How, then, did this life-altering change occur? How did I, a seemingly devoted Baptist for 48 years, come to embrace Judaism so completely that it became inseparable to my very identity and resulted in so much pain and devastation to myself and to other people?
My first encounter with Judaism was during an interfaith service which my church held with the local Reform synagogue. In my first book, A Baptist Among the Jews, I wrote that from my very first “date”, Judaism felt like the passionate love I'd found as an adult. As I became more engrossed in services and rituals and holidays, my love deepened just as love does in a happy marriage.
That my heart felt ripped into two parts isn't unusual. When I first married, I didn't want to be away from M, but during those first few years, hundreds of miles away from my family, I missed them intensely. But M was my love and my priority. With my family I shared the connection of birth and biology. With M, I shared the very essence of my soul.
It wasn't entirely different when I discovered Judaism. I fell immediately in love, and my love deepened over the years. Initially, the church continued to feel like family and I missed them deeply. Perhaps, though, the analogy ends here, because while I will always love and cherish those who nurtured the spirituality of my childhood and part of my adult life, every part of me is bound up within Judaism: my soul, my life, my identity, my spirituality, and my God.
For a long time, during interviews on radio shows, and during question and answer time at speaking engagements, I swore I had truly believed as a Christian, but that gradually, I had lost that belief. Soon, however, I realized that even as a young child, I had been deeply attracted to the God described by the Hebrew prophets – a God who never gave up on the people God loved. David mesmerized me. The stories in the Jewish Bible captivated me. Nothing else appealed to me.
As I grew older, doubts and questions constantly haunted me, but I was terrified to admit it. In most of the churches I attended as an adult, leaders discouraged us from reading anything that was deemed “heretical”. Friends had to be cultivated inside our small circles, and if we had any kind of “relationship” outside of these, it should be for the purpose of evangelizing.
I had virtually no contact with the outside world, and it had been drilled into my head for four decades that I would go to hell if I questioned the basic tenets of Christianity. When I finally mustered the courage to even question openly, I ended up in a psychologist's office for two years. These experiences describe neither my childhood, nor the church I was part of for the decade before I became a Jew, but it does describe much of what happened to me in between.
Memory isn't photographic and I can only reconstruct my life from my current vantage point, but I know I never explored my own heart. I feared hell and rejection and condemnation and loss. And when I somehow found the courage to rebel (hence, one of my chosen Hebrew names, Meri, meaning “rebel”), I discovered, finally, what I believed, what my soul yearned for... and who I am.
At some level I believe I had been crying out to become a Jew all of my life, and certainly in the years before I converted, I wanted nothing more than to be part of the religion that I deeply identified with – the religion where I personally found God in a way I'd never encountered God before. In other ways, it seems as if I've been nothing but a Jew all of my life. As Jews, we're fond of saying that some people have a Jewish neshama – a Jewish soul.
I'm certain I've always had one.
Meri Blye Kramer is an award-winning author of two books and more than 100 articles. Enrolled through ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, she is currently studying to receive smicha (ordination) as a rabbi. Website: www.MeriBlyeKramer.com.