by Ilana Sumka
I’m a political activist by training, so I was as surprised as anyone to find myself teaching Tanakh, (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and Jewish law to a group of conversion students.
A few weeks ago I had the profound honor of witnessing my students immerse in the mikveh after successfully appearing before the European beit din.
You’re more likely to find me preparing strategic action plans than pouring over a page of Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. So how did a seasoned political activist like myself turn mikveh lady?
Well, I’m more than a political activist. I’m a lover of Torah. Living Jewishly gives meaning to my life and I can’t imagine autumn without Sukkot or spring without Pesach. In 2004, I moved to Jerusalem and spent two years studying at Pardes. Many of my peers went on to become rabbis or Jewish educators. Not me. I was there for myself, and for myself alone – or so I thought at the time. I don’t mean to make it sound so selfish, I simply relished the opportunity to study Torah lishmah, study for the sake of study. Becoming a “Jewish educator” contained the risk of making me hate that which I love.
Fast forward seven years. Now I live in Belgium and am part of a progressive, English-speaking Jewish community in Brussels, called the International Jewish Center. Rabbi Nathan Alfred makes a point of getting to know every individual who comes through our doors, and for that I’m grateful. After meeting me and hearing that I’d studied at Pardes, he asked me if I would teach the community’s conversion course.
After some initial hesitation, I agreed. I had many ideas about things I wanted to teach, books I wanted my students to read, experiences I wanted them to have. But I didn’t know how to talk about conversion. In the communities I come from, it’s “not done” to talk about converts. That’s not an outdated tradition or superstitious taboo; the Talmud forbids us from treating converts differently from any other members of the tribe, and rightly so.
So how do you teach a course about something you can’t talk about?
Luckily, help came from friends in my new community and from Pardes friends who did go on to become rabbis and professional Jewish educators. When people are in the process of converting it’s not a secret. They need the support of the community to begin to integrate, well before their visit to the beit din.
Despite my adamancy not to enter the world of professional Jewish education, teaching conversion classes became a highlight. My students’ enthusiasm to embrace Jewish life, to explore Jewish text and practice and find their own personal meaning within it, consistently renewed my own love and commitment to Judaism.
The day at the beit din was one I will remember. I was honored to witness their sense of pride and accomplishment. To have the experience that “I am now who I feel I am” is a moment in a lifetime, and it was a privilege to see.
I’m still ambivalent about calling myself a professional Jewish educator. But standing on the edge of a warm pool, witnessing my students lower themselves into the water and certifying each immersion as kosher, I will happily call myself “Mikveh Lady.”
Ilana Sumka recently founded the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to address issues of peace and justice between Israelis and Palestinians after serving as Encounter’s Jerusalem Executive Director. She currently teaches conversion students at the International Jewish Center of Brussels.