This story originally appeared at 18doors.org.
Every Jew-by-choice’s journey to Judaism is different. And while we share some similarities, our lived experiences are ours and ours alone, and they define our reasoning and desire to choose a Jewish life.
As for me, a Black, bisexual Jew-by-choice, my “why” stemmed from wanting to connect to my possible Jewish ancestry but later turned into something I never had expected.
I became interested in Judaism at age 16 — a few years after my mom told my older sister and me that we might have Jewish lineage on her side of the family. Since we were also practicing Christians and my family had an image to maintain in the community, my interest in Judaism was largely rejected.
I was also struggling with my bisexuality around the same time. I’d spent six years at a right-wing Pentecostal Christian school, and if any of my teachers suspected I might be queer, I would’ve been expelled.
I had known I liked all genders since kindergarten. And I was told it wasn’t OK; I was supposed to just like girls. “Gay” thoughts needed to be treated with prayer and I needed to control these impure feelings so I wouldn’t go to hell or embarrass my family. As most LGBTQ folks know, that never, ever works; it just keeps us locked up and tormented in a closet.
Going to college in Miami and joining the Hillel helped with a lot of my religious and sexual confusion. I had Jewish friends from different denominations — Conservative, Orthodox, Humanistic and more — who were straight and part of the LGBTQ community.
I loved that I could take up space in a Jewish environment for who I was. I wasn’t expected to adhere to any kind of dogma to be considered part of the Hillel community and people could be atheist, theist or anything in between and still be authentically Jewish. Nobody wanted to “save” me from an eternal lake of fire or encouraged me to “pray away” my queer thoughts. I was me, and that was enough. Even though I felt included in these spaces, I struggled internally with my bi identity.
In 2015, I enrolled in “Introduction to Judaism” classes at Temple Sholom in Chicago. Studying alongside and meeting other queer Jews helped me unlearn many of the toxic things I was taught when I was younger. I began the arduous journey of not hating myself for being bi. Being around other LGBTQ Jews in the study room at this synagogue not only helped me come to terms with my sexuality, but it also gave me more reason to pursue a Jewish life.
In 2017, I finalized my conversion at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and not long after, I was accepted into the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) JewV’Nation Fellowship — Jews of Color Cohort. I met an incredible and diverse group of Black and Brown Jews. This experience helped validate my identity as a Black/multiracial Jew who often finds himself in majority-white spaces. It also introduced me to some of the most brilliant and motivated Jewish souls I’ve ever met.
Just a few months later, I began working at the URJ as a writer and editor. I had the opportunity to share my story, experiences, feelings and ideas, as well as elevate the voices of other Jews on the margins. I now work at Keshet — a nonprofit that focuses on equality for LGBTQ Jews and their families — as the communications manager. I’ve grown as a professional, am comfortably open about my bi identity, and have taken my mission of storytelling and sharing stories to a new level.
I find it amusing — and uplifting — that I took something weaponized against me (religion) and am now able to use it as a source of pride. Even though my family was concerned for my soul in the past because I chose Judaism and am open about my bisexuality, they’ve thankfully come around a bit more.
The fact is that even though I dearly love my family, I can no longer pretend to be someone I’m not, and they’ve slowly become more accepting of that. They see that Judaism has transformed my life for the better in so many ways, that embracing my bi identity has helped me become a more confident and motivated person, and that I’ve been able to inspire others and help change the world — by being who I am.
Christopher “Chaim Ezra” Harrison (he/him) is a Black/multiracial Jew by choice and Communications Manager at Keshet. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife Christy.