4 Women Who Converted to Judaism
Coming from unique backgrounds, they turned to faith for tradition, marriage, support and more.
By Elicia Brown
When Heidi Hoover learned that her mother’s breast cancer had metastasized, she knew exactly where to turn: the synagogue.
That Hoover, a lifelong Lutheran and daughter of a preacher, sought solace in a Jewish house of worship might strike some people as odd. But Hoover didn’t hesitate. “My immediate reaction was, 'I have to say a Mi sheberach for her,' ” Hoover recalls, referring to the prayer customarily recited on behalf of sick people.
In retrospect, she reflected, “Well, that means something. If at the worst moment of my life, I’m turning to Judaism, maybe it’s time to rethink this Jesus thing.”
“It looks like I converted for marriage,” says Hoover, who was dating a Jewish man at the time of her conversion. But love was only one reason behind the evolution of her sense of religious identity.
Hoover belongs to a select group that has not been widely acknowledged or studied, one of thousands of Jewish converts in the United States. In some respects, Hoover is part of an even more exclusive club. She did not undergo an Orthodox conversion and would not be recognized as Jewish in Israel or by some Orthodox Jews. And yet, she not only actively chose Judaism, she also passionately embraces her adopted faith.
Hoover is part of a group whose impact is felt in synagogues across the United States, whose activities enrich “every American Jewish community,” according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
This path could be seen as a remarkable one, especially in recent decades, as external pressure to convert to Judaism has diminished. It is no longer accepted or common practice for Jewish parents to mourn when a child announces plans of intermarriage. More often than not, parents welcome a non-Jewish spouse to the family. In addition, another phenomenon has reduced the impetus to convert: Americans are choosing to identify as Jews without seeking rabbinical approval.
In the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, “you’ll see that we have a small number of converts and a much larger number of people we call Jews by Personal Choice,” says Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, whose work focuses on the American Jewish community. Jews by personal choice, means individuals who “identify as Jewish, with no Jewish parents, and who have come to do so without having gone through conversion,” says Cohen.
And yet, as Jews continue to assimilate, conversion may become a more frequent topic. “In the landscape of contemporary America, where you are more likely to die in a religion different from the one you were born in, conversion is increasingly becoming part of the Jewish story,” says Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the rabbi-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco–based organization that supports diversity among Jews.
What compels gentiles to undergo the often rigorous, time-consuming process of conversion? And afterwards, what continues to draw these converts to Jewish practice and faith? The answers are as varied as the paths of the individuals that take them. What follows are the stories of four such women, all of whom are deeply committed to Judaism, even though they may not be readily recognized as Jews in Israel—or in some Orthodox communities here.
Heidi Hoover: Road to the Rabbinate
Heidi Hoover can’t sing enough praises about her adopted faith. She adores the home-based rituals, such as lighting candles for Shabbat. She loves that there’s more than one way to relate to God and finds herself connecting to the divine when she gains an insight through Torah study. She’s awed by the Jewish rituals for mourning, the ways shiva anticipates the needs of the bereaved.
In fact, she’s so taken with Judaism that last year, Hoover, an exuberant, outgoing woman of 40, fulfilled another longtime dream. She became a rabbi. Today she serves as spiritual leader to the Reform synagogue Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek. At her installation ceremony in January, Hoover’s father, the Rev. B. Penrose Hoover, stood on the bima and smiled broadly. He said, “You never know how the kids are gonna turn out.”
“He brought down the house,” recalls Hoover.
As a Lutheran girl growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Hoover seldom encountered Jewish families. But even in that environment, she gravitated toward Judaism. “In Lancaster, there were about five Jews my age, and I managed to date one of them.” The boy’s parents weren’t enthused. “It’s a little changed now that I’m a rabbi,” she says, laughing. They told Hoover recently, “We really missed the boat on that one.”
Hoover started dating Michael Rose, another Jewish boy, a few years later when both were students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Hoover and Rose frequently stayed up all night “talking about big, big things,” including their religious upbringing.
When the couple moved to Manhattan after college, they joined a young professionals group at Central Synagogue. “It was so warm and welcoming there. I made friends and learned a ton about Judaism,” recalls Hoover. She found herself connecting to the concept of teshuva, of renewal, and distancing herself from the Christian concept of sinners. “This is what humans do; we make mistakes,” she says.
Hoover and Rose planned to marry and raise Jewish children, with Hoover retaining her Christian identity. But when tragedy struck in the form of her mother’s diagnosis, Hoover realized that she wanted to convert. In fact, she already knew she would one day pursue the rabbinate.
