By Harriet P. Gross
Passover’s recent seders once again reminded us, as they do every year, that we — today, and into the future — were together with our long-ago ancestors when they took that seminal Jewish journey out of Egypt. And now Shavuot is on the horizon, telling us to remember that all Jews — yesterday, today, tomorrow — stood together at Sinai to receive our Torah.
Shavuot also makes sure we recognize those among us who have come to Judaism through choice rather than by birth, for it honors Ruth, our early and most famous convert, whose line later extended to King David.
A few years ago, Moment Magazine told the stories of several modern-day converts who chose to join us for a variety of reasons. Now, as we prepare once again to accept our Jewish commitment, is a good time to be inspired by their stories, and thankful to have them standing among us. Here they are:
Yitzhak Jordan (“Y-Love”) is a black hip-hop musician who creates Talmudic rhymes. Growing up in Baltimore, he started “thinking Jewish,” he said, and by age 14 was going to shul and teaching himself prayer book Hebrew. Formal conversion was in Brooklyn when he was 22; he later attended an Israeli yeshiva for converts, where his black fellow students included several Ethiopians and the Crown Prince of Swaziland!
Karen Nielson-Anson of Salt Lake City calls herself a “Mo-Jew” — a former Mormon. Never happy in her birth religion, she played “Fiddler on the Roof’s” Fruma Sarah onstage three times, which “probably lit the fire,” she said. Later she met and married a Jewish man who went with her to every conversion class because he hadn’t studied Judaism at all after his bar mitzvah. Her mother was glad that she was finally going to be religious!
Hank Eng, an engineer, grew up in New York, the son of immigrant Chinese parents. He was working in Shanghai when he began to date an American Jewish woman who was also there on business. At his first seder, “I began to understand how a religion could be passed down ‘unchanged’ from the time of Abraham to Moses to today,” he said. After marriage, the Engs adopted a Chinese baby; Hank agreed to raise their daughter as Jewish, and completed his conversion in time for her bat mitzvah.
A Muslim woman from Iran (who has asked to remain nameless), met an Israeli Jew when both were studying medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. Never enthusiastic about her birth faith, she began exploring Judaism. The two married; she was six months pregnant when Hurricane Katrina hit, and converted in Houston just a week before their son was born. “(His) family is small because so many were killed in the Holocaust,” she said. “They never put any pressure on me to convert, but they were very happy because raising our children as Jewish was important to them.”
Chris Van Allsburg, born to “casual Protestants,” grew up with no religion. He admits he didn’t convert because he was seeking a spiritual path, but because he fell in love with a Jewish girl whose father said it would break his heart if his daughter married someone who wasn’t Jewish. “The conversion process gave me insight into Judaism,” he said. “I realized the power not simply of faith, but of a culture that binds families.” Multitalented Chris has long written and illustrated children’s books, but his main work today is designing and sculpting mezuzahs.
Tinamarie Bernard maintains she converted “because Judaism just fit.” Married to the son of a Holocaust survivor, she is the great-granddaughter of a high-ranking Nazi officer! “My husband and I now have a young daughter,” she said. “So imagine this: In two generations, two families inextricably linked by horror are now linked by marriage, love and a baby. It feels like coming full circle, like finding the home I never knew I left.” The Bernards now live in Israel.
Sinai beckons us all!