Rabbi Chaya: My journey to Judaism

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My journey to Judaism began when I was 16 years old. At that time, I was a practicing Methodist and I was very involved in my church. I was a member of the youth group and the choir, attended Sunday school and worship services every week, and volunteered to work every fundraiser.

One of the songs I used to sing in the choir was an old time gospel entitled, “Yes I Know.”

Come, ye sinners, lost and hopeless,
Jesus’ blood can make you free;
For He saved the worst among you,
When He saved a wretch like me.
And I know, yes, I know
Jesus’ blood can make the vilest sinner clean,

In temptation He is near thee,
Holds the pow’rs of hell at bay;
Guides you to the path of safety,
Gives you grace for ev’ry day.

One evening, during choir practice, I found that I was actually very disturbed by what I was saying: It is belief in Jesus that holds hell at bay. So then I started wondering, “But there are billions of people in the world … good, moral people … religious people even … who do not believe in Jesus. Are we really saying that all of those people are doomed to hell?”

When I brought these questions to my pastor, he was not too keen on the idea of entertaining my doubts. He told me that belief in Jesus was just that … belief. I was going through a crisis of faith and, according to him, the only way out of a crisis of faith is to have faith. (Kind of a Catch-22, don’t you think?) Admittedly, faith has always been something that I have struggled with; I started feeling like a hypocrite. There I was, singing every Sunday about the saving power of Jesus, but I didn’t believe the words that I was saying. So, I did the logical thing … I stopped going to church.

It was at this point in my journey that I began dating one of the two Jewish boys in my high school’s junior class. In an effort to better know him and his faith, I picked up a couple books about Judaism at Barnes & Nobles. Within the first twenty pages of the first book, I was hooked!

Here was a religion that encouraged its followers to ask questions. I came to learn that Judaism idealizes intellectualism, reason, and argumentation “for the sake of heaven.” And there are very few dogmatic doctrines. A person does not have to have faith in a particular set of beliefs in order to be right with God and the Universe. Judaism places greater emphasis on deeds than on beliefs, on the here-and-now than on the here-after. I had found a religion that I could follow without feeling hypocritical.

As a senior in high school, I immersed myself in Jewish life. I attended services at the local Reform temple every Friday night and Saturday morning. I volunteered in the Hebrew school. I took adult education classes. I joined NFTY (the National Federation of Temple Youth). I celebrated the Jewish holidays. And I was welcomed with open arms by the Jewish community.

When I moved to south Florida for college, one of the first things I did was find a local synagogue to call home. Since I was becoming more and more interested in the observance of halachah (Jewish law), it seemed natural for me to look at Conservative synagogues as well as Reform synagogues. I did ultimately find that my own approach to Judaism and Jewish law – that halachah is binding – fit better with the Conservative Movement than with the Reform Movement. In addition to believing that halachah is binding, I also find a since of comfort in the predictable observance of Jewish ritual. (Actually, I have always preferred high church, with its ritualistic services and ceremonies, to low church. It’s why, as a child, I preferred Methodist worship services to Baptist worship services.)

Finally, after two years of studying and living as a Jew, I completed my conversion with a Conservative bet din just before Passover in 2001. I was an 18 year-old college freshman.

Related content:

  1. From Chopsticks to Chosenness – One Girl’s Journey
  2. Conversion to Judaism: Fact and Fiction
  3. Turning Aside: Finding Judaism (Part I)
  4. The Long Way Back
  5. Turning Aside: Finding Judaism (Part III)

Comments

  1. 1
     Dena says:

    Thank you for sharing! What made you decide to become a Rabbi?

  2. 1.1
     Rabbi Chaya says:

    Why I decided to become a rabbi? Well, here’s the short answer (the long answer will likely be another article to post) … I realized that the rabbinate could provide me with a career that would allow me to pursue many of my passions (psychology, Jewish text study, teaching & education, leading synagogue services, program development & event planning) while serving the Jewish community.

  3. 2
     Tara McNamara says:

    Great story. The “faith” as reason was something they hammered into me in Catholic schooling, too. Obviously, faith alone doesn’t always work.

    I am impressed your parents entertained your notions at such a young age, being as active as a Christian as you once were.

    2.1
     Rabbi Chaya says:

    When I was a child, my parents were not very involved in any church. I would frequently attend church services and events alone.
    My mother does not like organized religion. Although my path to conversion was difficult for her at first (mostly because I was abandoning many family traditions and taking on new traditions that she did not understand) , she is now very supportive and proud of me.
    My father became a born-again fundamentalist evangelical Christian about the same time I came to Judaism. He has always had a a very hard time with my conversion because his faith tells him that I am doomed to burn in hell for all eternity. And, of course, no father wants that for his daughter. Twice he threaten to disown me. Once when I converted and again when I announced that I was going to rabbinical school; he never actually went through with his threats. A few years ago he told me that he had a vision in which God told him that I was doing God’s work and that he didn’t have to worry about me anymore. Ever since he has been more supportive. He attended my ordination ceremony and there was no prouder father in the room.

  4. 3
     Juan Mejía says:

    Insightful as ever my dear friend. I never really asked you about your conversion story, I have to come out and read it on the internet. Hugs.

