By Deb Silverthorn
Charlene Howell took “there’s no time like the present” to heart last fall, following through on her desire to become a Jew by choice at the age of 75.
“I grew up in South Carolina where there were lots of Jewish people and I have always felt a connection, but a connection was different at different times in my life,” said Howell. “I was a long time coming, but I’m here.”
A Florida native, the young Charlene Wilson grew up Southern Baptist, primarily in Charleston, South Carolina, not far from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the second oldest synagogue in the United States, the oldest in continuous use, and where, in 1824, the American Reform Judaism movement originated. Jewish life was a part of her upbringing and she had many Jewish friends.
Howell, now 76, said she began internally pulling away from her family’s faith as a young teen. Still, she married Warren Howell, a Methodist follower. When the couple’s sons, Brooks and Chandler, would come home from Sunday school, she had more questions than answers, which led her to join the Unitarian church for 40 years.
Finally, she figured 75 was the time to push forth on her core’s truth. “Now, I’m at a place where I’m honored to be a part of this community and it is truer than ever and I decided if not now, when?”
Following her then husband’s career path as an accountant, the couple moved to Dallas in 1968, to Ohio in 1972 and back to Dallas, for good, in 1977. A history and English major, she returned to school earning a master’s degree in library science from North Texas State University (now UNT). Howell worked in the research department of the Federal Reserve and then served as executive director of The Rosewood Foundation from 2000 to 2013.
She served first as a librarian, then as a volunteer for many years, at the Dallas Public Library, and had served on the board of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, in many capacities over the years and as a former judge of the Texas Institute of Letters.
She reads more than 200 books each year, keeping a log of them all ,and has led book clubs for 26 years, including a group for the Tycher Library of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Center for Jewish Education. In May, she led the Tycher’s Book Club, for the first time via Zoom, sharing Andrew Gross’ “The Fifth Column.”
“Charlene is phenomenal and she engages participants, not lecturing to them, but teaching us to analyze the reading,” said CJE Project Coordinator Karen Schlosberg, readying for the June Book Club which will cover “The Book of Dirt,” by Bram Presser. “She’s like the sister I never had.”
“I can’t remember not reading and not loving doing so,” said Howell, who remembers nursing her sons with a baby in one arm and a book in the other. “Books, and libraries — and I’ve worked and volunteered in many —have always been a shelter and a comfort.
After her mother died in 2009, Howell pursued Judaism on her own with the support of her sons.
Howell participated in Temple Emanu-El’s conversion program, which included more than a year of study and meetings with her mentor, Miriam Cohen, as well as Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, ultimately culminating in a gerut (conversion) ceremony in September 2019.
“Charlene always impressed me with her spirituality and her connection of heart, mind and soul for a very long time,” said Rabbi Zimmerman, who has noticed an increase in the number of those coming to Jewish conversion later in life. “God says ‘go forth to a land that I will show you and you will be a blessing.’ It is indeed an extraordinary blessing to bring someone to become a Jew and I know what this means to her.”
“Temple has been my place, my comfort zone for years and I feel connected there,” said Howell. “When the world was ‘open,’ I was there on Fridays and I feel at home, complete.”
A resident at Five Star Premier Residences of Dallas, Howell says community continues there with Shabbat services, Passover Seders, Hanukkah and other holiday celebrations that make it home for her.
While the world is social distancing, Howell is grateful for equally sheltering-in-place neighbors with whom she can play bridge. She is reading more than ever, “attending” Zoom services and programs and running a lending library of the 2,000 books she brought to Five Star.
“For a long time most of the people I connected with in the Dallas community thought I was Jewish. I didn’t tell them different, but I also never corrected them,” said Howell. “I may not have the blood of a Jew, but I’ll always have the heart of one.”
By Deb Silverthorn