Shabbat Shalom. It’s an honor to be standing here at the bimah to share my journey in conversion and how my experiences at Shir Tikvah and with the global Jewish community have helped shaped and supported my journey, while supporting the pursuit of shalom.
My name is Jon Tam and I was born and raised in New York City. I am the son of an immigrant family that moved from China to Hong Kong and then New York City. I moved to the “small town” of Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1988, thinking that this would be an intermediate stop. I guess I stayed a bit longer than expected. I have been lucky to be able to explore the world and have had work experiences in Germany and Singapore. Along the journey, I met my partner in crime, Meir. We have been together for two years and are continuing to build a Jewish home.
My spiritual path to Reform Judaism is rooted in the definition of Shalom; completeness, soundness, welfare and peace. Throughout my life, the components of shalom have been front and center. These include community, gratitude, compassion for those in need of healing, remembrance, social justice, and tikkum olam.
Growing up in the Lower East Side in New York City, I was immersed in Jewish culture. I was exposed to bagels, knishes, bialys, kosher butchers and delis, and the local Jewish owned businesses in the lower east side. My family lived in a tenement apartment owned by an orthodox Jewish family that ran a curtain and fabric store located downstairs. Our neighbors across the hall were another orthodox Jewish family, and I remember helping them on Shabbat by turning on lights and power. All of these experiences were good initial exposures to Jewish cultural life and tradition.
However, I was raised in a combination of Catholic and Buddhist traditions, where a driving principle was to strive to be the best person you can be. Education, lifelong learning, spirituality, and respect of family, community and culture were key elements of being a good Mensch.
Catholicism and Buddhism perfectly coexisted in my upbringing and in the Tam family household. I was confirmed a Catholic in my teenage years and our family intertwined Catholic, Buddhist and Taoist spirituality and principles in the household. Ceramic and wooden idols, gods, and crucifixes were ever present (and still are). Our family burned incense and practiced ritual elements to honor our deceased family members and to continue tradition.
I started questioning my religious beliefs in college, where I took a few religious studies courses. A course titled “Crisis in Modern Belief in Religion” challenged my spiritual beliefs and goals, and advocated that these religions must adapt to modern times. I knew and believed in G-d, but really did not know how I would incorporate religion into my adult life. Perhaps this was my first experience of “waking up” from complacency and blind acceptance?
Until my early 40’s, I followed the requirements and demands of Catholicism, at least ceremonially. However, I felt a hollowness in my spirituality. I could not connect with what the Catholic Church was preaching. I was in serious conflict with the Church’s key stances on homosexuality, the role of women in the church, celibacy for spiritual leaders, and the ability to make reproductive choices.
Father’s illness and death
My father, a habitual smoker for most of his life, was chronically ill with severe respiratory conditions the past 10-15 years of his life. As my father became more ill and more philosophical, an important point became clear: his vision for his children to be the best they can be in their lives. Whatever and whomever makes you happy are good things. It was his quiet and unstated way of telling me that I had become what he had strived for me to be - a good person who valued family and tradition, and my being gay didn’t change that. My father and I had conversations about my concerns about Catholicism and how I felt the Church had not adapted to modern times. My father was supportive of my concerns and was proud that I was able to challenge key aspects of my religious upbringing.
I started attending services at Shir Tikvah in March 2013, two months prior to the death of my father. As my gravely ill father was struggling to hold on, I remember two important parts of the first service I attended. As the congregation sang “Mi Shebeirach”, I could not help but feel moved. The pause in the between the two verses, where congregants are invited to provide names for the blessing of healing was particularly relevant to me. I wanted to state my father’s name, but did not do so. Perhaps I was moved too much to consider stating my dad’s name, especially as I was a non-member and non-Jew? Nonetheless, I felt incredible comfort in hearing those words sung by the congregation. I experienced the outpouring of love, compassion, respect, and support of those individuals whose names were noted in service.
My father passed away in May 2013. Meir gave me a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I began reading upon the death of my father. I struggled with the transliteration of the Hebrew and Aramaic, but was comforted by the English text. Even though I had spoken the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish at Shir Tikvah services for two months, the words, particularly the English text were ever so moving and comforting during this difficult time. I felt comfortable enough to mention my father's name for the Kaddish list after two months of attending services at Shir Tikvah (as well as a year later for his Yahrzeit). I was welcomed and comforted by members of the congregation. I felt part of the community.
Experiences along the journey
I had an opportune visit to New York City in April 2013. I was able to visit Central Synagogue in Manhattan, as I wanted to visit an active synagogue in my hometown. While I was on a tour of the impressive synagogue led by a docent, I had a chance encounter with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. While the interaction was brief, basically an exchange of looks and smiles and a “hello”, I took great joy and comfort in seeing an Asian face in a synagogue, let alone the Senior Cantor at a major synagogue in the USA. This chance encounter with Rabbi Buchdahl was timely and helped me to overcome a major concern I had as I considered the possibility being a Reform Jew: Is there a place for an Asian in the Jewish faith? As a prominent leader in the Reform Movement, Rabbi Buchdahl showed me that there is indeed a place for me.
As I mentioned, I have been fortunate to be able to travel. In my journey to Judaism, there have been a few key encounters.
I met an Orthodox man, Moishe Avrams, at a kosher café in Antwerp, Belgium. During the discussion, I told him that I was in the process of converting to Reform Judaism, he replied, “Why not stay Catholic”? I was stunned. After 5-10 minutes of good banter and discussion we agreed to disagree. Mr. Avrams helped me understand the importance of Reform Judaism’s more progressive stances on homosexuality, role of women, inclusion of others, and outreach in the effort to improve the world and decrease the amount of anti-Semitism.
During recent trips to Asia, I encountered 3 couples who moved to Singapore from Europe, primarily due to their unease with the rising level of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. During a long and interesting conversation, one of my new friends said, “Deciding to be a Jew is not an easy path in these times’. I met these couples again in Hong Kong last week and mentioned that I had my Mikvah in February. All said, “Mazel Tov” and welcomed me to the community. A global community indeed.
The fight for marriage equality was in full stride in the Minnesota capitol as soon as I came back from my dad’s funeral. Even though I had just arrived back in MN, it was important to be present as the Minnesota Senate voted on the marriage equality bill. Shir Tikvah members were in great numbers at the capitol rotunda in St. Paul, and I was welcomed by many congregants as we expressed words of support (and song) for the passage of marriage equality in Minnesota. I was approached by many members of the congregation who provided words of comfort for the passing of my father. I felt support and love at a most vulnerable, yet happy, time.
Participating in Pesach and the High Holy Days have particularly been educational and enlightening as I learned more about self reflection, atonement, and forgiveness. Story telling, gratitude, compassion, social justice, remembrance, and community; these are all things that enrich my life and provide completeness, or Shalom, in my life and soul. There is still much to learn and experience, but I see that as part of living a Jewish life.
I took the plunge on February 19, with Shir Tikvah clergy being members of the Beit Din, and my partner, Meir, as the sponsor/witness. How auspicious and opportune that it was also the day of the lunar new year. I was able to celebrate two events on the same day, with the co-mingling two key aspects of my life. We celebrated as many Jews do, and had a feast at a Chinese restaurant.
As I became more active in synagogue life the past two years at Shir Tikvah, as well as attending services at other synagogues, I have come to realize that this is the life that I have willingly and happily chosen. My reasons for conversion are consistent with the basic values of my upbringing. This choice is particularly poignant as I experience Jewish
life and spirituality, hand-in-hand, with my partner.