    3.1
     Rabbi Chaya says:

    I thought I had told you my story. I miss you and Abby and Gracia so much. We have to find a way to see each other soon.

  5. 4
     Yair S says:

    Thanks for sharing Rabbi, you have an interesting story. I was raised in a really fundamentalist evangelical setting (my mom is an assistant pastor) and certainly experienced some of the same sorts of reactions as those of your father to your own conversion. On the one hand I can understand, from their perspective, the fear that we’ve taken a dangerous turn. On the other, it’s really hard to have them not be able to be happy about the path chosen, when it so clearly is coming home. My parents haven’t changed their minds about it… maybe your father can send his vision to them :) .

    kol tuv,
    Yair

  6. 5
     Keri says:

    Wow, I could have practically written that same article! I too was a church-going Christian, in love with the high ritual of my Episcoal church, singing in choir, etc., etc. (although I was 30, not 16). But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t buy into most of the tenents of Christianity, regarding Jesus. I tried my best to be a good Christian, but my heart just wasn’t in it.

    While I had some exposure to Judaism in college, it wasn’t until I started to work with a Jewish boss, that I too picked up a book to learn more and got hooked. And for the same reasons! I loved the fact that Jews can question everything. And I was enthralled by the idea that Judaism has room in it for a belief in reincarnation (something I came to believe in when I was in college).

    But it wasn’t until I listened to a lecture by R. Lawrence Kelemen, that I discovered that yes, I can convert. I don’t have to start out as a perfect Jew; I can get Jewish just one mitzvah at a time.

    After listening to a lecture by a rabbi with a PhD in nuclear physics, who talked about the compatibility of a belief in the Big Bang and Genesis–using principles of physics and astrophysics–I told my husband, “If I had been born a Jew, I’d have been a rabbi. Where else can you combine so many different things and religion?” I have since learned that one of the greatest rabbis (was it Akiva?) didn’t become a rabbi until he was 40, so there’s still time for me to become one too.

    My mother is a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian, as is her side of the family. I worry about telling them I’ve chosen to convert, but I guess once all the dust has settled, they’ll either accept it or not, and if I end up disowned, then I’m disowned. There’s always time for them to change their minds later.

    5.1
     Avi M says:

    Hi Keri

    I don’t want to hijack your comment but I think you have commented on a few things now and I wanted to (if you haven’t done this already) invite you to join the community. It’s free and registering lets you participate on the forums which is imo the best part of our site!

    Here is the link.

     Keri says:

    Oy. I’m actually already on the forum (different name and avatar), and I thought I was posting under my forum log-in here, then oops, I noticed I posted as me, instead of my alias (dang you automatic form fill-in!). I’m sort of being Jewish on the sly online, until I come out to my family, but I doubt this will reveal me. Unless Facebook somehow manages to find all my forum posts everywhere and suddenly starts publishing them on my news feed (I would not put it past them).

    Or maybe this is all just a subconscious/passive agressive thing on my part, and I secretly hope my family WILL stumble across something like this, and find out third-hand, so I won’t have to have the courage to say something first. I’ll admit, I’m very non-confrontational, and I’d rather respond (even be on the defense) than initiate.

    I’ll say this, I feel for gay people who have to come out of the closet.

     Avi M says:

    If you send me a PM and let me know what your actual user name is, I can go in and change these blog comment ID’s to match your user name

    You can pm from here http://www.jewsbychoice.org/members/admin/

  7. 6

    Thanks, Rabbi Chaya, for sharing your inspiring story. I was drawn to Judaism for many of the reasons you cite, and I expect that a great many gerim share those affinities.

    I especially appreciate one of the lines of Edmond Fleg’s “Why I Am A Jew” essay, written in 1927. “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.” As you put it, “Judaism idealizes intellectualism, reason, and argumentation ‘for the sake of heaven.’ And there are very few dogmatic doctrines.” For many of us, it is a beautiful thing to find such intellectual elbow room within the context of ritual and observance; what a potent combination!

  8. 7
     Moni says:

    Dear Rabbi Chaya, I am thrilled to find this website and to read your story. I have only recently embarked on my journey to convert (in the past few weeks), tried to keep my first Shabbat (it’s really hard to turn off the computer when trying to learn all the things I needed to do!) but I will persevere one mitzvah at a time. Coming from an Eastern-European Byzantine Orthodox Catholic background, where we were dragged kicking and screaming to Church every Sunday (talk about High Mass), I have never felt comfortable with any kind of religion being “forced” upon me. I am grateful that I can “choose” Judaism. I am grateful it is not easy (as an entire religious and cultural heritage I never really knew before – I don’t have a problem following the ‘rules’). To me it is a more intellectual relationship with G-d. The more I learn, the more I like it! Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. 8
     Antonio Rivera says:

    I’m converting this summer as a graduating high school senior headed to college.
    I’m glad to read that there are other people who decided to convert at a young age!

  10. 9
     Tamara says:

    Hi Antonio,

    Where are you headed to college? I suggest trying to get hooked up with Hillel on campus so that you have a nice network your age.

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