Many have asked me, "How did a country girl like you, a Baptist raised in the middle of the Oklahoma Bible Belt, become an observant Jew?"
Well, it's a very long story. It took ten years from the time my family and I left the Baptist church until we finally converted to Judaism. But here's a glimpse into the story that forever changed my life.
Baptists believe that there is only one way to heaven, which is through faith in Jesus. Only those who have true faith and manifest it in their lives will be "saved." I was taught that true faith involved regular church attendance, a public profession of faith in the church, baptism, and of course, clean living. I believed that God loved me and had a special plan for my life.
Only those who have true faith and manifest it in their lives will be "saved."
I lived my life according to Christian doctrine for the first years of my life. I married a good Christian man and was blessed with three beautiful sons. However, I arrived at a point in my life, at age 37, where I desired to have a closer and more meaningful relationship to God. I was not depressed. I just felt as though I wanted to be more committed to God. I remember, as I lay in bed one night before going to sleep, praying , "God, I really want to know You – whatever the cost. Whatever it takes, please lead me into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with you."
Little did I know what was to follow.
Within weeks, my husband, a physician in the Air Force, was sent to a Continuing Medical Education Conference in San Antonio, Texas. He was accompanied by Reuvain Rossio, another Air Force physician. Both our families were living in Dayton, Ohio, and we knew each other as former neighbors from San Antonio. During the two years the Rossios had been in Dayton, they had made a dramatic move towards more observant Judaism. It was a topic of excitement for Reuvain and because my husband was always open to topics of religion, a very lively discussion ensued while on the flight back and forth from San Antonio. Reuvain had recently attended a lecture by Rabbi Tovia Singer. He was so impressed by his talk that he purchased a complete set of his tapes, entitled "Let's Get Biblical.” Rabbi Singer's intent was to bring Jews back to their Biblical roots and strengthen their faith in Judaism. Reuvain invited my husband to listen to the tapes. Bob agreed, thinking that not only would he find them interesting, but also a tool by which he could demonstrate the credibility of his own Christian faith and be able to explain to Reuvain why he still accepted Christianity as his own true faith.
The tapes were comprehensive and intense. To my husband's surprise and dismay, he believed that the rabbi articulated Christian doctrine much better than many Christian pastors. Rabbi Singer raised many serious questions about the validity of the New Testament scriptures. He discussed, in detail, prophetic Christian scriptures and why Jews do not accept those scriptures. He talked about the Written and Oral Laws of Judaism and why Jews still view both of them as very important. He talked about many other serious concerns that Jews have with Christian doctrine.
Bob commented to me that the rabbi had very valid – and troubling – points. My response was "Who cares what he says? I'm sure the Jews have some contriving way to explain away why they don't believe. They have to. Don't you see? They're blinded! They can't see the true messiah!"
My husband was steadfast in seeking the truth. I thought that I already had the truth and wondered why my husband was so confused. Yet, after much study and prayer, both by me and my husband, I had to resign myself to the fact that there were problems with Christianity.
Called into Question
Realizing that my Christian beliefs might be flawed was traumatic for me. Everything I had been taught was suddenly being called into question.
My first response was to talk to our pastor and close friends, but sadly, they either didn't have any answers or were afraid to talk about it. Since rejecting Jesus meant an eternal hell of fire and brimstone to them, they didn't want to risk the consequences of considering anything else but Christianity. I eventually had to share the painful news with my parents. The response was hurt and anger. I felt as though I had no one to turn to other than God. I remember standing in front of my upstairs bedroom window and praying, "God, if Jesus is your son, then I don't want to offend you, but if I've been deceived please let me know."
After exposing our doubts about Christianity, we were painfully asked to leave the church.
My husband was a prominent Sunday school teacher, but after exposing our doubts about Christianity, we were painfully asked to leave the church. Many questions arose such as, What do I teach my children? What do I do about the fact that they are in private Christian schools? How do we fit into any community now?
I didn't know where to turn for answers, and on top of all that, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I was told I had three years to live, at most. (I've now been cancer free for over 12 years, thank God.) It was a time of deep soul-searching and re-examination of my faith in God.
The Air Force transferred us from Ohio to Oklahoma (my home state) for two years, (where I gave birth to twins at age 40), and then to Colorado Springs, Colorado. During that time, we had very little connection with anything remotely Jewish. We learned on our own, but our self-learning left much to be desired. However, while in Colorado Springs, we were introduced to Aish Denver by a rabbi friend. We visited off and on and were impressed with Aish, but found it difficult to make the trips back and forth to shul with young twins and restless boys.
At the Crossroads
In 2001, my husband retired from the Air Force and we moved to Denver, into the Aish community, in an attempt to study more seriously and consider the possibility of conversion. Conversion was an intimidating possibility for me. Many things appeared quite foreign to me and to leave the "faith of my fathers" was a daunting thought.
