I hate to say it, but the time I first felt truly a part of the community was at a committee meeting. Not at a service, not performing some great mitzvah. Just an introduction.
After I joined the Jewish community I wore a kippah daily for almost ten years. Personal reasons. I certainly wasn’t doing it to fit in. “Reformadox” is not a thing.
So, my name. Kelly. Ethnically inappropriate. Ten, eleven years ago, it was a still jarring for people to find a guy named Kelly wearing a kippah, or making a go at being Jewish at all. I’d introduce myself and wait for the questions. “How did a guy who wears a yarmulke wind up with the last name Kelly?” or some variation, but always in that order, as if the kippah came first and the surname came by some mishap. Witness Protection Program, maybe? I don’t know.
I’d explain: my great-grandmother was Jewish. I converted. Simple. Then, the other questions would come: “But why?”
That’s a longer story. Eventually I started shrugging off the whole thing with a quip.
“So, how did a guy under a yarmulke wind up with the last name Kelly? Did they change it at Ellis Island?’
“Something like that.”
“Oh, OK. What was it before?”
“O’Kelly. The “O” just had to go,” I’d say. “It felt like putting on airs. We’re not that fancy.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve almost always found people warm to converts. I mean, even when people laughed out loud when I said my name, they laughed warmly. It is funny.
Things have changed, though. Attitudes took about a generation to catch up with intermarriage and conversion rates, and now they’ve caught up. Also, perhaps people today think being Jewish is something good to be, so why wouldn’t other people want to be it, too? I don’t know.
So, the moment I felt most a part of the community wasn’t dancing with Torah at Simchat Torah. It came down to an introduction at a meeting. We’d gone around the table and introduced ourselves already when the young woman next to me turned and said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your last name.”
“Kelly,” I said, “Matt Kelly,” and offered my hand. She shook it.
“Nice to meet you, Matt,” she said. “Can I ask you–?”
Oh, brother. Here goes, I thought. She finished: “–is that Kelley ‘ey’ or just ‘y’”?
“Kelly, just ‘y,’” I said, and that was that. No surprise, no laughter. No Witness Protection Program. No Ellis Island.
And that’s more like it.
Matt has taught Spanish for the last 16 years but has worked in private banking, restaurant management and construction. He has three teenage children and a fiancée.