For Love Of Judaism
Families share their unique stories about conversion.
Shelli Liebman Dorfman
Staff Writer- The Detroit Jewish News
Five years ago, Pam and Ray Herdman were devout Christians, living in the state of Wyoming, ready to start a family. Today, using their newly chosen Hebrew names of Batya and Netanel, the couple and their children - Calev, 4, and Chana, 2 - are Orthodox Jews, making a home in Southfield where she works at Yeshivat Akiva and they are members of the nearby Young Israel.
The Herdmans are among the 10,000 individuals who, according to Aish.com, convert to Judaism worldwide each year. But unlike the many who become Jewish for the love of a spouse, their reason for conversion was based on a love of religion. While there is no question a conversion spurred by an impending marriage can bring about the same love and connection to Judaism, those whose choice comes from within follow a bit of a different path.
Of the 7-10 possible conversion candidates he sees each year, "most are not doing it for marriage," said Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. "More than any other ritual in the Jewish community, conversion is driven by an introspective journey."
Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn has converted hundreds of people. In addition to those he meets within his Miami Beach, FL, synagogue, he oversees the same study process for those who complete his online course at http://www.convertingtojudaism.com/ . "The majority of those who contact me are not converting because they are getting married," he said. They are people who have a true love of Judaism or have fallen in love with the culture.
"In Tennessee, I converted a whole congregation in a traditional synagogue. I tell people that this is a very individual choice and that this may not be for them. My job is to help guide them to know if they are good for Judaism and if Judaism is good for them."
The road to conversion is similar among the denominations of Judaism, with each tailoring the process to its own stream. Basically, all include a variation of steps, including meetings with rabbis, studying Jewish history and the beliefs, laws, customs, rituals and prayer related to the stream's philosophy.
The process also includes participation in Jewish communal and home life, immersion in the mikvah, male circumcision (actual or symbolic), choosing a Hebrew name, appearing before a beit din, making a commitment to being a member of the Jewish people and participating in a welcoming ceremony. Here, several people share how and why they converted to Judaism.
The McMillans: Pursuing A Dream
"I was never baptized so I didn't consider myself as having a specific religion," said Alyssa McMillan, who attended Christian services growing up. "As a black American, I don't think Christianity was my religion. How would I know what my religion was when we were slaves and we only took the religion of the slavemaster. I could be Jewish and not even know."
Her mom added: "I wanted her to choose what was right for her, and she embraced Judaism."
A north Oak Park resident for 24 years, Camille McMillan was familiar with many Jewish customs, as was Alyssa, who attended Berkley schools.
"I have been interested in Judaism for years and, after having to leave my job (her work environment exacerbated her multiple sclerosis), I sought to pursue my dream."
The family moved to West Bloomfield to be near Temple Israel, and Camille and Alyssa began taking an Introduction to Judaism class. They also attended a six-week New Beginnings class taught by Carol Cooper of West Bloomfield, who converted 20 years ago when she got married.
At Temple Israel, "those who come here on their own are connected with mentors to celebrate their lifecycle events or study Jewish ethics," Cooper said. "They're not planning a wedding, so there's no new mother-in-law or whole Jewish family to help them create Jewish memories. These often are the people who end up really embracing Judaism and giving back the most to the Jewish community."
Camille found answers. "I love the Jewish concept of healing the world and look forward to participating in community service projects," she said. "I love the personal accountability, being responsible for asking forgiveness from those you have hurt. If all were accountable for their own actions, we would have a better world.
"I love the rabbis and cantors at Temple and have yet to hear one negative word from any of them of race, religion or anything else, which is how I want to live my life."
Alyssa added, "People ask me all the time, am I doing this because my boyfriend is Jewish? Am I getting married? Am I an Ethiopian Jew? I am doing this for myself and nobody else. I want to raise my kids Jewish, with rituals that they can pass on for generation after generation."
