A JEW today would have to be living on a different planet not to know converts to Judaism. Visit Temple Emanuel in Denver, visit the Satmar community in Monroe, NY, visit Lakewood, Jerusalem, London or the wilds of Africa, and one will find converts to Judaism. It’s something about the age. Conversion is multiplying.
Like many, I hear countless stories about why and how a person has come to Judaism. I hear about spiritual revelations, admiration for the Jewish family, attraction to Shabbos, not to mention attraction to a potential Jewish mate.
What I rarely hear is why and how a person leaves another religion.
First, not all converts leave another religion. They come to Judaism from no religion. Second, some converts, though they have a previous religious identity, had a weak one. Their path to Judaism is more a search for, not a flight from. Even those who convert from a previous, strong religious identity find that, in the nature of conversion, they celebrate their new religion more than remember their old one.
THE self-published A Simple Twist of Faith, by Leah Schiermeyer, a Denverite and a former Oklahoma Baptist, is the rare conversion story of, yes, the embrace of Judaism, but also of the struggle to leave a previous, very strong religious identity, religious community and religious family.
Ms. Schiermeyer did not seek Judaism because of its strong community; she already had one. Nor did she seek Judaism because she came from a broken family or a religiously confused family. Quite the contrary. Her family was strong, and a central element of that strength was its religious identity. She certainly did not seek Judaism because of a potential mate. She was already married when she converted, and they converted together.
However, their path to Judaism was not precisely parallel. Put another way, it was difficult for Mrs. Schiermeyer to leave her family and friends, even as her belief system changed. Then, once it did change, she faced another painful difficulty: rejection by her family.
Unlike people who convert from no religion or from a weak religious background, Schiermeyer’s parents maintained their strong — and very different — religious commitments, and did not accept their daughter’s path, nor even embrace their grandchildren. In short, Schiermeyer pursued a difficult path. Much as Ruth had to leave her people and her land, and faced existential loneliness, empty of half measures and kumbaya moments, so it was for Schiermeyer.
Of course, she had her husband. But their philosophic explorations sometimes proceeded at different speeds and in different ways. They didn’t just tumble happily into the Jewish religious embrace.
But have no doubt. They did take the step, and took it boldly and enthusiastically. In the end, it was, in part, the stark contrast between her previous religious identity and Judaism that propelled her forward. At one point in her spiritual autobiography, she writes:
“I looked forward to attending shul as much as possible. I began to feel a spark of spiritual excitement about learning more and more. It was also refreshing to ask questions of the rabbis and not be chastised for questioning their beliefs and religion. The rabbis did not seem angry or threatened by questions. In fact, they welcomed them!”
IRONY: It was not adherence to her former religion, but being made fun of for doing so, that found a resolution in Judaism.
“The rules of modesty within Judaism were especially comforting to me. I grew up in a home where I always wore dresses, never jeans or slacks (in my high school years, my parents relented and allowed me to wear dress slacks), but for the most part, modesty was the rule in our home. I was often made fun of at school, and even in the church, for my mode of dress.
“Yet, in the Jewish community, I fit right in! No one — at least in an observant shul — was going to fault me for wearing a dress! And finally, after the agony I experienced earlier in the church of covering my head, I could practice without reserve!”
How does a young woman raised in a faithful Christian home end up asking questions of rabbis in shul and finding the rules of dress there congenial?
Every conversion story has its twists and turns, and many begin with an epiphany, or with a gnawing feeling that something is missing, or with an unexpected encounter. Schiermeyer’s story begins differently, with what (at the time, at least) was a contemporary, technological impetus. She and her husband picked up some tapes, “Let’s Get Biblical.”
Their journey had the classic sense of an intellectual pursuit. They began to question their own faith due to arguments on behalf of the Jewish faith.
Along the way, they were hammered with counterarguments, such as: “The Jews just try to keep the Law. They are so caught up in do’s and don’t’s that they don’t have a relationship with G-d.”
IN a sense, the journey into Judaism finds its symbol and summation in the new name a convert chooses. Why did the former Marcella choose “Leah”?
“I chose the name Leah because of her Biblical traits. She was known to have ‘weak eyes’ from crying. Through my spiritual journey, I too had suffered ‘weak eyes.’ Leah was blessed with four sons. I, also, was blessed with four sons. I admired Leah as a Jewish matriarch and wanted her name as my own.”
Was it worth it?
“Was the pain worth it?” she asks at the end of her memoir. “Yes — a hundred, million times yes! For over 40 years, I searched for the missing link — what would bring completeness, what would give me that relationship I yearned for so much with my Creator. . . . There is an indescribable sense of wholeness. . . . Be careful what you pray for. you just might get it!”
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News