Jews-by-Choice: A Look 10 Years Later
It’s a Shavuot tradition to read the biblical story of Ruth, whose marriage to a Jew — and her bond with her mother-in-law — led her to embrace wholeheartedly and inspirationally the Jewish faith.
Even today, many, perhaps most, converts enter Judaism through a relationship with a Jewish spouse. Since 1986, the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism has enrolled almost 3,000 potential Jews-by-Choice. The vast majority attends the course with spouses and sweethearts, prior to building a Jewish home together. It makes for a heady atmosphere: love and hope are in the air.
Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Some converts simply drift away from Judaism. Although the Miller program provides emotional support for graduates, a crisis — such as an illness, a serious injury, a divorce or a death — can shift a new Jew in another direction.
Ten years ago, I interviewed a dozen graduates of the Miller program who had followed through with conversion. Although Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who has long directed the program, tries hard to keep track of alumni, many slip out of his database. He was able to supply me with contact information for 10 Jews-by-Choice I had interviewed when I wrote my previous article. Of the seven I managed to reach, all still consider themselves Jewish after their own fashion, but only a handful are currently synagogue members.
Here are updated accounts of five converts who consented to have their stories told 10 years later.
Paul and Amber Kalt
Paul Kalt’s mother lost her whole family at Auschwitz. Kalt grew up in a household where the survival of the Jewish people was a central value. So when he fell in love with a Methodist, Amber Davidheiser, he asked her to consider embracing Judaism.
She promised to look into it. Ultimately, she chose to become Jewish in June 1997, five months before their wedding. Never an unquestioning Christian, she feels that Judaism suits her well: “The values and ideals and beliefs are really what I was brought up with anyhow.”
Today, the Kalts, who together run a construction business, have four children, ages 5 years to 11 months.
The biggest surprise for Amber Kalt, 37, is that she’s become an ardent supporter of Jewish day schools. She had worried at the start that her children’s secular education would suffer. But once her first child attended kindergarten at West Los Angeles’ Pressman Academy, which is connected with Conservative synagogue Beth Am, her fears were allayed. Her three eldest are now enjoying what she calls “a phenomenal experience” at Pressman.
A loyal Beth Am family, the Kalts squeeze in Beit Tefillah services when they can. At their Beverly Hills home, they hold weekly Shabbat dinners, complete with candles and blessings, and share festive holiday observances.
“In our house, we celebrate Judaism,” Amber Kalt said.
Her mother-in-law first viewed Amber’s conversion with some skepticism, but the relationship has resulted in Paul Kalt becoming far more of an affiliated Jew than in the past.
Amber Kalt said she feels about “98 percent acceptance” by the Jewish community. It’s only when people unknowingly make negative comments about intermarriage in her presence that she becomes uneasy.
Her children, though, know exactly who they are. A classmate on the playground, hearing that one of the young Kalts had visited his grandparents for Christmas, once challenged his Jewish credentials. Five-year-old Jacob proudly replied, “I am Jewish. My grandma and grandpa aren’t Jewish, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Going With the Flow
People assume that Peach Segall became a Jew-by-Choice because of her husband. But that’s not entirely true. They had already been married for several years when she decided to share his Jewish heritage.
Partly it was a matter of raising their 4-year-old daughter in a cohesive way. Segall even gave young Gina swimming lessons to prepare her for immersion in a mikvah, as part of a conversion ritual they underwent together.
But for herself, Segall said, “I had never really embraced Christianity, so I never felt it was any great leap.”
Following her 1997 conversion, Segall outpaced her husband in observance. She instituted weekly Shabbat dinners, experimented with kashrut and began walking to Brentwood’s University Synagogue, a Reform congregation, on a regular basis. Her dream was to study Hebrew, perhaps in preparation for a b’nai mitzvah ceremony in which her husband and stepson would also approach the Torah for the first time.
Today, Segall’s ardor for all things Jewish has cooled somewhat. She has drifted away from kashrut, and the Shabbat dinners occur less often. No longer a synagogue member, she still feels aligned with University Synagogue but occasionally drives from her Brentwood home to join her husband’s cousins at a Reconstructionist house of worship, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
Segall said that “I’ve gone through a lot of phases.” Her current passion is her burgeoning career as a rhythm and blues musician, one who also writes songs and leads her own band. (Her Web site — www.peach.us — notes her selection as Blues Artist of the Year at the Los Angeles Music Awards).
There was a time when she turned down gigs that interfered with Shabbat. Now she accepts those jobs and leaves her traveling set of Shabbat candlesticks at home.
This year, barely moved into a new house, Segall contemplated not hosting the family Passover seder. She relented when her daughter, now 12, burst into tears, saying, “That’s one of my favorite holidays.”
But as for bat mitzvah study, this is something she wants Gina to choose on her own. So far, the subject has simply not come up. Segall seems satisfied with her current brand of Judaism, noting that she’s still more observant than most of her friends.
In the long run, “I feel like what I’ve settled into is being a normal West L.A. Jewish woman.”
Michael Morrisette with his wife, Prissi Cohen; daughter, Tillie; and dog, Marcel.
