What does it feel like?

What does it feel like?

Aaron Jordan, Black Jew by Choice, talks about life

A few weeks ago, our readers met Aaron Jordan of Englewood. He’s a young Black man, a newly qualified dentist, a husband deeply in love with his wife, and a new father. He’s also an Orthodox Jew by choice, a man who thinks deeply about the intersection of his two deeply held identities — for that matter a man who thinks deeply about just about everything — and someone whose understanding of how conversion works, and how to welcome new members into a community, is based not only in theory but in lived fact.

To be Jewish, in an ideal world, means both feeling Jewish in your soul and being accepted by a loving Jewish community that draws you seamlessly into it. 

Ideally, it would start at the beginning, as Dr. Jordan’s did.

Although his interest in religion began when he was young, although he did not feel connected to either his father’s religion — Catholicism — or his mother’s — she’s Methodist — although he enjoyed and grew close to some of the Jews and Jewish customs he encountered during his childhood and adolescence — Dr. Jordan’s real connection to Judaism began when he began his freshman year at Williams College and met a junior, Talia Mizikovsky. His interest in her and the Judaism she embodied were inseparable; they’re now married, and he’s now a Jew.

Aaron Jordan and Talia Mizikovsky at home in Englewood, two weeks before Lev Azriel was born.

But he didn’t convert to marry her; to be more accurate, he didn’t convert only to marry her. He converted because he was convinced that he was meant to be Jewish, and they were meant to be together.

But how did that conversion happen? What supported it? What can we learn from it?

When he began the actual conversion process — when all the hours and days and months of talking about religion with Talia and the other Jewish students at Williams coalesced into something formal — he also was a dental student at NYU, so he went to NYU’s Hillel. He met Rabbi Joe Wolfson, who started him on the Orthodox Union’s Geirus Protocols and Standards program. Rabbi Wolfson took Dr. Jordan to meet Rabbi Zvi Rom, the head administrator of the beit din — the rabbinic court that oversees conversion, as well as other matters — in Manhattan. “Rabbi Rom had expressed a sensitivity from the outset that I should be with a rabbi in Englewood, where I would be going for davening on Shabbat, both as an example for davening and to have him be my entrée into the communal davening experience.”

Because, of course, not only was Dr. Jordan not Jewish then, and without the bone-deep knowledge of how a minyan works that Jewish-born, yeshiva-trained Jews have (and others, without that background, do not), he also is Black. Although there are many Jews of color, most Jews are not, and most Jews assume that most Black people are not Jewish. It is harder for a Black man to blend into an Orthodox minyan than it would be for a non-Jewish white one.

Rabbi Gideon Black

But Dr. Jordan was able to have a role model. As luck would have it, Rabbi Wolfson’s predecessor at NYU is Rabbi Gideon Black — who lives in Englewood. The two men — both, oddly enough, Englishmen, complete with the charming accent — are friends, so that was an easy task. Rabbi Wolfson introduced not-yet-doctor Aaron Jordan to Rabbi Black.

“I would walk to his house in Englewood” from Ms. Mizikovksy’s mother’s house, where he would spend Shabbat, “and we would walk in together, and I would sit next to him,” Dr. Jordan said. “And we became friends.

Dr. Jordan holds up the Torah at morning minyan at Ahavath Torah in Englewood, after his wedding but before the pandemic began.

“I was still putting the practical elements of davening together at that time,” Dr. Jordan said. “I am now at the point where I am not perfect in Hebrew — or even good at it — but I do have some idea of its choreography. Of knowing where we are in the service. But then it was confusing to me to figure out where we were.” He knew broadly, he said, but “I could get lost in the intricacies of Shacharit. It was good to be with him.”

He was learning by watching — but not only by watching. It wasn’t impersonal in any way. It’s not like he was shadowing Rabbi Black; they were developing a relationship. He was figuring out the relationship between personal and communal prayer, and he had a mentor who could both model and answer questions. “Part of that transforming between personal to communal prayer is getting your feet wet,” Dr. Jordan said. “Of actually being part of the community.”

The community is Congregation Ahavath Torah; the two men would go to the auxiliary minyan. When he walked in, “there was the communal element; it was making sure that I had a chumash and siddur. I felt really involved and embraced. I felt absorbed.”

