"I was dressed in a robe in a side room of a small synagogue in the depths of north-west London for a moment a long time in the making: three years of study preceded by two years of careful reflection, and before all that, a lifetime of subconscious preparation for something I didn’t know was coming, but now made perfect sense. It all brought me to this: an uncharacteristically sunny Wednesday morning in November 2013, and the final ceremony in my conversion to Judaism; a wedding ceremony of sorts. About to take a plunge in a mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath), I was aware that these were the last moments of a past existence, following which I would be reborn into a new faith and a new life.
To be honest, waiting for an appointment in a robe was not something I was a stranger to. As beauty and lifestyle director at Vogue (then beauty editor), trialling spa treatments is part of the job, but this was an altogether new arrangement. My fast-paced life, endless travelling and packed diary were all hallmarks of a dizzying passage of time known to many women in their twenties and thirties, yet they gave no indication of what lay around the corner. Though always spiritual, I had never previously considered myself religious. Deeply introspective, I’d always felt there was a higher “something”, I just didn’t know what that something was and hadn’t felt compelled to search hard enough to find it. My conversion process became almost like a coming of age, as my developing maturity opened up new ideas and possibilities.
I was born in New York, and when I was four my family relocated to London for my father’s work. Newly arrived in Hampstead Garden Suburb – a stone’s throw from Golders Green and Hendon, the heartland of north-west London’s Jewish community – I was immersed in a new way of life without even knowing it. With almost exclusively Jewish neighbours, and no friends or extended family to speak of, we were immediately taken in. For as long as I can remember, I’ve attended Shabbat dinners, Jewish New Year celebrations and Passover meals. Because of where we lived, the school I went to and the company we kept, my friends were predominantly Jewish. I was always considered “honorary”.
Unsurprisingly then, I found myself with a Jewish boyfriend, Edward. On the same social circuit, we first met at 15 (he remembers it, I don’t, we argue about it to this day), and oscillated in and out of each other’s lives until, at 24, a group trip led to a holiday romance that continued long after we returned home. From early on in our relationship, the Jewish factor was always a… factor. Modern Orthodox, Ed and his family followed Jewish traditions such as keeping kosher, Shabbat meals and observance of religious festivals. As the relationship became more serious, so did the conversations around faith. It was always a given that he’d marry someone Jewish. So where did that leave us? Six months in, I found myself wondering if I should call things off, because surely it had no future. But as time passed, it became clear that neither of us wanted it to end, so something had to change. And it would be my faith.
Ed never asked me if I would convert, though, which I always feel compelled to clarify. I wanted to do it, and have my desired “Jewishness” be accepted by rabbinical authorities and our children be considered Jewish in the Orthodox Jewish community (the Jewish heritage line is matriarchal). And so I chose to do an Orthodox conversion – a process that you have to want to embark on from the depths of your soul. It requires dedication and desire beyond any relationship. The love of a person can definitely be part of the equation, but not its sum. In Judaism, you talk about things being beshert, or destiny. As dramatic as it sounds, this was my destiny.
I was brought up Catholic, in a traditional family. My parents taught me to be open, loving and accepting, and when I told them that I wanted to convert, they were full of support for whatever made me happy. The conversion began three years after Ed and I first started dating. What followed was three more years of intense study, immeasurable patience and immense love. A conversion to Judaism sees you learn and live all aspects of Jewish life. There is no masking the fact that it is a huge transition. I was still maintaining my job at Vogue, and the continuity of work that I adore grounded my experience – a typical week could see me going from backstage at London Fashion Week in the day to three hours with my Jewish studies teacher that night. I studied two evenings a week, with Sunday mornings dedicated to learning to read Hebrew (which, I hasten to add, was no easy matter, and I count as one of my biggest achievements).
After two years, the London Beth Din (the rabbinical body that oversees conversions), satisfied with my level of Jewish knowledge, considered me ready to put what I had learnt into practice and move on to the next phase – living with an Orthodox Jewish family. A wonderful “mother” and “father” and their seven children – strangers to me, and I to them – would take me in and treat me as one of their own.
I lived with them full-time for the better part of a year. In bed on the first night, I remember it feeling surreal, maybe even slightly scary, but also exciting. I am a glass-half-full person – I will always see the positives in any given situation – so I just went with it. Commuting every day from my new home in Hendon to Vogue House in Hanover Square had fresh meaning. I was still working in my dream job, but aligning my priorities in my personal life, too."
This is the start of Jessica's telling of her spiritual journey. To read her full story, please visit: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/conversion-judaism