Now a member of Temple Israel, Camille said, "I try to attend services regularly, and my Temple family has embraced me openly." She also attends an MS support group at the synagogue. She said her husband, who did not convert, "comes home Friday nights for Shabbat dinner. He supports me and is considering converting," she said.
The Herdmans: Judaism Provides Answers
"We questioned many things in Christianity, but no one in the church gave us answers," Batya Herdman said. "They just told us, 'You have to believe it.'" So she and her husband, Netanel, began looking for their own explanations, eventually searching Jewish texts.
At a bookstore in the state of Wyoming where they were living, Batya happened to talk with a woman wearing a Star of David. Their quick friendship became a connection with Judaism on a new level: through someone Jewish.
"What are the chances that I would meet one of the 400 Jews in Wyoming and we would become friends and be invited to their home for Shabbat meals?" Batya asked.
The friendship helped, but studying without the support of a real teacher or synagogue, the Herdmans had to figure out a lot of things on their own. "We took the Torah so literally," Batya remembered. "It said, 'Don't work on Shabbos,' so we didn't. But we didn't know what we were supposed to do while we weren't working. So, we stayed home and read the Torah portion, with no TV, no computer." Along the way, Batya also signed up for a crash course in Hebrew reading at a local Reform synagogue.
In 2003, the family, which by then included son Calev, moved back to Michigan so Netanel could attend school. They also continued their Jewish learning at home. At Unique Kosher Carry Out in Oak Park one day, Batya chatted with owner Rita Jerome, and asked if she knew of a Hebrew tutor.
"She told me to call Chana Greenfield, a first-grade teacher at Akiva," Batya said. "She agreed to teach me, but was blown away that we were keeping Shabbos and learning, but that we were not Jewish."
After telling Greenfield of their hope for an Orthodox conversion, she referred her to Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield.
From past experience, Rabbi Morris had learned that to really understand life in the Orthodox community, candidates should live in one. "Frankly, after I told them that, I didn't think I would ever hear back from them," Rabbi Morris said. "Within a month, they called to tell me they found a home to rent in Southfield, and they were ready to start learning."
The Morrises began to invite the Herdmans to their home for Shabbat and holiday rituals and meals, and encouraged synagogue members to do the same.
"At first some were skeptical, but as they got to know the Herdmans and to see how committed and serious they were, they got involved," Rabbi Morris said. "It was eye-opening for the community to see a couple who, together, were both so interested in becoming Jewish."
Batya added, "They embraced us. When we moved, they called to offer a couch or a dresser, anything we needed." In time, the connections that began with the rabbi's request became friendships. As the Herdmans' conversions approached, members planned a bridal shower for Batya and a Jewish wedding for the couple at the synagogue, with a reception in the Morris' home.
When Netanel was called to the Torah for the first time for an aliyah as a Jewish man, the rabbi said, "The men spontaneously stood up and started dancing all around him. It was one of the most beautiful, uplifting and profound things I've ever seen.
"They understood what it took for him to get to that point, learning the brachot, juggling his time," Rabbi Morris said of Netanel, who works full time as a warehouse worker at a steel company and also goes to school, nearly 40 hours a week, studying to be an X-ray technician.
Batya and Netanel's actual conversion was overseen by the Council of Orthodox Rabbis in Southfield, with their children's conversions following. "We still have our families, who are supportive, as much as they can be, looking for kosher symbols on food and being aware of our beliefs," Batya said. "The Jewish community, too, is our family."
The Herdmans continue their Jewish learning, attend services and Netanel and Calev participate in a post-Shabbat father-son class. They hope someday to raise their children in Israel.
"They are an inspiration," Rabbi Morris said. While thrilled with what the family received and learned from the community, Rabbi Morris said, "I also already see how influential they are to others to further their own commitment."
Yoni Makepeace: Finding A Place Where He Truly Belongs
As a gay man, Yoni Makepeace was highly influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Makepeace became Jewish in 1992.
