This Shavuot, Three American Women Recount What Led Them to Convert to Judaism

One is a gay activist, the other fell in love, and another hails from the Bible Belt; unlikely stories of finding Judaism in one’s own image.

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

Tera Greene had always felt at home among Jews. Her closest friends growing up were Jewish. Her colleagues later in life were Jewish. A formative figure in her life was her grandfather, who developed an affinity for all things Jewish while working at a kosher deli in Brooklyn. And most of her childhood summers were spent at overnight camps, where she learned to value one of the ultimate Jewish-American experiences.

Others might wonder why a 28-year-old disc jockey, who also happens to be black and openly gay, would want to convert to Judaism, but for Greene, it was the perfectly natural thing to do.

"Whatever I was searching for from a very young age, I found in Judaism," she says. "It was a perfect fit for me."

Greene, who lives in Los Angeles, underwent a Conservative conversion almost two years ago. Currently a fellow at Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization based in California, she was a participant in a leadership and networking conference last year in Jerusalem, fellow in a Birthright Israel leadership program, and she took part in a program for educators organized by the grassroots Keshet organization in America, which promotes inclusion for the LGBT community in Jewish life. In her spare time she writes for the Jewish Journal Online's Oy Gay blog and for Challah Back, the NextGenJews blog of the Jewish Federations of North America.

For 35-year-old Leah Jones, it all began with a crush she developed on a Jewish acquaintance. "I decided that if I was going to make a move on him, I'd need to find out what this whole Jewish thing was about, so I bought myself a copy of 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism' [by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, 1999]."

Jones never ended up marrying the object of her crush. In fact, she never even dated him. But she did eventually become a Jew, undergoing a Reform conversion eight years ago.

"Everything about it made sense to me," says Jones, who serves as vice president of a Chicago marketing firm. "The morals, the belief and the values I discovered in Judaism were ones I had already carved out on my own, but what Judaism brought with it was the added benefit of history, community and study."

Jones and Greene are among an estimated 200,000 converts to Judaism living in the United States today - a tiny minority within the already small minority of 6.5 million American Jews. And even within this group, they represent the true outliers: those who have come to Judaism on their own and not through the exigencies of marriage. Indeed, the late Prof. Egon Mayer of the City University of New York, a leading scholar on mixed marriage, found that an overwhelming 95 percent of all conversions to Judaism were prompted by intermarriage.

Strong resonance

For these two women and others like them, the words of that most famous of Jewish converts, Ruth the Moabite - whose story is read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot - resonate most strongly: "Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."

Greene says she identifies closely with the biblical Ruth, having also chosen the Jewish way of life mainly because it is what she knew: "For me, the story of Ruth is understanding the other as your own."

In Jones' view, the story of Ruth should be a great reminder to those who are Jews by chance that others made the choice. "Many don't understand that to become Jewish, we have had to leave something behind - our families, our communities," she says. "The holiday of Shavuot and the story of Ruth are an opportunity to get people to think about that."

Chaviva Galatz (formerly Amanda Edwards) is another case of an unlikely convert; her journey through Judaism is almost as unconventional as the journey she took from Christianity to get there. Growing up in southern Missouri, in the heart of the Bible Belt, Galatz had never met any Jews. She doesn't even think she had encountered any by the time she decided quite a few years later, while studying at university, to convert: "I didn't even know that Judaism was a religion - I was sure it was an ethnic group of people who hailed from Israel."

In her case as well, it was reading her first book about Judaism that sparked an epiphany and made her hungry to learn more. Shortly after undergoing a Reform conversion six years ago, she began feeling that this particular branch of Judaism wasn't a good fit for her and started dabbling in Conservative Judaism. That, too, didn't feel right, and she eventually found her way to Orthodoxy, where, Galatz says, she has finally found her "home" after undergoing a second conversion.

Today, 28-year-old Galatz resides in Denver, where she works as social media and website manager for the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education. Like Greene and Jones, she is an member of ROI, part of a global network of young Jewish innovators created by the philanthropist, Lynn Schusterman. This Shavuot, she will be leading a tikkun leil Shavuot (a night of study, traditionally held on the holiday ) at a retreat in Vail on the subject of Rachav, the biblical harlot who hid the Israelite spies Caleb and Pinchas, later converted to Judaism and is believed to have married Joshua.

"I like to think that without Rachav, the Israelites wouldn't have conquered the land, and there very well may have never been a Jewish people," she says.

Ruth the Moabite, the convert who is more closely associated with the holiday, is, for Galatz, a stark reminder of how difficult things have become for those like her who have opted to take this path.

Galatz: "She simply declared her allegiance - your people shall be my people, your God my God. Today, a simple allegiance and sincerity are not nearly enough to become part of the Jewish people. It's hard to see how we went from the honest commitment of Ruth to the bureaucratic enterprise of conversion today."

For Jones, these words ring especially true. Her intense involvement in Jewish life includes being a founding member of a progressive, lay-led minyan in Chicago - one of the few in the country to hold Reform-style services - and organizing a program called Itza Mitzvah, a monthly gathering at a local bar of Jews who are either converts or grew up secular or Reform. Each time, they study one mitzvah (out of the total of 613 that appear in the Torah). Still, Jones says, she does not always feel completely accepted.

"It's difficult dating as a convert because I'm fairly observant for a liberal Jew, but not Jewish enough for more religious men. This is something the rabbis never tell you about when you're going through the conversion process as a single woman, and it's a conversation that needs to be had," she says.

Her frequent trips to Israel have also served to remind her of her rather precarious status there as a Jew. "It's a constant battle because the rules are always changing depending on who's in power there," she notes. "Sometimes I'm Jewish, sometimes I'm not. It gets me pretty angry, so I choose not to spend a lot of time thinking about it."

Tera Greene reading a poem called Sh'ma bout her Jewish journey at ROI Global Summit 2011.Credit: Adi Cohen
Leah Jones.Credit: Shawn Landres

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