(The headline given to this article online at J weekly in my Mixed and Matched column was written by someone who did not convert to Judaism. They meant well, but missed the point of the letter. This is not about changing shuls; it’s about changing one’s identity. Please forgive the confusion.)
Dear Dawn: I am single and converted to Judaism more than eight years ago. I worked with a wonderful Reform rabbi. Since my conversion with him I have continued to do a lot of studying at every opportunity. I’ve learned from rabbis from all the movements. Study has opened my eyes to the beauty of a more traditional practice and I have come to believe that the right Jewish practice for me involves behaviors that my fellow Reform Jews often put down, like kashrut and keeping Shabbat. I’m less and less comfortable with the limited knowledge of Jewish text that my fellow congregants have. I am considering having a Conservative conversion and becoming a member at my local Conservative shul where I’ve felt more at home. I want more friends who practice as I aspire to and to be involved in a community where observing Shabbat weekly and practicing all the holidays is a given. How do I do this without hurting the feelings of my dear rabbi and my many Reform friends? As a convert I feel a certain loyalty to my congregation. — Wanting to do this graciously
Dear Gracious: First, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your changing practices and beliefs. Humans change their faith beliefs and behaviors all the time. I suspect that your increased observance and learning has been noted by your friends and, quite possibly, your rabbi.
I won’t deny that there are some rabbis who take the departure of a congregant personally and are unhappy. However, Jews are always moving between the various streams of Judaism and levels of practice and the rabbis see it every day. For your rabbi, instead of losing interest in what he has made his life’s work, you are increasing your interest and engagement. Your heightened learning and practice may actually please him. You are not the first Jew to disagree with him on how to be a Jew. I believe that, while he may be sad to lose you, he will take pride in knowing that he converted a person who is deeply committed to Judaism.
I suggest you make an appointment with him and explain your deepening desire to integrate Jewish practice into your daily life. He may question you in order to fully understand how you came to your decision. He may want you to try to remain at his shul and adopt the practices you mention. This is certainly an option. However, as you mentioned, the way to have friends who consistently observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays is to join a community where that is expected and commonplace. I think your rabbi will understand. Just as he is making the decision to be Reform observant for reasons that make sense to him, you are making the decision to adopt a Conservative practice for reasons that make sense to you. He may simply want to hear about your process.
In regard to your Reform friends, it may be kinder to focus on your desire for a synagogue life that has more Hebrew, reads the entire Torah portion, uses the standard prayers, etc., than to talk in terms of individual practice level. There is no need to create a comparison in which they fall short of your mark. You still love them and want to be friends. If they are good friends they will learn to adapt to your changes. If you were to become vegan they would alter the menu when you come for dinner; they can do the same for kashrut. Anyone who would deprive you of your spiritual journey because it has not remained stagnant or does not match theirs is not much of a friend.
I suggest that you start attending the Conservative synagogue regularly before you say anything. Notice what about the service and the community you particularly like and want in your life. That way you’ll be describing things that you are adding to your Jewish life, rather than telling your rabbi and friends that you are reducing their presence. If you can, give specific examples: I like the longer Shabbat service and Torah reading. I like being invited home for lunch by other congregants. I like having many fellow congregants who put up a Sukkah, attend Torah study, and are familiar with the Mishnaic texts.
Ask yourself, one, what am I looking for, and two, am I getting it in this new synagogue? Being able to answer those questions will give you the language to articulate your journey to others.
You can certainly become involved in the life of the Conservative shul and then meet with the rabbi to explain your desire for a second conversion. The rabbi may feel that you don’t need one. So it may be up to you: Do you feel the need for an act that transitions you from Reform to Conservative? If so, you can find a rabbi to accommodate you.