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    Lessons About Judaism Result in Conversion

        Director, Myska
    Jim Myska, pictured in July 1998 with fiancee Ali Director, was born a Protestant but converted to Judaism. (By Michael Williamson – The Washington Post)
    By Jim Myska
    Saturday, August 1, 1998; Page B09

    On June 19, 1998, I converted to Judaism, ending 31 years of spiritual wandering and starting another wonderful journey that will take me the rest of my life to complete, if it ever truly is complete.

    The conversion process was wonderful and magical! I had the opportunity to actively open up a whole new world for myself, to explore my thoughts and feelings on many issues and finally find peace with myself. What brought me here? Why did I choose Judaism? Well, read on.

    I was born a Protestant Christian. Until about sixth or seventh grade, I believed strongly that Jesus was the Messiah. As I got older, however, I found that I could not accept the divinity of Jesus, or that believing "incorrectly" would send someone to Hell. I had started my break with Christianity. Over time I learned a little about many belief systems, but none fit. I felt lost and lonely and outside.

    This began to change when I met my fiancee, Ali. My conversion to Judaism was not a condition of our marriage, for which I feel blessed, but she wanted to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. Since I didn't have any attachment to a particular faith, I agreed and started to learn something about Judaism so I could be a good husband and father. But I had no intention of converting.

    In spring 1997, I spent my first Passover Seder with Ali's family. It was interesting. It impressed me that the emphasis was not completely on the Exodus from Egypt. Resisting oppression and fighting injustice on behalf of all humanity was heavily emphasized.

    I thought, "Hey. Now here's a religion that believes in doing something and making a difference!" Later that year, I joined her and her family for High Holy Day services. The High Holy Days are Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), a joyous-somber mix in which you celebrate having lived another year, reflect on your conduct in the past year and atone for your misdeeds.

    Two things touched me deeply. The first was that I felt completely comfortable and at home in the synagogue from the moment I walked in. This was someplace that was safe, peaceful, warm and welcoming. No church had made me feel this way in a long time.

    The other thing about the High Holy Day services that affected me was the tone. I was surprised with the optimism. Rosh Hashanah is an upbeat and happy occasion. Yom Kippur is somber, but not sad. It is like an annual spiritual cleaning. It helps clear out guilt over the past.

    I was deeply impressed that in Judaism we are empowered, with God's help, to overcome our own sins. There is no taint of any "original sin," and we are not inherently evil. Rather, we are inclined to both good and evil, and it is very much up to us which path we choose. We are ultimately responsible for our own actions. We can't put them off on anyone or anything else.

    In fact, according to Jewish teaching, God will not forgive you for a sin against another person until you have first sincerely sought forgiveness from the wronged party. Talk about making you mindful of how you treat others!

    In late 1997, I started taking formal classes on Judaism. I still had no conscious intent to convert. My only goal was to learn as much as I could for Ali and for our future family. But I quickly realized that I had found my way into a group of people who valued critical intellectual examination. There is no one required belief about God, God's nature or our relationship with God. There is also no one view of, or preoccupation with, what comes after the death of our physical bodies.

    Jewish tradition supports ideas ranging from a classical heaven, to reincarnation, to anything in between. Suddenly all of my questions about religion, which had been very unappreciated in Christianity, were very much appreciated. In fact, the one who questions is respected far more than the one who just goes along for the ride.

    Finally, I was impressed with the Jewish emphasis on making this world a better place, on focusing on our roles and responsibility here and now, in this life – known as tikkun olam, "repairing the world." Helping those in need is an obligation. In April 1998, I participated in an event at my synagogue called Mitzvah Day. There was a huge turnout, and we split up into teams to go do various things. Some went to help repair homes for the poor, some worked in a food bank and shelter for the homeless. I helped an older couple with yard and housework.

    As a Jew, I feel that I am finally able to do concrete, meaningful things to make a positive difference. I never really knew how I could do this before. It wasn't until I was involved with my synagogue that I had help with this.

    Whatever path you follow, and wherever it takes you, I pray that you find all the happiness, contentment and peace that I have found with Judaism.

    B'Shalom – go in peace.

    Jim Myska, 31, is an analyst for a Northern Virginia defense contractor. He and Ali plan to be married Sept. 5 at a Reform synagogue in Alexandria.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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