Crouched on the floor with my head bowed, I was fervently praying at the age of five during children’s church service. The pastor was baptizing children in the Holy Spirit, with the intention of blessing us with the gift of speaking in tongues. To my left was my best friend, Amy, who was already praying in tongues, which sounded to me like gibberish. And, to my right, I could hear the child next to me speaking some form of unbeknownst language as well. So, I began praying even more intently, begging God to bestow upon me this allegedly heavenly language. But, I never received such a gift.
As years went by, I continued to fail to connect to the religion, under which my mother raised me. The pastor would lay hands in prayer on members of the congregation, and they would fall backwards, or, as it’s called in the born again community, “falling out in the spirit.” But, the only thing I felt during these prayer sessions were the pastor’s hands on my head and legs. The only time I fell anywhere is when the pastor or members of the congregation would pull me out of my chair, in an attempt to assist God in healing me.
I questioned concepts like the holy trinity, but no one could explain how God was three entities in one, and the religion could still claim to be monotheistic. Why did we pray to a demigod, who was half human and half deity? I hated the idea that Christianity commanded its followers to convert the masses and condemned those who didn’t believe in the religion to eternal damnation. What if the person had never heard of Jesus? What if it was a child? What god would send an innocent child to a fiery hell for all eternity because they were born Jewish or Muslim? Was my Buddhist father destined to burn for all eternity? What kind of messiah would die for only the sins of those who accepted him and not for everyone, no matter what? Why did Jesus never marry when the Bible commanded us to be fruitful and multiply?
The one concept I couldn’t accept was that a Christian could sin against God or against man and receive immediate forgiveness upon request. How could God forgive someone for the wrongdoing committed against someone else? How did He even have standing to grant such forgiveness?
Out of respect for my parents and a strong desire to connect to God, I continued to attend church services. In youth group and Bible study, I learned more about abstinence and a woman’s requirement to be submissive to her husband than about scripture. Indeed, it was only my mother who taught me scripture from the Old and New Testaments. Thanks to her, today, I know the Tanakh (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament) better than my fellow observant Jewish peers.
Church services became something I dreaded, because I could never get through a single four-hour service without someone praying for and laying hands on me, with the hopes of healing me. Even when I chose to be prayed for, the pastor only ever prayed that I would be healed, when all I wanted was God to grant my request to get into a good university so I could get the hell out of there! Practically every Wednesday and Sunday, someone would “lay hands” on me, or at the very least say, “girl! You look like you could just walk right out of that chair! It’s gonna happen. Praise you, Jesus!” Instead of replying, “if I could walk out of this chair, I’d be walking far away from you,” I would smile, nod and feel grateful that at least they didn’t put their hands all over me.
During my junior year of high school, in my advanced placement world history class, we learned about the holocaust. One day, the teacher showed us a video of the Auschwitz concentration camp, depicting the emaciated prisoners and piles of burning corpses. My fellow classmates watched with disgust and horror, but, uncontrollably, I sobbed. I felt as though someone was forcing me to watch my family’s execution. Unable to control the tears, my teacher dismissed me from class to compose myself in the bathroom.
That summer, I went to Georgetown to take college classes and hear high level politicians speak on domestic and foreign policy issues. For the first time in my life, I made instant friends and a boyfriend, to all of whom I felt so connected. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I assumed everyone was naturally Christian, but I soon learned that all my new friends were Jewish. The only other strangers, with whom I had felt so close, were my half-sister and brother, after meeting them at the age of fourteen. (Granted, they, too, were Jewish, as their mother was Jewish.)
Once I graduated high school and went off to Emory University for college, I made the decision that I was no longer a Christian. Desperate to bring me back into the fold, my mom changed churches to a more mainstream sect of Christianity. Already disenchanted by the religion, I nonetheless granted my mom’s request to attend a Sunday morning service with her. She prearranged for me to sit on the front row next to the pastor and his family, explaining to the pastor that I didn’t want to be harassed by congregants wishing to heal me. But, even this plan didn’t prevent a woman from approaching me during the praise and worship section of the service. Getting in my face, and, no doubt with good intentions, she asked if she could lay hands on and pray for me. Annoyed, I told her she could just as well pray for me from her seat and told her to please return there. As she pushed to convince me, the pastor glared in her direction and ordered her to return to her seat.