When he first began going to minyanim at NYU, Dr. Jordan followed Rabbi Wolfson’s advice and went for mincha or ma’ariv — afternoon or evening prayers. That’s because he would stand out less. Orthodox men wear tefillin in morning minyan; non-Jews do not.

Dr. Jordan did not wear tefillin until just before he converted — following a custom of some Orthodox Jews, he did not begin to wear a tallit until he married — and putting them on “was very weird and surreal.

“It was one of the best things I ever felt in my life,” he continued. “One of the things that I love about Judaism is the concept of holiness as being about separation. It is not necessarily a saintly kind of motif — that’s Christian — but about separation.

Dr. Jordan and Ms. Mizikovsky on their wedding day.

“When I put on tefillin, it looks holy — the black straps, the winding – but it confirmed that Judaism was right for me.

“It’s also daunting. It connects you to God in a physical and a spiritual way. You prepare by clearing your mind. And it is such a profoundly tactile thing. You feel the leather. You smell it. You run it through your fingers. You are preparing yourself for a conversation with God. The rosh tefillin” — the one that goes on your head — “is like a crown. When you wear it, you are like royalty.”

It was different putting on his tallit, he continued. “It is putting on a shroud,” with all the emotion and mystery and fear wearing such a garment would entail. But “Talia and her family bought me my first tallit.” They were wrapped up together in it at the wedding, and “it was the experience of coming together both physically and spiritually, as close and true partners, surrounded by God.”

The minyan’s gabbai, Jonathan Ash, also “made it his business to be friendly and to connect with me,” Dr. Jordan said. “It wasn’t just ‘who is this guy?’ It was a genuine interest, and he connected me with the group and made me feel part of the minyan.”

After about a year and a half, the beit din started looking for mikvah dates. He’s already been circumcised, so he underwent a hatafat dam brit, when a symbolic drop of blood is drawn. On March 6, 2017, he went to the mikvah. “The Christians definitely took over the term ‘born again,’ but it felt like it was the start of my new life,” Dr. Jordan said. “It was less a washing away of who I was, as in the traditional idea of you cleansing yourself. 

“It was more like I was being infused with something.

“There’s a reason that the conversion process takes two years. You take microsteps. You stop eating pork. You start keeping kosher. You start saying brachot. By the time you actually get to the mikvah, you’re like, okay, let’s do this. Let’s validate what I already feel — that I am Jewish. It’s less of feeling that I am not Jewish than actually being Jewish. It’s a binary thing, and the mikvah is a confirmation of that.

“It confirmed what I already was.”

Dr. Jordan was lucky, “because I had a community set up,” he said. “When I was born into the world as a Jew, I felt like I was born with that connection.

“Without it, it would be different. I had a commitment to living as a Jew. They say during the conversion process that once you do this, you can’t go back. You are stuck with being a Jew. You are stuck with the Jewish community. At that point, I felt that my community also was stuck with me.”

The community isn’t important only for converts, Dr. Jordan said. “If people don’t feel embraced, it’s like a different religion. Community isn’t just important. It’s everything. In Judaism, your relationship isn’t just with God. It’s also with your fellow Jews.”

There are some ironies inherent in being a Jew by choice. On the one hand, we are told that once you are a Jew, you are a Jew. Period. End of story. Nothing else to say.

On the other hand, Jews by choice are called up to the Torah in a way that screams “Convert!” They’re called by their first name, as is everyone, and then “ben Avraham Avinu.” The son of our father Abraham. Not of their physical fathers, as everyone else is. (In non-Orthodox shuls, where women are called to the Torah and men and women both are called by both parents’ names, Jews by choice are ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imanu. They add our mother Sarah.)

When he gets an aliyah at Ahavath Torah, either in the auxiliary minyan or the main one, sometimes he’s just called Aaron ben Avraham, leaving the Avinu unsaid; at other times he’s called by the full name. “I am fine with both of those,” Dr. Jordan said. “I am proud of my conversion identity, but I also don’t want it to define me. I did convert, and I am different. That doesn’t mean that I am any less or any more. Sometimes I don’t want to be different. I just want to walk into shul and be like everyone else. At other times it’s okay being different.

