12 Jun In The Footsteps of Ruth
In the Book of Ruth, we read about the Moabite princess who shunned a life of prestige and privilege to embrace a life of commitment to Hashem and Torah. Through her total devotion and sincerity, she merited becoming the ancestress of King David and the messiah.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting three remarkable women who shared riveting glimpses into their own conversion journeys; journeys fueled by burning sense of purpose, enthusiasm, strength and determination. Sarah, Leah, and Shoshana converted through the Ruth Institute’s Conversion Program (known as “The Vaad Program”). They each have different backgrounds, discovered Judaism through different avenues, and faced different challenges along the way. But a common thread is a clear sense of personal mission and responsibility along with true love for God, Torah, and mitzvot.
Sarah, (*footnote: name changed for anonymity) an energetic, articulate twenty-four year-old, converted a few months ago. Prior to connecting to Judaism four years ago, she had no real exposure to Judaism. Her father, a French Quebecer, grew up Catholic and somewhat connected to God, while her mother didn’t believe in God. Sarah didn’t attend church though she did attend a Catholic high school where an influential religion teacher led students towards Catholicism. After high school, Sarah’s interest waned.
Sarah had a happy, smooth childhood. She wasn’t searching for religion. Believing in God and knowing she was connected were enough. That changed when Sarah went through some personal life challenges. After coming through that period of darkness, she thought, “I didn’t get through that alone. I felt so thankful, I needed an organized, structured way to give thanks to God.”
Sarah tried going to church but realized she was forcing herself to embrace Christianity only because it was the norm. Giving herself permission to explore other religions, she read about Islam and also had a Buddhist phase.
Her introduction to Judaism was through reading the Old Testament. Impressed by the intensity, she mentioned it to her one religious Jewish friend. He told her, “There’s so much more to it than you see.” This concept drew Sarah in. “Behind every letter in the Torah there’s an ocean. Every single word, every single dot, so much depth. There’s no way this could be written by anyone other than God!”
When Sarah’s friend invited her for Shabbat dinner, she was terrified. “Maybe I wouldn’t wear the right thing. At synagogue, people might look at me like I don’t know what I’m doing.” Suddenly she started laughing. She realized that God knew she didn’t know these things. And God is all that matters.
At prayer service, Sarah felt incredible joy. She had an epiphany. She thought, “This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for. I’m going to convert. I’m going to be Jewish.”
Understandably, everyone in Sarah’s life discouraged her from becoming Jewish. Sarah has always been sensitive to what other people thought of her. This was the first time she had ever been so certain about a decision that she found the strength to stand up for what she believed in, despite the lack of support.
Things were difficult with her family. Her mother was ok with the Jewish part but not the observance. It wasn’t easy, but Sarah took it in stride. Over time, her parents became more comfortable. Finally, after years of struggles, after her conversion, they acknowledged how happy she seemed. This was a powerful moment for Sarah. “It was incredible to finally get to a place where they knew this choice was truly right for me.”
Sarah works in a field where it’s rare to encounter Orthodox Jews. Although it’s difficult to be religious at peak times, she’s grateful her boss and colleagues have been understanding. She feels her place in this world is to bring Judaism and mitzvot into the secular environment. “God put me here for a reason and I’m going to do my best to fulfill that responsibility.”
On a recent business trip, Sarah was housed on the 26th floor. Every Shabbat she had to climb 26 flights of stairs. It became a running joke among her colleagues. They didn’t understand it, but they respected her greatly. Another time, on a Friday afternoon, her boss kept her on the phone until the last minute. She eventually had to hang up on him. She tried not to worry over Shabbat but it was difficult. After Shabbat, life went on. “That’s when I realized this is going to be ok.”
Sarah is thankful for where she is now. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” She had expected a dramatic epiphany when she finally became Jewish. But coming out of the mikveh, she sighed a deep sigh, feeling her soul finally settled and peaceful after four years of yearning to be Jewish.