Today, as the mother of two young children, Hoover appreciates the support her own parents showed as she shifted so far from her roots. She’s frustrated that Israel won’t recognize her or her children as Jewish, because she didn’t have an Orthodox conversion. Otherwise she has few qualms about her chosen identity, though she accepts that one day each year will be riddled with angst and anguish: Yom HaShoah.
Hoover’s mother was born in Germany in 1939, and her great uncle died in the war fighting for “the wrong side,” as Hoover puts it. Rabbi Hoover identifies with both the remorse of the perpetrator and the sorrow of the victims. As a Jew by choice, she writes: “The parts of your identity don’t have to fit neatly together.”
Kiki Hamada: Taking the Plunge—At Long Last
For much of the last seven years, Kiki Hamada has lived in religious limbo. She’s refrained from mixing meat with dairy products. She’s frequently attended Saturday morning services. When she lit candles on Friday nights, she luxuriated in the positive energy, not entirely different from the strength she continues to draw each morning when she lights incense to honor her ancestors—as is the Buddhist custom in her Japanese homeland.
Still, for a long time, Hamada, 32 and living in New York City, wasn’t quite ready to sign on as a member of the tribe. Like many converts, Hamada’s faith evolved slowly. According to Choosing Jewish, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s 2006 study of conversionary families, becoming a Jew takes time. The individuals interviewed for her study “took months at the very least, and sometimes years, until born non-Jewish informants were ready to make a decision to convert into Judaism.”
Hamada’s introduction to Judaism began with a six-month internship at a Jewish nursing home in New Haven, Conn. “That was my welcome to Judaism,” says Hamada. The elderly residents took pleasure in teaching her about the holidays, songs and, for good measure, a sprinkling of Yiddish.
When Hamada moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in social work at New York University, she was also working, and one of her patients was a Kabbablistic Jew. Intrigued, Hamada began visiting The Kabbalah Centre near her home. But after a time, she grew disenchanted with the Centre—and ambivalent about her Jewish practice. Then, about two years ago, a friend introduced her to Rabbi David Ingber, the spiritual leader of Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation that infuses Eastern influences such as yoga with traditional Orthodox ritual and prayer. Hamada knew she had discovered her Jewish home.
Hamada’s long road to Judaism has been somewhat smoother than that of many converts. She is divorced, and her Japanese family lives far away. Still, for years, “it was back and forth; should I convert or not?” she says.
This past June, Hamada finally felt prepared. She stood before a court of three rabbis, dunked in a local mikvah and rejoiced. “I cried of joy the whole day,” says Hamada. “It was absolutely amazing, like a rebirth.
Before the ritual bath, Hamada told the rabbis she felt that she had a Jewish soul. “I felt like I was a Jewish mother in a past lifetime, and during candle lighting, I feel a sense of déjà vu.”
These days, she attends services at either Romemu or Chabad-Lubavitch, where she finds the Torah readings meditative and has a newfound relationship with God—a God who is not present in the Buddhist/Shinto culture of her youth.
In general, she says, “I’m a commitment-phobe, one foot in, one foot out.” Now she finds herself wearing an unconventional pair of shoes. “I would love, love, love to have a Jewish family,” she says, adding that she has some cute Jewish guy friends, but they are not religious enough. She would like to find “a man who would go to shul with me on Shabbat.”
Faith Roessel: Walks Two Worlds
On her very first Yom Kippur, Faith Roessel learned something about her boyfriend’s heritage that appealed to her and would later alarm her: Judaism, she observed, was more than a faith. “It was a religion, a culture, a history, a whole way of life,” says Roessel. It reminded her of the Navajo world that is so dear to her heart.
Later, when Roessel opted to convert to Judaism, she wasn’t particularly concerned about renouncing the Christian identity handed down by her father, but she deeply feared that Judaism would supplant the Native American identity cultivated by her mom. She wondered: “How could two people who are so totally into their own belief system find any midway ground and have a relationship?” A rabbi calmed her, saying, “What you bring will enrich and enhance Judaism.
Rabbi Abusch-Magder of Be’chol Lashon agrees with that principle. The rabbi says that according to Jewish lore, in a conversion ceremony, “you go in with one soul and come out with another.” But she adds that after the obligatory shower, and before the dunk in the mikvah, you’re not supposed to dry off. In this respect, you bring some aspects of your old self to the conversion.