“God’s plan for me was that I be ben Avraham Avinu. That is what Hashem decided, and I take the good with the bad.”

To repeat the obvious, Dr. Jordan is Black. He is a Jew by choice, and he is a Jew of color. (And readers, do not make the mistaken assumption that all Jews of color are Jews by choice. Many are Jews by birth. But Dr. Jordan is not.)

“Obviously, being a Jew of color, you have two identities,” Dr. Jordan said. “You are always both a Black person and a Jewish person. And you are also a Jew of color.

“I always felt that the two identities mesh really well. As a Jew, you have the obligation to remember that Hashem freed us from slavery, and that was the start of us being a free people. We are not just free from something, we are free to serve Hashem. We have our agency, and we should use it to perform mitzvot toward God and toward our fellow man.

“As a Black person, I know that we have a recent story of slavery that makes it more visceral for us. My grandma, Emma Jordan, grew up in North Carolina, where she wasn’t allowed to walk through the door with her white peers. That is why she left to go to New York. So it is easier to tap into the Jewish narrative of slavery.

“That’s where those identities intersect. 

“And as a Black person, growing up in New York, I knew that I had to approach people in a super-respectful way. I couldn’t be seen as a threat, because things escalate with the police.

“We” — that’s Dr. Jordan and his twin brother, Jonathan — “had sit-down conversations with our father about it, about things like putting your hands on the dashboard if you are stopped by a police officer. Those talks started when we were about 8, and then we had multiple conversations. 

“Being a Jew of color, you are ultra-aware of anti-Semitism and racism, and then it magnified the experience. They go really well together. It is unfortunate that we have the Ashkenormative idea of what a Jew looks like” — white, that is.

“We came from 12 tribes, maybe 13, depending on who you ask. Being a Jew can look very different and very diverse.”

Most often, Dr. Jordan finds himself talking about diversity with Jewish groups — he’s often asked to speak about it for shuls and other Jewish organizations — but “now that I am in Englewood, I would like to connect with the Black community. I feel that I should personally extend myself,” he said.

“I live with both stories. Obviously I can’t speak from a completely Jewish perspective, because I didn’t grow up Jewish. It is the responsibility of both groups to acknowledge the hurt.

“Even if we can’t support Black Lives Matter — I have talked about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism — we can say that we have to do more to support racial justice because Black lives matter.

“We want to step up to help the Black community when it is hurting, because it is the right thing to do, and that is what we should do. We know that anti-Semitism is alive today, and when anti-Semitism happens we should expect other groups to support us, but we shouldn’t put the entire burden on the Black community.

“We have access to information. We can see how police brutality has been disproportionately aimed at Black people. Even if we can’t come up with the solution, we can look at the data, identify the problem, and try to change the tropes.

“Try to stop the victim blaming.”

Dr. Jordan returns to the theme of community. “Not only do I feel that I chose God, and God chose me back, I also feel that I chose Judaism, and the Jewish community chose me back. The relationship with the community is far beyond amazing. It is essential. 

“To embrace people — that is to bring moshiach,” the messiah, “into this world. If we can be sensitive to people, if we can keep pushing ourselves to do more, we will change and move forward as a community.

“This is my charge. I have been received by this community, and I am charged with moving us forward, to being sensitive to people on the margins. Converts. Ba’ale teshuva. Female scholars. Single mothers. This is real work, and it feels good to do it.

Talia Mizikovsky is the director of Jewish student life at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; she oversees Hillel on five local colleges.

She’s learned a great deal about conversion, about how Jewish families react to their children’s expressed desire to marry Jews by Choice, and about the double whammy of being a Black Jew by Choice.

“People have come up to me because their partners are converting or considering conversion,” she said. Because it’s important to many Jews that they marry only Jews, and it’s also important to them that their potential partner’s conversion be heartfelt, not just to please them, “It’s tough,” she said. “You feel a tension. Some personal tension, some relational tension. It’s even harder because as Jews we don’t evangelize, so in a way it is stigmatic to consider a partner who isn’t Jewish.”

