After moving to Texas from Missouri, my husband and I joined a Southern Baptist church where we analyzed the Bible verse-by-verse. Soon I began to notice inconsistencies in the way we approached the Bible. For instance, one chapter that tells wives to submit to their husbands, also tells wives and husbands to submit to each other, slaves to submit to their masters, and younger people to submit to their elders. Yet I heard the passage about the wife's submission preached emphatically, while the others received cultural reinterpretation, or were ignored altogether.
Eventually, my husband and I joined a more moderately aligned Baptist church and, shortly afterward, my church was invited to participate in an interfaith service at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. Every aspect of the synagogue's Shabbat prayer service captivated me: seeing the Ark opened and the Torah removed, the holy atmosphere that pervaded the service, the various rituals, the involvement of the congregation throughout the service, and even being around rabbis, whom I'd only read about.
I wanted more.
I began attending a Jewish study group, and realized I'd never studied the Bible in such an open, playful manner. Never had I heard so many questions raised--and valued.
I attended Conservative, Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Jewish Renewal, and Hasidic prayer services. I danced with an Orthodox congregation through the streets of Dallas as we carried a freshly written Torah scroll to its new home. On the holiday of Shavuot, I synagogue-hopped from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following morning, going from Reform to Hasidic to Traditional to Conservative. Every week I studied with a Hasidic rabbi. I attended numerous seders, ate in a sukkah during Sukkot, and danced at dozens of celebrations.
As I immersed myself in Judaism, the rituals of the prayer service and Shabbat, the holidays, and the traditions took on deep meaning for me. The God I had always boxed in became an awesome Being of great mystery and awe. In Judaism, no one ever had the last word, the final answer, on anything Divine, and I loved the endless imagination this evoked in me. Most important, I experienced God's presence more deeply and powerfully than I had in my life. This didn't reflect negatively on Christianity; it merely meant that Judaism spoke most powerfully to me.
Soon I began a process of soul-searching, engaging daily in spiritual practices that helped me delve deeply within myself, and allowed me to begin to accept and embrace the new direction my life was taking. Yet I loved my church and felt torn and helpless. How could I hurt and disappoint so many people?
At the Friday night service, we prayed the Amidah in a field, with deer grazing nearby. The spiritual atmosphere was exquisite. As I finished my prayer, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner asked me to share Shabbat dinner with him and his wife. "Mary," he said during dinner, "what's holding you up? You so belong here." I knew without a doubt that was true, and that I'd been putting off a decision I should have made long ago.
When my husband, Mike, picked me up at the airport, I told him I planned to convert to Judaism. Mike, a conservative Christian, was completely supportive. He'd known of my deep love for Judaism and had accompanied me many times to services, celebrations, and study sessions. So the next week he took me out to buy ritual items for Shabbat, a tallit (prayer shawl), and Judaic artwork, and then helped me redecorate our home to reflect my new faith.
Our families, too, knew of my love for Judaism, and they accepted my decision. If they had any concerns (and they undoubtedly did), they didn't express them, and some shared my joy.
My church, however, was deeply hurt. I had held three volunteer positions, including chairperson of a large committee, outreach leader of my Sunday school class, and faith partner to a pastoral intern, and their shock was tangible. Often, in the middle of a workday, I'd lay my head onto my desk and sob over the pain I felt I'd caused them.
Undoubtedly, much of their pain stemmed from the change in my beliefs about Jesus. Nearly two decades ago, I had begun having doubts about the deity of Jesus, but was too terrified to express these doubts to anyone. Unlike in Judaism, fundamentalist Christians are taught not to question. We are often sheltered from "the world," and we question the spirituality and "salvation" of other people-even other Christians who don't believe like we believe. Questioning orthodox Christian beliefs, especially when the questions revolved around Jesus, filled me with terror.
Yet the doubts wouldn't go away. When I read the Gospels, I simply didn't see Jesus in the way other Christians saw him. He seemed like a great Jewish teacher, someone who, like the Hebrew prophets, wanted to shake people out of their spiritual lethargy-a lethargy people of all religions go through at times.
One day I heard a Jew, Howard Cohen, who is now a close friend, talk about Jesus in a Jewish context. His words struck home. I began reading Geza Vermes, a scholar who has written extensively about Jesus from a Jewish perspective, and who had inspired Howard's thinking. Both Vermes and my friend, Howard, confirmed and elaborated upon what had been brewing in my heart and mind for many years.
For several years, however, I still didn't talk much about my loss of belief in the divinity of Jesus. I had been a Baptist for more than four decades, and I loved my church. I also knew how much this would hurt people I cared about. Further, because I'd been a Christian for so many years, it seemed impossible to simply become indifferent to Jesus, something I wrongly thought would be required of me if I became a Jew.
Because of this, I fought to remain in Christianity. I tried to re-interpret sermons, hymns, and even communion to fit in with my changing beliefs. I visited more liberal denominations, thinking that might satisfy me. But in the end, I knew that I was merely putting off the inevitable. Judaism fulfilled my deepest spiritual needs, and it was within Judaism that I most powerfully experienced God's presence. I needed to follow the deepest call and yearning of my heart.
Some in the Christian community and within my church loved me and supported my decision, despite their hurt and doubts. One morning, as I struggled to tell a friend, Estelle, who was in her 80s, of my decision, I said that I knew this was difficult for people who believe Jesus is the only way to God. "Honey," she said, "I'll tell you what I believe. I believe in you."
My conversion date was April 3, 2005, my 48th birthday. My immersion in the mikvah was a small but beautiful beginning to the ceremony. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, had given me several spiritual practices to do during my immersion. Two friends, Karen Prager and Nancy Jellinek, sang and read poetry and, when we finished, all of us, including the two rabbis who stood outside the door, sang the blessing for a new beginning: the shehekiyanu.
After my immersion in the mikvah, David Stern, my rabbi, led a ceremony at Temple Emanu-El. Another rabbi and close friend, David Nelson, flew in from New Jersey to co-officiate. About 80 people, most of whom had followed my decades-long journey, attended.
Friends and acquaintances continually asked me what I thought I'd feel like on the day of my conversion, and I replied that I thought it would feel like a mere formality making official what I'd lived and believed for many years. I was wrong. The ceremony felt like a marriage for which I'd waited a lifetime: a covenant of my love.
The ceremony is over now, though, and the marriage has begun. In the mornings I sit on the ground in my backyard, wrapped in my tallit, with one of my four siddurs, and the Presence of God pulsates through every fiber of my being. Rarely do I get through a Saturday morning prayer service at my synagogue without crying for joy, immersed in a holy atmosphere that often makes me feel utterly transcendent. I'm a Jew! The joy of that reality overwhelms me.
I spent 47-1/2 years as a Baptist. Unless I live to be very old, it's unlikely that I'll get to spend as many years as a Jew. I fully intend, though, to make every minute count, spending the rest of my life entering more deeply into everything I've come to love and embrace.