Much of the Vaad Program revolved around learning the laws, kashrus, Shabbos, etc. Though Sarah loved that, the program also provided tools for the internal work. She learned to consciously think from a Jewish perspective. “To me, that means being grateful to Hashem for everything that happens, recognizing and addressing the yetzer hara, and continued learning.”
After her conversion, Sarah noticed an internal shift identifying the yetzer hara and actively bringing God into daily life. “In Christianity, the yetzer hara means you’re bad. But really it’s trying to get you. To remove the holiness.” Sarah had come out of the mikveh thinking she would be perfect. However, the next day she forgot a blessing, and later that week, her first Shabbat as a Jew, was running late for candle-lighting. “But that was perfect in a way, because I’m like everyone else and it’s ok and it’s about trying every day and having a relationship with Hashem that’s special and different and nurturing it—and I have 613 ways to do so.”
Leah, (*footnote: name changed for anonymity) an ambitious, spiritual twenty-one year-old, converted three years ago. An only child, she was raised with a few Jewish traditions by her Moroccan Jewish father and her non-Jewish mother (whose father was Jewish). Totally secular and unaffiliated with any Jewish community or shul, they fasted on Yom Kippur and had festive meals and family gatherings on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Leah never went to Jewish school and barely had any Jewish contact. However, she always felt Jewish attachment and belonging.
At the age of fifteen, Leah was unhappy at high school. Though young, she felt a need to connect with her roots. Her mother convinced her to volunteer at the Jewish Community Center. It was there Leah met and became friends with a Jewish Moroccan girl who attended a Jewish school. “She introduced me to the rules and traditions and brought me to an outreach weekend up north with a rabbi from Israel and local rabbis.”
There were classes about Torah, science, the messiah, End of Days—topics that fascinated Leah and moved her to the very core. She thought, “If this is Torah, I want it.” Leah had always been very deep, truth-seeking, wondering why she was here, what was the purpose of life. Blown away by what she had discovered that weekend, Leah decided to convert.
Wanting an Orthodox conversion, Leah joined the Vaad Program. From there, things proceeded at lightning speed. “I make friends easily, Baruch Hashem. I met all kinds of people in the program, also families and rabbis. I went to homes for Shabbat and holidays. Orthodox people were so open to me and welcoming. I was amazed!”
With an unquenchable thirst for Torah knowledge and a desire to delve deep, Leah supplemented the weekly Vaad classes, reading and learning as much as she could. Every week, she read the weekly Torah portion with all the commentaries. She learned and grew and took more things upon herself at an astounding rate. At the age of eighteen she became Jewish. “It’s not normal—in three years I’ve evolved so much! It’s all God.”
Leah’s biggest hurdle has been her family’s reaction. Her father was initially surprised by her decision to convert, though he did encourage it. Becoming religious was a different story. “My Jewish relatives took it badly. They were shocked because nobody is religious. It was foreign. They’re strong-minded Sefardis, so it wasn’t soft. There was confrontation. It was not easy because I had no support making the transition.”
Despite the challenges, Leah feels her family is proud of her. “They admire me because I’m studious, ambitious, organized. I have several projects. They’re proud of the whole picture of who I am.”
The internal process has also been difficult. “It was something I was in love with and striving to achieve, and I adjusted well, but three years later it’s still hard. I’m still integrating the fact that I’m religious. The more actions we do, the more it gets into us. It’s working, but it’s a long process. Not from one day to the next.”
The whole process was a growth experience but the peak, the most beautiful day, was the mikveh day. It was Rochel Imeinu’s yarzheit, which held special meaning for Leah because her Jewish grandmother was named Rachel. “I felt I did some kind of tikkun for her. It was an intense moment spiritually. Cheshvan is a spiritually empty month, we have to invest all the spirituality we can into it, and I feel like all my life is about that. I’m surrounded by a lot of tumah and my mission is to reveal God’s light.”
Leah loves talking about Torah. “It’s really my essence. One of my biggest dreams, the way I’ll really grow and fulfill my potential is to teach Torah in a seminary one day. For me, that would be the biggest achievement.”