But because she’s watched her husband as he moved through every step of the process, “I am enormously proud of Aaron,” she said. “He is brilliant. He taught himself Hebrew while he was in dental school.” To move from the specific to the general, “You’re so proud, and everything they learn is so impressive. You have to have a role in the process — but you don’t want to have too much of a role. You want to make sure that you are not pressuring. You want to help as much as you can.

“And there’s tension not just with you, but with your family. When you introduce this notion that someone is planning on converting, it can cause a lot of tension within families. Some relationships break down because of it, particularly when the potential partner is a person of color. It is so sad.

“And sometimes, even when someone already is Jewish, people of color have a harder time.

“We feel totally integrated into our family and into the community, but it took a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to get everyone on the same page. A lot of challenging conversations happen along the way.

“The person of color entering a new Jewish community is going to face a new set of challenges and obstacles because they will look out of place, but any person converting is going to face a huge number of obstacles. Not only is Judaism a challenging religion, it includes an intricate set of language and rituals and customs, and a huge body of knowledge. We go to school to learn it for decades, and still come out not knowing so much.

“Judaism is not a super-accessible religion, and the more Orthodox you get, the more difficult it gets. So of course it will be hugely on your mind when your partner is thinking about it. The last thing you want is for the person to take on something and be burdened by it.

“An Orthodox person feels burdened anyway, but the partner has a huge set of options that the Orthodox person doesn’t have.”

Ms. Mizikovsky said that she originally was attracted to Dr. Jordan because of his kindness. “Whenever there was someone in need, he perceived it and acted on it to the point where a friend said that the person most likely to be moshiach on our campus is Aaron,” she said. “That kind of good soul just stands out.” When he decided to convert and became part of the community, “the community embraced him with open arms.” In fact, she said, it was easier for him to be connected to the community than it was for her when she was growing up — she and her sister were brought up by their mother after her parents divorced and her father left for Australia, and it was hard for a family of only women to find their place in a group that is minyan-centric, where women do not count. 

About Jews and Blacks — “It has always been clear to me from the get-go that the racial injustice in the country is an inherently an issue that is important to Jews,” Ms. Mizikovsky said. “It is amazing that Aaron is here in this community to embody the ways in which being Black and being Jewish are both beautiful, enriching identities. He can embody the Other and make it less other.

“The extent to which white communities are insulated from Black communities in Englewood and Teaneck, which both have large Black communities, is startling,” she continued. “We don’t understand the history and context of segregation and what it does to our ability to understand each other.

“On campus, we always try to build relationships with the Muslim community and the Black community; to show up for them. We would like to build those relationships in Englewood. On a personal level, that is something we hope to do.”

She’s worried about her husband. “I know that his safety isn’t guaranteed,” she said. “I think about shul security. If, chas v’shalom, there is an incident, a police officer or security guard might think of Aaron as the perpetrator. It chills me to the bone. It is a terrifying reality.

“What is even more terrifying to me is the All Lives Matter movement, this drive to erase racial inequality by claiming colorblindness. It is nice to see that the Jewish community is opening its eyes a little more to what faces Black Americans and Black Jews.

She has another personal stake in the matter that goes even beyond her husband. They have a son, Levi Azriel, who is not quite a year and a half old. What she hopes for her son, and for any other children she and Dr. Jordan might have, is “unfortunately, their ability to be safe and thrive. That will always be the first priority of any mother of Black and biracial children, the hope that they will be able to live and thrive in a country that values their lives as much as anyone else’s.

“On a more spiritual level, I hope that they can be changemakers, that they can help to usher in an age of more intercommunal connections,” Ms. Mizikovksy said.

Rabbi Gideon Black, Dr. Jordan’s minyan buddy and role model, is the director of professional recruitment and leadership development for OU-JLIC; JLIC, Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, places young couples on college campuses to provide support and act as role models to the schools’ Orthodox students.

“It’s a lovely story,” Rabbi Black said about Dr. Jordan, whom he first learned about through a text from Rabbi Wolfson at NYU. “He asked me to just keep an eye out for him, so I just reached out.”

Rabbi Black was not Dr. Jordan’s sponsoring rabbi, he said. That’s a formal relationship, “the gatekeeper between the beit din and the conversion candidate. You have a clear mandate and role.”

His role was informal, fluid, and entirely at will. “I was just an ally,” Rabbi Black said.