But as I continued to attend services at Aish, I began to appreciate the true beauty of Judaism. Lori Palatnik and her family moved to Denver approximately one month after we moved there. I began to learn with Lori and while she taught me many things about Judaism, she also became a "sounding board" for all the things that I didn't understand and found challenging. She was a true friend and confidante and reminded me continuously that God loves me for who I am.
I found the classes and participation at Aish refreshing and invigorating. Yet, I still remained non-Jewish for several years. There was comfort in the fact that if I didn't really want to commit to something Jewish, I could say, "Well, it's okay. I'm not really Jewish yet."
In April 2003, my husband lost his job at a local hospital in Denver. While I am not at liberty to discuss specific details, the fact that he was released the last day of Passover, and it was related to a complaint filed by a patient's drunk grandmother spewing anti-Semitic comments, did not seem a coincidence. Because of the job loss, Bob and I were forced to make a decision about conversion and what was important to us.
Bob was offered an excellent opportunity back in Ohio, not far from where we once lived. The salary was literally twice the amount and the housing opportunities were much better there, as well. But the Jewish community was very small.
A decision had to be made. "What do you want to do?" Bob asked me. "Do you want to move one more time?"
The thought was tempting . . . double salary, beautiful houses, a pleasant location, and "surely we would make friends, wouldn't we?" I reasoned. Did we really want to continue the pursuit of conversion, or perhaps concede that conversion just wasn't for us? We could go back to eating all the non-kosher food we once enjoyed, not to mention the unlimited restaurants and cuisines. Our kids could play more sports, even on Saturdays and not feel guilty, we could buy a beautiful house at a much lesser price, and life could be much easier for us in many ways. What was to be?
I was forced to confront myself with what was really important for me.
On the other hand, where would we ever find a shul like Aish Denver? The Meyers, the Palatniks, the Wasoskys -- what shul would ever have a staff like that? And the friends we had made were genuinely precious. Did we really want to leave all that behind to start over, or perhaps, forsake entirely?
I was forced to confront myself with what was really important for me. Was eating non-kosher food and going to nice restaurants the most important thing in life? Was living in an extravagant home with a nice salary the ultimate pleasure? Or, was having my kids be sports heroes a worthy goal for which I should invest hours of time and money? These goals were shallow and never had I realized it more than at that moment.
The decision was obvious. It was inconceivable for my family to leave the shul, our friends, or the commitment we had made towards learning about Judaism. Just as Lori had taught in her "48 Ways to Wisdom" class, that with much pain comes much pleasure.
A New Beginning
During the summer of 2004, Bob and I requested a date for our conversion with Rabbi Greenblatt of Memphis. The date was set almost 10 years from the date we had the fateful meeting with the church members, asking us to leave the church.
As I prepared for conversion and the upcoming wedding, (as new converts, we would need to get married according to Jewish law) I experienced mixed emotions. I mourned for the relationship between me and my parents and how that would suffer even more. My parents were the ones who had given me life, raised and nurtured me, and now for this, my most important milestone, I could not joyfully share with them. I could not even find the words to tell them that I was converting. I knew the pain was great for them and did not wish to inflict any more than I already had.
On the other hand, I knew that conversion was right for me. Without it, I knew I would never be fulfilled in the way I desired. As painful or as different as it might have seemed for family or friends, it was still right for me and I had confidence that I was choosing the right path. So it was with that confidence that I continued my chosen path towards conversion.
As I walked down the aisle in shul to remarry my husband, accompanied on one side by Rebbetzen Lori Palatnik and the other by Rebbetzen Chaya Meyer, I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude and joy. I admired both Lori and Chaya so much and felt incredibly honored that they would walk me towards my new chatan, groom.
I began to cry, but this time they were tears of intense, indescribable joy.
As I gazed at Yedidyah, (formerly Bob), standing at the front of the shul, I could see tears in his eyes. I, too, began to cry, but this time they were tears of intense, indescribable joy. The shul was filled with our friends, standing in our honor, most teary-eyed, as well. We had finally come home to our faith, our love, and our friends. We experienced the pain, and now we are overwhelmed by the pleasure.
Was the pain worth it? Yes, a hundred, million times yes! For almost 40 years, I searched for what would bring completeness, what would give me that relationship I yearned for so much with my Creator. For the first time in my life, I feel complete. There is an indescribable sense of wholeness. I feel as though I have finally returned home to a God who is real, who hears my prayers, and loves me with an amazing unconditional love.
"God, I really want to know you, whatever the cost. Whatever it takes, please lead me into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with you." Be careful what you pray for.