After the service, the pastor followed me to my car to apologize for the woman’s behavior, the first act of kindness and humility a member of clergy had ever shown me. But, it didn’t matter. Even if Christians could just accept me for who I was without feeling the need to correct my defect, the fundamental tenants of the religion I could and would never accept. So, with that, I abandoned the only religion I ever knew. However, I never left the presence of God or stopped praying to Him, albeit eliminating the name of Jesus from my prayers, despite the difficulty of shedding the indoctrination.
During university and law school, my soul continued to be magnetically drawn to the Jewish people. Having no religion, I felt spiritually empty. So, I decided to search for my own truth. I found an online quiz, which asked a series of questions to determine what religion, with which I most closely aligned. At the end, the result revealed that I should be an Orthodox Jew. Wait, I thought, did it mean those Jews who wear black and white clothes and tall black hats with only their side curls escaping the confines of their hats? I’m not so sure about this test, I thought, but I, nonetheless, bought some books on Judaism and began studying the history, traditions and religion of the Jewish people. While everything I read seemed so logical, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take on the burden of 613 commandments. But, my soul continued to draw me closer and closer to accepting the Torah.
During my second year of law school, while I was on the way home from working at the Georgia innocence project, I felt this excruciating pain in my lower back. That night, a doctor at Emory University Hospital diagnosed me with a massive kidney stone, which was too large to pass. So, before Thanksgiving, I underwent surgery to blast the stone. However, I suffered severe complications, which resulted in four follow-up surgeries, one of which was to put a tube in my back to externally drain my kidney until I could have a major surgery to reconstruct my ureter.
Having missed my first semester finals, I began attending my second semester classes while making up my finals with a tube in my back before I underwent the major surgery. Once I completed my finals, I made my rounds to each of my professors. I explained my medical situation and that I could possibly be absent from their classes for up to eight weeks. Each professor was more ambivalent than the last, directing me only to find a note-taker.
I saved the explanation of my situation to my family law professor for last, because he greatly intimidated me. He attended NYU law school and seminary at Yeshiva University at the same time and graduated at an extremely young age. Given this, I was afraid anything I said would sound elementary and unintelligent to this brilliant mind. But, what intimidated me the most was that he was an orthodox rabbi and the first Orthodox Jew I had ever seen. He wore a black velvet yarmulke and had strings hanging out his always modest attire. I didn’t know if this shikseh could ever relate to such a presumably holy person, but, nervously, I relayed my story.
Mid-sentence and half way through my rehearsed speech, he interrupted me to ask, “are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help? Do you need any food?” The tears welled up in my eyes, as this man showed me the first kindness of strangers I had ever experienced. By the end of my speech, he didn’t flippantly tell me to find a note-taker like the others but said, “if there ever comes a time when you feel you can’t keep up with this class, I will give you an incomplete and come in every day this summer to teach you privately.” His selflessness prevented me from holding back the tears. So, sobbing, I deeply thanked him for his generosity.
It was the first time I had met someone whose inside matched his outside appearance. I knew in that instant that he was the type of person I hoped to become. I finally understood what it meant when the Bible commands the Jewish people to be a light unto the world. During the darkness of multiple kidney surgeries, his kindness shone light through my darkness. I couldn’t help but feel that my family law professor felt more like family to me than my own father.
Two days after being released from the hospital after a uretoplasty, I returned to class, determined to not fall behind. Not one professor asked how I was feeling, except my family law professor. He directed the class to welcome me back, and, after every class, he asked how I was feeling and if he could help in any way. The light continued to grow brighter and brighter, and my soul pulled me further and further toward the religion. So, with that, I decided to take his class on Jewish law the following year, which taught how the gmara approaches modern day issues, such as abortion, surrogacy and torturing POWs. With every lesson, I realized that Jewish law exactly mirrored my own beliefs. Maybe that online test was right after all! So, midway through the course, I decided to find an orthodox rabbi and convert to Orthodox Judaism.
Several weeks after making this decision, I became involved in a relationship with an Israeli Jew. Together, we moved to NYC and began living with each other. Finally, I found a rabbi to agree to meet with me to discuss my desire to convert. I was upfront with him from the beginning by disclosing my relationship. He sent me on my way with a questionnaire to complete and scheduled a follow-up appointment, at which he insisted the Israeli attend.