Because he’d moved to Englewood from Greenwich Village, where to walk on the street is to be dazzled by diversity, he understood how Dr. Jordan would stand out in a suburban shul in a way that he did not in the city. “The experience of going to a shul like Ahavath Torah, which is a big, traditional, and prestigious Orthodox synagogue, could be intimidating. In the city you can just sort of blend in. Everyone there is different, so you can explore on your own without too much fuss. In the suburbs, people can probe a little bit. They can try to understand what you are doing there.”

Dr. Jordan would stand out in two ways, Rabbi Black suggested; both because he’s Black, and because he was a potential convert. “Often people going through conversion have to justify, validate, and explain themselves,” he said. “Either people want to know where they’re coming from, what on earth could motivate them to take on all these extra responsibilities, or they are just nosy and see an interesting story and want to snoop a bit.

“And in Aaron’s case that would be heightened a little bit because he’s African American.

“So I wanted to be beside him, because it’s good just having a wingman. It’s like going to a party, and you don’t know anyone there. 

“It takes the edge off to have a wingman. Everyone needs one.

“Aaron clearly is a confident person, and he is comfortable in his own skin. He knew what he was in for. He was passionate about becoming more and more involved in the Jewish community — but still having a friend makes it easier.”

Rabbi Black also knew that having him as a friend in particular might help. “Although I am not a rabbi in the community, I am a rabbi. People know my title and my professional association. That might give you a little more respect or leverage.”

At the beginning, Rabbi Black recalled, back in early 2016, “we were going to meet at shul, but I had an idea. I said, “Why don’t we walk to shul together?’” So Dr. Jordan walked over from Ms. Mizikovsky’s mother’s house to Rabbi Black’s. “That would give us a chance to build up a rapport and a friendship. It’s a five- to 10-minute walk.

“But because I have young children” — he had three then, and has four now — “and because Aaron is very prompt and respectful, I would say to be at my house at 8:45, and he’d be there at 8:45.” But Rabbi Black generally would not be ready to leave — “I’d still be changing diapers and figuring out if I was bringing any of the kids to shul with us” — so Dr. Jordan would “patiently wait, have a little bit of breakfast. He became a fixture in my kids’ Shabbat morning routine. So we became friends, and my kids became fond of him.

“We’d go to shul together, and we’d sit next to each other. And he just became very well liked very quickly, once people realized that he is easygoing and laid back and genuinely committed to his own Jewish journey. People welcomed him with open arms. He made friends.

“It was a very natural progression from his coming to my house early, almost nervously, to me picking him up at his house,” which was on the way and therefore a more logical way to do it, “and then me meeting him at shul, both of us arriving at about the same time, and then it was ‘You’re doing fine. You don’t need me any more.’ He made other friends.”

He was launched.

The two remained good friends. “Sometimes we learn Torah together. Sometimes we discuss larger issues of Jewish thought and identity. Sometimes he would come with Talia for a Shabbat meal.

“We hosted a sheva brachot for them on the Shabbat after their wedding, and it was really special.

“Everything came full circle. I met him while he was a single guy on a journey. Now he’s part of the community, he’s married, and they’re building a family.”

Rabbi Black has a memory of Dr. Jordan that he thinks tells his story. “When I would meet with conversion candidates, the beit din often would want to know if there was something that was holding the candidate back,” he said. “Something about Judaism that they don’t like, an area of halacha that they find immoral or outdated, a mitzvah that they reject on a fundamental level. These things are problematic.

“I remember once walking home from shul together one Shabbat, and I asked him, ‘What about Judaism do you feel is troubling?’ I was expecting something — about inequality, maybe. Something. 

“But he said to me, “The thing I find most troubling about Judaism is that there are times when you don’t feel the closeness of God, and you sort of have to live through those moments until you feel close again.’

“And I thought, ‘This is a true believer. He is a deep soul. He wasn’t even thinking in terms of what parts of Judaism he finds morally troublesome. He accepted it totally. One hundred percent. Without reservation. 

“One of the hard parts of being a spiritual seeker is when God isn’t always present in our lives.” But Dr. Jordan had figured out how to make it through those moments.

“Aaron is a special person,” Rabbi Black said.

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