"Judaism offered me a home in a religious tradition relatively free of homophobia," he said, noting that Reconstructionism was among the first religious groups to call for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
After living in several states including Michigan, Makepeace eventually moved to Windsor, where he was "seeking legal equality as a gay man." In October, he moved to Ottawa, Ontario, but continues to belong to the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit.
His introduction to Judaism came when a fellow American also studying in Vienna invited him to visit a synagogue in the mid-1980s. "Something clicked," he said. "It may have been the strong sense of family or community, I don't know, but when I returned to my church afterward, I found that I could no longer recite the Nicene Creed, the central statement of Christian belief. I realized that I didn't believe it, indeed, that I had never believed it."
His conversion took place after meeting with "a long string of rabbis," he said, including a Chabad rabbi and a Reform rabbi who became Conservative during the course of learning. "At that time, it was hard to find a rabbi willing to work with an openly gay candidate for conversion," he said, but found one in Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist Rabbi Julie Greenberg.
"My mikvah (ritual bath required for conversion) was [Rabbi] Arthur Waskow's swimming pool," he said. Rabbi Waskow is a political activist and Jewish Renewal leader.
Raised Roman Catholic, Makepeace's father had converted from Protestantism to marry his mother. Born Warren Eugene Taylor, Makepeace said his name change "was particularly painful because my father named me after himself. I love him and his name, but I felt that the name didn't reflect who I had become, either as a Jew or as a gay man."
While he prefers Jews address him by his Hebrew name of Yoni, he said, "I chose Jonathan and David for my English names to recall the love between Prince Jonathan and the future King David, expressed over and over again in the books of Samuel."
And for his last name, he said, "I dropped a surname dictionary onto to a table and it opened to the perfect name: Makepeace (Oseh Shalom)."
The Whitts: One Generation At A Time
Akiva and Chana Whitt converted to Judaism when their children were ages 8, 15 and 16. Now they have grandchildren who were born Jewish, and a son who hopes to become a rabbi.
"We were Pentecostals, living in Fort Worth, Texas, 15 years ago, when a close non-Jewish friend of my husband told him there were inaccuracies in the King James version of the Bible," Chana said. "My husband set out to prove him wrong." Together, the two men and their families began to study several times a week, eventually focusing on Judaism.
"The studying snowballed and more people joined us and we ended up converting our garage into a family room, putting in book shelves, which we filled with Jewish texts," Chana said. "We threw out the King James Bible and bought a Chumash and every piece of Jewish literature we could get our hands on." They also eventually learned with a Fort Worth Chabad rabbi.
"When we first told our children we wanted to convert, my daughter, Chaya, told me, 'I need to be a Jew,'" Chana said. That day - 2½ years before they actually converted - they had their last meal in a restaurant and then bought all kosher food.
Chaya remembers she was in the eighth grade and had a boyfriend. "We started without the real intention of becoming Jewish and for years we were 'nothing.' But we became very interested in Judaism because everything we learned and knew to be true led us to Judaism. We gradually realized that if we were involved in Jewish things and a Jewish way of life we should consider being Jewish."
Without much of a Jewish community around them - and the nearest Jewish school 40 miles away - the Whitts home-schooled their children. During a visit to relatives in Detroit in 1999, they realized that job opportunities for Akiva and the Jewish community and schools would make Oak Park a perfect new home. They now are members of Bais Chabad of North Oak Park.
Their daughter, Chaya Daiches, 27, and her husband, and the Whitts' son Zalman, 26, and his wife all live in Oak Park with their children following the family's conversion. Their youngest son, Levi, 18, is in Los Angeles in a Chabad yeshivah. Since converting and moving to Michigan, the Whitts have had two more children: Sara, 9, a third-grader at Yeshivas Darchei Torah in Southfield, and Devorah Leah, 3½, who attends at Ganeinu Nursery School in West Bloomfield.
Chaya is thrilled that her children were born into Judaism. "I watch my sister Sara's connection and how much deeper it is than mine. And I know that soon my four children will be reading Hebrew better than I do." Her plan is to keep on studying.
From the December 21-27, 2006 issue of the The Detroit Jewish News.