You Should Know… Leonard Robinson

Photo courtesy of Leonard Robinson

By Emma Ayers

Leonard Robinson hasn’t always been Jewish. The shift was a long time coming for the Washington native and former Catholic. But even in his early years, the 20 year old was always asking the right questions. And as an aspiring journalist, freelance writer and all-around curious guy, it seems Robinson has finally found the answers he was looking for in the teachings of the Torah.

What sparked your interest in Judaism? When did you convert?

I began the process in late 2017, early 2018, but formally converted with a beit din and mikvah in March 2019.

When I was 12, I bought my first book on converting to Judaism. It was “Choosing a Jewish Life” by Anita Diamant. I don’t remember why I purchased it, but I guess that was my first subtle thought about it.

Perhaps it was that I was always adjacent to Judaism. Some of my favorite writers, S.Y. Agnon, for example, were Jewish and it just felt like something that was great to be a part of.

I had visited synagogues and Jewish book groups as well and had quite a few Jewish friends, too. The big catalyst was going to Israel and seeing how this commitment to Judaism and Jewishness impacted the history and culture of the state, and I became fascinated and wanted to learn more, and then decided that I want my own stake in this

How did your Catholic foundation affect your view of the Jewish faith?

Much of what I appreciate about Judaism came because I found all of what I appreciated about Catholicism and more. I was not someone who really believed in Jesus, and simply found much of the New Testament narratives to either fail in compelling me or demand to be taken at face value. If you don’t believe X, then you won’t receive Y. What if I don’t know about Y? Tough luck, kid.

However, what a Catholic education provided me was learning about faith in a way that embraced contextual thinking and possessed a certain amount of intellectual rigor and I knew even if I were not to remain Catholic that this was something that I wanted.

You’re a gay and African-American man — two minorities in any major American faith system. Has Judaism changed the way you think about identity?

Perhaps. It’s certainly added another layer to the entire puzzle of my being a young person still on a journey to figuring out who I am. Over the summer, I profiled Rabbi Sandra Lawson, who is perhaps the world’s first black, queer, female rabbi. Something I gained from that conversation was that often sometimes the most powerful things that minorities can do to achieve their goals, in religious communities or elsewhere, is being present, engaged and bearing witness to our existence. And that’s certainly been a valuable lesson to learn and experience.

What kind of welcome have you found in the synagogue that you hadn’t found before?

I never had bad experiences in churches as much as I always felt that I didn’t belong. In Judaism, I found that I was desiring to engage in congregational life, enjoying being a part of the Jewish community, and often looked forward to attending weekly services, studying Torah and building a relationship with my rabbis that I had only had with very few clergy prior.

Where do you attend synagogue?

I’m in college at the University of Baltimore, so I float between two synagogues: Oseh Shalom in Laurel and Beth Am in Baltimore. Although, now, with COVID-19, I lean more toward Oseh Shalom in terms of online services and such.

What has been the most affecting change you’ve noticed in yourself in the past year?

I have been really trying to find ways to remain disciplined in my continued learning and growing in Judaism. During the conversion process, you have these milestones and benchmarks that you’re supposed to achieve. Yet, once that process is over, you’re left to your own devices to figure that out and it can be a challenge. It’s also funny now too, considering that my college roommate is also going through the conversion process and I get to see almost a glimpse of what I was like on the outside looking in now.

What have you been doing with yourself in quarantine?

Quarantine has been quite a time! I’ve been catching up on some reading — both Jewish and non-Jewish. I’m almost done reading the Jewish literary classic “The Chosen,” after having loved the film, and will get started on “The Promise” soon after. I’m also reading “The Cellist of Sarajevo” as preliminary research for a long-term writing project about the Bosnian civil war that I’m flirting with. In between that and when I’m not studying, writing or doing more reading, I take walks with my roommates or nap.

Emma Ayers, a Washington writer, is managing opinion editor at Young Voices.

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