What He Did for Love
When Michael Morrisette and Prissi Cohen fell in love, they knew they had a problem.
He was from a staunch Catholic family. Most of his seven siblings were graduates of parochial schools, and several had served as altar boys.
She, out of a strong personal commitment to Judaism, had kept kosher from the age of 14. It was clear from the start, said Morrisette, that “if I didn’t convert, she and I wouldn’t have gotten married.”
The young couple completed the University of Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism course in 1994. But Morrisette was not yet ready to change his religious affiliation. For almost two years, he hesitated, wondering, “Is this really right for me?”
Finally he made his choice, officially becoming Jewish just two weeks prior to his wedding in June 1996. To his great relief, his family proved supportive, even attending the beit din (religious court) that formally welcomed him into the Jewish faith.
Today, at 45, Morrisette is a staunch member of a Conservative synagogue, Santa Monica’s Kehillat Ma’arav, where he feels entirely at home: “I love the community. I love the synagogue.”
A restaurateur by profession, he respects but doesn’t observe kashrut, so his wife has adjusted to the fact that he doesn’t follow her lead outside of their Marina del Rey home. Their 5-year-old daughter, Tillie, understands that her parents differ on this issue, at the same time that she mostly takes her mother’s side.
This appreciation of differences also works on the rare occasions when the Morrisettes visit his parents at Christmas time. He likens these visits to “going to someone else’s birthday party.” As he explained, you can enjoy the festivities, but it’s not your special day.
Morrisette regrets that since his conversion, he’s made little time for Jewish study: “There’s more there for me than I’ve allowed into my life.”
He confessed to a fantasy that in 2009, on the 13th anniversary of the year he became a Jew-by-Choice, he will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah.
He said there’s nothing about his original faith that he misses, but “I’m glad I really took the time before I signed on the dotted line.”
Repairing the World
Cliff Secia, now almost 70, has lived a full life. Born a Catholic of Portuguese descent, he once spent four years in a seminary studying for the priesthood. He found it wonderful intellectual training but described himself as a bad seminarian: “I never got along well with Jesus and the holy family.”
There followed a career in government service, mostly involving, he said, covert operations he can’t talk about. He said he survived some close calls, giving him the sense of having been spared for some higher purpose.
Marriage to a Jewish woman gave him a glimpse of another spiritual outlook, but it was not until 1997, some 15 years after they were married by a judge, that he decided to adopt Judaism. Then nearly 60, he underwent a circumcision.
His elderly mother was outraged and so was his born-again son from a previous marriage. Still, he became officially Jewish, and soon afterward, he and his wife, Vickie, staged a second wedding ceremony, one in keeping with his new faith: “This time we invited God.”
Some hard feelings persisted with his mother, who has since died. Because Cliff’s son, who lives in Louisiana, is suffering from a serious medical problem, the family sidesteps any uncomfortable discussions with him about religion.
As a new Jew, Secia became deeply involved in Ner Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Encino. Secia and his wife held Torah study sessions in their home; he served on the board and walked to services three times a week.
But Secia became disillusioned after a nasty temple squabble resulted in the departure of Rabbi Aaron Kriegel in 2001. He now attends the library minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air when Dennis Prager presides, but he’s still searching for a rebbe to call his own.
Meanwhile, after a brief retirement, Secia has found a new career as a private investigator for a civil rights law firm that represents abuse victims. His clients, mostly black and Hispanic, “think I’m a very good Christian.”
From Secia’s perspective, he’s fulfilling the Jewish mitzvah of repairing the world. His law firm is disappointed that he refuses to work on Shabbat, but he holds fast to his convictions: “There has to be a day when you step aside and don’t do the things of the world.”
At Home With Judaism
In the world according to Jody Gawboy, “You never know why you fall in love with something.”
It all began in the late 1980s, when she was Jody Musengo, an Italian Catholic from Florida, who’d grown up with prayer and regular church attendance. Living in Southern California, she’d begun to date a young college man who was secretive about his course of study. When it turned out he was a rabbinical student, she decided to explore Judaism.
The relationship didn’t last, but her commitment to her new faith did. After formally becoming Jewish, she joined a Conservative synagogue and even played flute in its klezmer band.
But when she married, in a ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi, her new spouse was not Jewish. Husband Bart, not strongly religious himself but with a fondness for the Native American ritual that’s part of his family background, was happy to let her follow her own path.
Still, Gawboy allowed her synagogue membership to lapse and gradually found herself slipping away from Jewish ritual observance outside the home.
Today, she’s the mother of daughter Hailey, 13, and son Hunter, 10. She reinforces their Judaism on a daily basis, reciting the Shema with them at bedtime, along with the Shehecheyanu prayer (because, as she explained, each day has brought its new experiences that deserve to be celebrated).
She hosts seders and a big Chanukah party for their Venice neighbors; the family also decorates a Christmas tree. On Yom Kippur, she normally stays home, reading from her machzor and talking to the children about the meaning of the holy day.
Gawboy hopes that her son will want a bar mitzvah at 13, but her children have never asked for formal religious education, and she has never offered it.
She said, “I have a great guilt and a great regret that I’m not pursuing it more.”