My Journey to Judaism and BCC

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James Sutherland

(Adapted from remarks delivered at Brandeis Bardin Institute on May 18, 2016, to rabbinic students at HUC and the Gerecht Family Institute, as part of a panel on personal journeys of conversion to Judaism.)

Thank you for allowing me to share an important part of your journey towards becoming Rabbis. I would like to thank Rabbi Sabine Meyer for thinking of me, when she had many other people that she may have considered.

I would also like to thank Rabbi Heather Miller, who was on the forefront, when I decided to make this journey. A big thanks as well to Rabbi Kaye for welcoming me and to Arlene Chernow for continuing to answer my questions, as the time to be here grew closer.

I believe that there is something that has brought all of us here tonight. I can’t put a name on it, but, each of us is sitting here tonight for a special reason. Allow me to explain a little of mine. Like you, my journey began long
ago, and for me, I mean long ago. When I was very young, my mother showed me our family tree. And part of what I saw did not fit the exact mold of what the rest of the tree looked like. Two names stood out, both Jewish. I have told myself this story so many times that I may have changed the names over time, yet that is not important. What is important is that I, like you, understand that there is a bond between the Jewish peoples and the thread ran through to me.

My journey to this table tonight has been a long and convoluted one. A moment or so ago, I told you that Rabbi Meyer could have chosen someone else, perhaps someone wanting to convert to be married, perhaps someone who didn’t have the chance at their bar or bat mitzvah, but she chose me. “Why?” I asked myself when I received her email.

I am close to finishing my Master’s degree in clinical psychology, and have a much deeper understanding of the inner workings of people’s minds, thoughts and actions, than the average person. This does not mean however, that I understand myself all of the time. So it dawned on me that Rabbi Meyer wanted me to share with you my reason, because of who I am, and I will.

But first, as you go forth into your communities that you will serve, and guide, bringing joy, peace and comfort in times of need, remember that not everyone you meet will be like yourselves. There will be those whose fears will be deeply imbedded, who if not accepted with kindness and understanding, may never know the joy of being or becoming a Jew living a full and joyous life. I may have been one of those persons had it not been for Rabbi Miller, for you see, I am a member of Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim. Many have not heard of this Temple (which became the first gay synagogue in the world in 1972). I am sure at this point you can figure out that I am a gay man. I am going to let you in on a little secret right now. I have never, ever, said that out loud to anyone other than my closest friends. Some may know it, but I have never said it. And I can tell you, that waves of fear have been washing/crashing over me, like those of the sea centuries ago. So I sat, and asked that the waves of fear be parted, so that I could come here tonight and share my story on the way to being a part of the Jewish peoples.

So I know a little about being ostracized, shunned, and being the “other”. We learn from a very early age, or sometimes at a later age, that being different can be dangerous, at times deadly. We have only to look back at the Shoah to understand, what being different from others led to. I can also look to what happened to Mathew Shepard in Wyoming, tortured and murdered for being just like ME. This being said, it took me decades to allow myself to knit who am together with what I wanted and needed in a Temple.

Many years ago, I approached a Temple in Los Angeles and told them a minute amount about myself. They were not interested in me, and I understood. Or I thought I did. Only when I realized, that this was MY journey, did I continue to look for a Temple.

As a future psychotherapist I often caution people to spend more time with people and less time on the computer. Thanks to some oxymoronic thinking on my part, I found Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, and Rabbi Miller through the use of the Internet. By the way Chabad also sends me great blogs by Internet as well. And Chabad has no problems with psychotherapy, as long as we do not deny the religious aspects of being Jewish.

After welcoming me to BCC, Rabbi Miller communicated to me how to become a part of the Temple, and the Jewish faith and fun, and I now greatly admire Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat who help bring Shabbat and all the holidays to life for me. Along with this comes their responsibility to the Temple, and all who walk through, not only at BCC, but to all others of the tribes as well. And I will say that I admire, enjoy, and am proud to be a part of BCC, and each person there. From Tracy who gives me hugs to Bruce and his cheese at the onegs. And each and every one of the others. It is community at its best. This is Jewishness in its wonder.

So what does this mean to you, you might ask, although I am sure you have been able to pick up my meanings? Remember that when you are in the positions that you will be in, that you, like Rabbi Miller will have the ability to change people’s lives. You will have an inherent ability to create change. I ask that you remember once again that not everyone will be like you, but please remember you can give others a sense of joy, happiness, and purpose, even if it just means picking up a phone and referring someone to a place where they might fit in. Perhaps if that had
happened years ago, my life may be even more different today. But that is not to dwell on, as today I am a proud member of Temple BCC, and Sunday I will finish Judaism 101 with Rabbi Meyer.

I congratulate each of you on your decision on this path that you have chosen, and remember that you will be a force for change, however you will see it.

Top photo: James Sutherland (third from right) with other panelists at Brandeis Bardin (Courtesy of James Sutherland)

This article first appeared in G’vanim, July/August 2016 issue.

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