Roessel was determined to not just remember and respect, but also to live the lessons of her childhood—to understand how plants, animals and rain relate to us and to honor her maternal grandfather, who was a medicine man. She held two weddings: one with a chuppah in Santa Fe, N.M., and the other in Round Rock, Ariz., on the reservation where she grew up. In traditional Navajo style, Roessel’s groom, Matt Slater, wore a velvet shirt, a headband and a concho belt; the bride and groom received the wisdom of community leaders.
Roessel and Slater continue to “build bridges” between their cultures. When their boys were babies, each had a circumcision as well as a “laughing ceremony,” to mark the infant’s first chuckle. But it was the next stage that informed Roessel’s identity as a Jewish woman. When the boys were toddlers, she enrolled them in the preschool at Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md.
As a cooperative, the school relied upon parental involvement, and this enabled Roessel to absorb and engage in the rhythms of the Jewish year. “I felt it really contributed a lot to having a Jewish home that was age appropriate and fun for the family,” she says.
When summer arrived, Roessel and the boys always headed west, rejoining her clan. But when she was back east in Washington, D.C., Roessel unraveled the mysteries behind keeping a kosher kitchen, and her family became active at Beth El, observing all the holidays, major and minor. For two years, Roessel chaired the Family Education Committee, and for another two, she chaired the Youth Committee. Her oldest son, Carl Slater, started a monthly youth service led by the teenagers. After he left for Colorado College, the teen service continued under the leadership of his younger brother Aaron; Roessel’s two older sons also served as co-presidents of the United Synagogue Youth Chapter.
One Chanukah not so long ago, Roessel invited 10 families from the synagogue to her home. To honor the miracle of oil, she served Navajo fry bread (along with squash succotash and vegetarian chili).
Judaism’s focus on tikkun olam has influenced Roessel’s career. A lawyer who has worked in high-level government positions on behalf of Native Americans, Roessel is considering launching a nonprofit focused on education, community service and Native Americans. “Judaism is totally a way of life,” says Roessel. “It’s infused in everything I do.”
Roessel’s sons seem to agree. The boys have adopted a name for themselves: “Nava-Jews.”
Diane Tobin: Back to the Future
Diane Kaufmann Tobin grew up in Pittsburgh, where everyone knew her name—her childhood surname, that is. Everyone in town knew of or shopped at Kaufmann’s, the department store at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street, the flagship of an enterprise founded and run by successful German Jews. Kaufmann money had helped fund the local Jewish Community Center, as well as secular organizations such as Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Everyone, it seemed, knew the Kaufmann story—everyone except the young Diane. Her paternal grandfather, Oliver Kaufmann, had married a non-Jew and paved the way for her Episcopalian upbringing.
“I went to a private girls’ school,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone Jewish.” She was determined to learn more. “It was my entire life’s journey. My goal was to marry someone Jewish.”
She fulfilled that ambition, falling in love with Gary Tobin, who went on to become a leading researcher of Jewish life. But Diane didn’t convert to Judaism right away. As a Kaufmann, she was drawn to Judaism, yet she was unfamiliar with the rituals and the rhythms of a Jewish year. “Going to synagogue for the first time was terrifying. It felt so foreign, completely alien,” she recalls.
By the time she was pregnant with her third child, however, she’d become so immersed in Jewish life that a rabbi asked whether she might be ready to take that plunge. She did so under the jurisdiction of a Conservative rabbinical court. She then married Gary Tobin (again) in a religious ceremony, officiated by an Orthodox rabbi. (The first nuptials had been presided over by a justice of the peace.)
“I went to the mikvah in 1982 with my 3-year-old and 6-year-old,” recalls Tobin. “I was eight months pregnant, and I’d been practicing Judaism for six years.”
A few years later, Tobin served as president of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. After her husband left his tenured position at Brandeis University to found the independent think tank Institute for Jewish & Community Research, Tobin joined the institute as associate director. After the couple adopted an African-American son, Jonah, Tobin founded Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an initiative of the research institute, which celebrates what it calls “global Judaism.”
As Be’chol Lashon’s director, Tobin provides a bridge to Jewish life for communities and individuals around the world, as well as in the United States. This summer, for example, with the assistance of Be’chol Lashon, a group of 32 people in Colombia converted to Judaism.
As a leader in the community, Tobin has gained insights into the obstacles encountered by Jews by choice and by those in transition to Judaism. “When people have issues about converts, they stem from a fear of the past, of people being protective of blood and lineage,” she says.
Occasionally, even Tobin, whose six children all attended Jewish day school and summer camp, encounters discrimination because of her personal history. She says: “You know what? I am so committed, and if it’s hard to accept someone like me, then that’s a little bit sad. I’m such an asset.”
Elicia Brown is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.
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