it was Aviva who wanted to learn more about Judaism. While practicing law in Chicago, she started learning about the Jewish faith because of her attraction for education. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s classic work “Where Judaism Differs” was an inspiration to her and she began taking an active part in her Conservative congregation, Anshe Emet, in Chicago. Eventually she decided to convert, so she contacted the rabbi at Anshe Emet and seeing her as a potential convert, the rabbi tested her desire to learn by pushing her away twice. At the third attempt, he finally agreed to teach her. (Aviva did not know that it is traditional to refuse a potential convert to Judaism three times as a test of sincerity.)
And so, 26 years ago, she embarked on her path to Judaism, taking part in Jewish life cycle events, services and immersing herself in study. The yearlong course of learning involved reading and understanding the Hebrew language and finally immersing in a mikveh (ritual pool) as a final act of conversion. A year later, she became the first adult female to become a bat mitzvah at Anshe Emet. Because she wanted to know more, she enrolled in the University of Chicago and received a Masters in Jewish studies. At the time, she considered rabbinical school, not because she wanted to be a pulpit rabbi necessarily, but rather for the essence of Judaism which is study and learning. Logistically study at the Conservative movement’s seminary in New York was not feasible at the time so the idea was tabled.
The events of 9/11 were the catalyst for Aviva. She gave up her law practice and moved with her husband to California. Here she entered the Conservative movement’s seminary the prestigious University of Judaism, now called American Jewish University, (“some school in California”) to become a rabbi. The terrible events of Sept. 11 led her to believe that the world was traumatized and needed healing and she felt she could help others through the use of the Jewish faith. The six-year course to ordination was rigorous and challenging. Hebrew and studying Talmud (Jewish law) were challenging to her, especially because of her non-Jewish back ground. She also spent nine months studying in Israel where she had to speak Hebrew on a daily basis. But she felt this branch of Judaism, closer to Orthodox but with modern interpretation, was the substance of learning and spirituality she was looking for. She graduated at the top in her class and came to Temple Beth David in 2009.
Today she leads a life centered on mitzvot, commandments, and relishes in the ethics, culture and values of Judaism, which she instills in her congregants. Much like Reconstructionist Judaism (which grew out of the Conservative movement) she grapples with the practical and spiritual as they confront American values and how to balance Jewish ideals with American ones. Achieving this balance is where Jewish creativity takes over, she believes, and gives life meaning.
When I asked Rabbi Berg what she felt the future of Judaism was, she was most concerned with keeping the faith alive and vibrant to her congregants in Rochester. She also felt that Jews need to subscribe to the best of Jewish culture while embracing the traditions of all seekers. As Jews have survived in the past through encounters with other cultures, so too would Judaism survive in this modern age.
This story, typically, should end here. But in a soft-spoken, gentle voice, almost as a footnote to this saga, Aviva told me something extraordinary. It seems that when her parents moved to Florida they were cleaning out their possessions and Aviva’s mom wanted to know if she wanted her paternal grandmother’s menorah! Somewhere in Aviva’s family, the tradition goes, was a Jewish neshamah, Jewish soul, waiting to be reborn. It has found a home at last at the end of a remarkable spiritual journey.