Shoshana, (*footnote: name changed for anonymity) a conscientious, humble thirty-six year-old, converted almost three years ago. Her French Canadian parents raised her with Catholic traditions and she was baptized, but it never felt important to her. She had religion classes in high school, but couldn’t relate to the teachings.
As she grew older, Shoshana had some unpleasant experiences with people and began to lose faith in humanity. Spending time in nature was her ultimate joy. She wanted to learn about nature and share it with people. “Being in nature felt harmonious and peaceful and true and that’s how I felt God was.”
By the time she met Jeff, at age thirty, Shoshana was feeling a little lost. “I felt I was hitting a wall. There was no direction and I couldn’t understand the meaning of life. Unfortunately a lot of people are lost because they don’t have God, and it’s scary. And that’s how I felt.”
Jeff, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, was a secular Jew with strong faith. It was ultimately Jeff’s non-observant mother who drew Shoshana into discussions about Judaism that piqued Shoshana’s curiosity. She joined the Vaad Program to discover Judaism and to see whether it would feel relevant to her. Making no promises, she told Jeff, “If it’s not for me, we’ll end this relationship because I want you to have Jewish children.”
Shoshana connected to the classes instantly and wanted to become an Orthodox Jewish woman. “They say a baby receives Torah in the womb and forgets it at birth, but it’s still in you and it resonates. That’s how I felt going through the Vaad Program.”
As Shoshana advanced, adopting a religious lifestyle more and more, it wasn’t easy on Jeff, who had never been observant. Shoshana was fully committed to the conversion process and eagerly anticipating the day she would become Jewish. She thought, “If Jeff isn’t my bashert, he’ll leave and I’ll find somebody who is right for me.”
Jeff ended up slowly becoming religious. “He did amazing. He did it on his own merit and we grew together. It’s still hard. We always have to get better and be as good as we can be. I ask Hashem that we continue growing, slowly. It has to be small steps in order to keep it.”
Shoshana recounted the day she became Jewish. “When the Rabbis said the prayer with my Hebrew name for the first time, I felt an immense energy coming into my body. That was the moment. I said, I know I’m Jewish now. I really felt something special. I was so happy. So serene. Now life could start.”
Being Jewish meant Shoshana could do mitzvoth and they would count. The first thing she wanted to do was to make a lot of blessings. She didn’t normally eat bread during the week, but it was important for her to wash and say Bircat Hamazon.
Jeff was out of town that day. When he phoned later, she told him she was now Jewish and shared her Jewish name. After Jeff returned, he asked her to marry him. Shoshana and Jeff married and were soon blessed with a beautiful daughter. They hope to have a large family, God-willing.
Shoshana works in a predominantly French area where people aren’t familiar with religious Jews. She believes Hashem put her there for a reason and consciously works on bringing more Godliness to the secular world. She also tries to demystify Judaism, to break misconceptions and prejudices, and to make a Kiddush Hashem. “Dressing modestly and covering my hair with a scarf reminds me I have a mission in the world. We’re all obligated to be the best we can be. But being so visibly Jewish and knowing people are watching motivates me. I have to be a good Jew.”
Shoshana’s mother adjusted considerably well. Her father, who lives far away, had to overcome his initial shock at seeing the drastic change from one visit to the next. Shoshana’s brother, who had harbored conflicted feelings about Jewish people since his youth, had the hardest time with it. “Shabbat and kashrut are not easy. They don’t understand why in the year 2016 we have these restrictions. But we see it as a gift. The important thing is they really love my husband and see how happy we are. Overall they respect me and are happy because I’m happy.”
Although Shoshana has tremendous inner strength, it’s vitally important for her to stay in touch with a group of friends she refers to as sisters. These women converted at the same time and had children at the same time. They understand and support one another. “My sisters help me stay strong. We elevate ourselves and each other. My main ambition is my family life and growth as a Jewish woman. There are lots of challenges but I’m really happy. And that’s my goal, to serve God with joy. ”
It’s difficult not to be moved by these extraordinary Jewish converts who have voluntarily turned their lives upside-down to embrace Torah and mitzvot. Let us be inspired by them and emulate their wholehearted dedication, enthusiasm and joy.
By Faigie Becker