Less than a week later, after taking a plaintiff’s deposition and worried that I couldn’t get a hold of my love, I hurried home. I opened the door to the greatest heartache of my life. My apartment appeared as though I had been robbed. His belongings were gone, my bank account had been emptied, my credit cards had been maxed out to the tune of $30,000, and the only remnants of him were his undesirable belongings and a note, which read, “never contact me again.” The love of my life had purchased a one-way ticket back to Israel with one of my credit cards and left without even a goodbye. And, once again, darkness overwhelmed my life, but even in the pits of despair, my soul hungered to be near God.
So, I pulled myself out of days in bed of escaping through sleep and self-pity. I picked up the questionnaire and completed each question, which inquired into my desire to adopt the Jewish religion. A few days later, I commuted to the upper west side to meet with the conversion rabbi and to hand in my completed questionnaire. He immediately asked where the Israeli was, and, with a broken heart, I told him of the greatest betrayal of my life. Once again, he interrupted me to ask if he could give me money or assistance in tracking him down. Rays of light began to shine through the despair and darkness of my life through his kindness in a situation, where he had no obligation to help me.
After I thanked him and declined his help, he asked, “so, with him gone, why are you here?” I explained, “this was never about him. I would never convert to placate another human. This is for my soul, which is trying so intently to return to its people.” With this, he was more than satisfied that my desire to convert was genuine and admitted me into his RCA-recognized conversion program.
Over the span of nearly two years, I learned everything from Jewish law to Jewish history and philosophy. I read over fifty books, taught myself to read and write Hebrew, attended orthodox synagogues and memorized everything from blessings and the shma to the grace after meals.
Finally, one freezing March morning in NYC, right before the Jewish holiday of Passover, I appeared in front of the bet din (a Jewish court of three judges/rabbis). For an hour and 45 mins, the rabbis questioned me on everything I had learned over the previous two years. During this nerve-wracking process of quick-fire interrogation, I was made to recite the blessings on apples and bananas to using the bathroom, which thanks God for blessing us with the ability to accomplish such a necessary task.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, there was an assembly line of reform conversions being performed. I watched their bet din, made up of immodestly dressed female rabbis, and wondered why, on earth, the potential convert was taking so long to answer their questions. How long could it take her to recite the blessing on an apple, and why was her mouth moving so much? Once my bet din was completed, several reform converts had been congratulated by their boyfriends’ families, embracing them and wishing them “mazel tof.”
We alerted the mikveh lady that I was ready to plunge into the mikveh waters and to be reborn a Jew, but the mikveh lady informed us that the mikveh was not yet full. (I’m not sure how the reform converts dunked. Maybe the rabbis sprinkled them with some holy water and declared it kosher.). So, as we waited for the mikveh to fill, my rabbi said, “today, your ancestors are smiling down on you, because your soul is finally returning to its predestined state.” My heart filled with joy and excitement, as my eyes filled with tears.
A few minutes later, I entered the freezing cold murky waters of the mikveh, paying no heed to stray hairs floating on its surface. Shivering from hypothermia, I muttered the blessing with what breath I could muster, and I submerged my head under water three times. As I exited the waters, purple from the sub-zero temperature of the water, everyone, including the sweet Hungarian mikveh lady in her thick accent, wished me a huge “Mazal tov.” My soul no longer had to strive to come home. It could finally rest with the beautiful gift of Torah.
It is now nearly six years since I converted, and the light continues to pierce the darkness of one tragedy after another in my life. In the last two years, I have been diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, also known as “the suicide disease” and undergone two brain surgeries. But, because of the kindness I have experienced from the orthodox community, I have been able to resist succumbing to the disease. Friends have texted me daily, emailed me weekly, modified their houses to make them accessible to me, visited me in the hospital and Cleveland and sent me care packages. With each display of love, compassion and selflessness, they have been a light unto my world and have only further confirmed my decision to join the faith. Without a doubt, where they go, I will go; where they die, I will die; and, where they are buried, I, too, will be buried.
My only hope is that, one day, I, too, can be a light unto the world like my family law professor and beloved friends have been to me. May I bring lightness to the darkness, by which so many become plagued. May I, one day, display the same generosity and charity others have shown to me.