CONVERSION TO JUDAISM:
SOME REAL STORIES
Some very Personal Conversion Experiences of
Those Who Have Chosen Judaism are available here
There are about 200,000 people in the United States who have chosen to become Jewish. They join untold numbers of people in Jewish history who have joined the Jewish people, including the most famous one, Ruth. I researched conversion and interviewed hundreds of converts for my book Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook (Jason Aronson Inc., 1994). In their own way, all these people have fascinating stories to tell. Some of those who became Jewish are well-known, such as movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sammy Davis, Jr. One famous story about Sammy Davis involved his filming Porgy and Bess. It was not long after his conversion, and he refused to work on Yom Kippur. The director of the movie got angry and called the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn immediately called Sammy and wanted to know if it was true about his refusing to work. Sammy said that, as a Jew he could not work on the Day of Atonement. There was silence for a moment, with Goldwyn no doubt noting that stopping production would cost $30,000, a large sum then. Finally, Goldwyn said, "Bless you." Production on the film was stopped for Yom Kippur.
Some people who chose Judaism have written about their experience or about conversion. Lena Romanoff, for example, is the author of Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew by Choice. Ms. Romanoff is also a widely-known lecturer and counselor who has started several support groups, including her newest one for children of interfaith and conversionary couples. John David Scalamonti was a former priest who, after questioning his faith, eventually fell in love with a Jewish woman. She and her patient family explained Jewish customs to him, and he eventually embraced Judaism. Scalamonti frequently lectures on the great changes in his life and has written about it in his book Ordained to Be a Jew. Catherine Hall Myrowitz has written Finding a Home for the Soul: Interviews with Converts to Judaism in which she presents a wide variety of fascinating stories about people who embraced Judaism. The well-known black writer Julius Lester wrote of his conversionary experiences in his book Lovesong. Lydia Kukoff has written a guidebook for converts, Choosing Judaism.
Other converts have made important contributions to their congregations or Jewish life. Ben Asher, for instance, helped organize and now runs the Rabbinical Assembly's 800 number (1-800-- ASK-N-LEARN) for those interested in learning about the Conservative movement's conversionary and outreach programs. Dru Greenwood heads the UAHC-CCAR Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach which provides information about the movement's conversion and outreach programming.
The Holocaust had a profound effect on many converts. Dr. Gilya Gerda Schmidt became Jewish as a response to what she saw as the "crimes committed by my parents' and grandparents' generations." She wanted to replace some of the Jews who had been killed. Then there is the strange case of Reuel Abraham. Abraham was born a German citizen with the name Karl Heinz Schneider. At 18, he joined the Nazi air force. One day he saw Nazi storm troopers killing a group of Jews, and he was especially impressed as he saw a rabbi clutching a Torah tightly as he died. Schneider, thoroughly shocked, suddenly realized the horrors of Nazism. He began to disobey orders, dropping bombs into lakes, or fixing them so they wouldn't explode. After the war, he worked for 20 years as a penance, giving two-thirds of his salary to groups that helped Jewish orphans who had survived the concentration camps. He also began to attend Jewish services. After the 20 years, he sold all he owned and bought a farm in Israel. He then went to the rabbinical authorities in Haifa and asked to be converted. Astonished at his story, the rabbis investigated. When they learned that what he had told them was true, he was allowed to study and ultimately became Jewish and a citizen of Israel.
Not all those who wished to convert had it easy. In the 19th century, a man named Warder Cresson was put on trial by his family for insanity after he announced he wished to convert. Cresson has received an appointment as the first American consul to Jerusalem, and indeed had come to the land of Israel to help missionaries. Once he got there, however, he was overwhelmed at seeing Jews back in their ancient homeland. He converted and returned to his family in Philadelphia. Shocked at his religious journey, they had him declared insane. In a nationally-covered trial held in May, 1851, Cresson was declared legally sane. After the trial, Cresson and his wife divorced. He returned to the land of Israel and married a Sephardic Jewish woman. He worked tirelessly to help the Jews there. All Jewish-owned businesses in Jerusalem were closed on the day he died.
Once in a while the appearance of difficulty in converting can be deceiving. A rabbi told me this story about one of the members of his congregation. This young woman went to her parents telling them of her desire to become Jewish and marry a Jewish man. The parents were mildly upset, but agreed. They warned her, however, not to tell her grandmother who was very religious and would not accept her conversion. The young woman loved her grandmother and wanted to be honest with her. She told her grandmother the truth. After hearing the news, the grandmother leaped out of her chair and went into the bedroom. Loud crying could be heard through the door. Upset, the young woman gently knocked at the door, went inside, and told her grandmother of her love. The grandmother drew her close. "You don't understand," she sobbed. "I was born a Jew. I have hidden this fact almost my whole life, ever since I married your grandfather. I never told your parents. Nothing could make me happier than you becoming Jewish." Despite hardships, small and large, thousands of people are being drawn to Judaism. Their stories are being woven into the fabric of Judaism's majestic history.