Converting: The best decision of her life

When Donna Levine told her mother she had converted, the response was that she would burn in hell. A friend encouraged Levine to join Jews for Jesus. She had to explain to this friend that, unfortunately, that wouldn’t work.

“I told her that if you are really serious about being Jewish, that you can’t belong to Jews for Jesus,” Levine said. “I told her I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that anyway.”

Levine, who converted through the Conservative movement in August 2000, was born in Kansas and raised in Florida. Judaism, for her, was completely different than being a Baptist, as she experienced it growing up. “You were not supposed to ask questions. When I was in Sunday school, I would get into trouble for questioning things. That was something I really liked about Judaism. Not only are you allowed to ask questions, but also you are encouraged to ask questions.”

Now 58, Levine lives in Arleta, north of Los Angeles. She has lived in Los Angeles for 37 years and managed dental offices for 30 of them. She attends Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, and now spends her time working on projects around the house and looking for employment.

Levine first became interested in the religion when she attended the bat mitzvah of a former employer’s daughter. She then met her future husband (now former), who was Jewish, and that gave her the push to decide to convert. She went to services with Rabbi David Vorspan of Shir Ami, and started taking classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). “Rabbi Vorspan let me know that if I needed any help or had questions or anything, that he was available for me,” she said. “I felt really comfortable with him, and he was so sweet. He didn’t know me, and yet he volunteered to help me out, and I thought that was really great.”

Levine began her conversion studies in March 2000, and decided to take the Conservative route because she thought that Reform Judaism was too relaxed and Orthodox too strict.

Attending the weekly classes was not the only aspect of Levine’s conversion process. She had to learn how to read Hebrew and to keep kosher, which she found especially difficult when going out to eat at restaurants. At the end of the five-month learning period, she was required to take a test and translate sentences from a prayer book from Hebrew into English. “I was very nervous about it,” she said. “Hebrew is not an easy language to learn.”

On the day of her meeting with the beit din, she received a certificate. Though she had been nervous about going before the rabbis, having Rabbi Vorspan there made her feel more comfortable. After she came out of her immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), she said, she “jumped into synagogue life with both feet,” attending  meetings, helping to plan for the holidays, sending out letters and membership packets and serving as the synagogue board’s vice president and, finally, its president, from 2006 to 2008.

Although Levine’s mother wasn’t accepting of her daughter’s new religion, Levine said she learned not to bring up the subject with her. She also got support from a Catholic friend, and from her own son, who was 23 at the time she converted. “He said whatever made me happy was fine with him.”

By now, Levine has been a Jew for almost 13 years. She said that every day she celebrates her religion by “trying to treat everyone the way that I would want to be treated. That’s one of the main lessons of Judaism: Do you treat others as you would want to be treated?” And, she said, “I try to be active in my community as far as doing good work.”

Judaism has given Levine value that she never found in her former religion, as well as a whole congregation full of new friends. “I feel more spiritual and comfortable in my religion than when I was a Baptist. I love my synagogue and the people there. It’s like my other family.”

She added, “I feel like converting was the best decision of my life.”

Christians picking on Israel

With Christians being persecuted and threatened across much of the Middle East, guess which country the leaders of several major U.S. Christian denominations have decided to pick on?

That’s right, the country where Christians are safest: Israel.

In case you missed it, in a letter dated Oct. 5, leaders of 15 Christian denominations — including Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — asked members of Congress to reconsider U.S. aid to Israel in light of “widespread Israeli human rights violations.”

The signatories say “unconditional U.S. military assistance” to Israel is a factor in “deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” that threaten the “realization of a just peace.”

The letter makes no mention of reconsidering U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt, where many Christians fear for their lives and where Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving death threats.

As Elliott Abrams writes in National Review Online, the letter is utterly silent on the “deteriorating and truly dangerous conditions for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to the dramatic dwindling of the Christian population in the Arab world, in Israel the number of Christians has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 155,000 today.

The initiative reeks of hypocrisy: Although they purport to care for Palestinian rights, the Christian leaders ignore the misery of Palestinian refugees being oppressed in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. 

Although they attack the “restrictions on movement” in the West Bank, they fail to mention, as Abrams notes, “the many ways in which the Netanyahu government in recent years has loosened those restrictions … [or] the recent steps by the government of Israel to assist the Palestinian Authority as it faces a financial crisis.”

And, of course, the signatories ignore all context. They say nothing of Israel’s many attempts over the years to make peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation, or of the teaching of Jew-hatred and incitement in Palestinian society, or of Israel’s evacuation of Gaza seven years ago that was rewarded with thousands of terror rockets still raining down today on Israeli civilians.

Even if you count yourself as an unabashed critic of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians, it’s hard not to see this single-minded invective against the Jewish state as unfair and hypocritical.

Ironically (or stupidly), the letter was sent a few weeks before a scheduled interfaith conference that included many of the signatories, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to pull out. 

“It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination,” ADL director Abraham Foxman said in a press release, “these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state. … It is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.”

Many other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), have expressed outrage.

“When religious liberty and safety of Christians across the Middle East are threatened by the repercussions of the Arab Spring,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, “these Christian leaders have chosen to initiate a polemic against Israel, a country that protects religious freedom and expression for Christians, Muslims and others.”

Why would Christian leaders initiate such an obviously biased attack against Israel, a country that already has more than its fair share of internal criticism and dissent?

Who knows, maybe they’re trying to boost declining attendance at their churches. It’s always a safe bet to follow the global herd and pick on Israel, one of the world’s favorite punching bags.

But it’s possible there’s something deeper going on — like an irrational obsession with the Jews.

Maybe it all goes back to that fateful moment at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, when Jews received God’s Torah and became His first witnesses. Ever since, it seems as if the “chosen people” have attracted an inordinate amount of attention — mostly for the worse — as they have stubbornly refused to abandon their faith. The rebirth of Israel after centuries of exile seems only to have amplified this attention.

This phenomenon of irrational obsession is complex and can be studied at length, but it’s worth noting here that in the case of Israel and Christian America, the obsession has two sides.

Just as you have Christian denominations that are obsessed with rebuking the Jewish state, there are plenty of other Christian groups — such as Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel — that are emotionally bonded with Israel and are obsessed with defending the Jewish state.

I won’t lie to you: I have a decided preference for the latter groups.

As far as those 15 church leaders who’d rather pick on Israel than on the intolerant regimes that are oppressing their Christian brethren, all I can say is: Are you sure this is what Jesus would do?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Leading Baptist defends call for Weiner to embrace Jesus

A Southern Baptist leader is defending his call for Rep. Anthony Weiner to turn to Jesus, answering criticism that he was targeting the embattled congressman because of his Jewishness.

Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.—the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship school—had been criticized for urging Weiner to embrace Jesus following the scandal involving lewd photos of the congressman.

In response to news that Weiner intends to seek treatment for his problems, Mohler had tweeted, “Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective ‘treatment’ for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.”

USA Today religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman blogged that this “reads as an evangelism tactic, riding in on the Weiner headlines but aimed at people like Jews such as Weiner, Buddhists like [Tiger] Woods, and many others, such as Weiner’s Muslim wife, who hold different ideas about salvation, different approaches to atonement.”

In response, Mohler wrote Tuesday that he had not mentioned Judaism. He said that he was simply stating the Christian doctrine that “every single human being is a sinner in need of the redemption that is found only in Christ.”

In 2003 Mohler caused a stir with his staunch advocacy of evangelizing Jews. He had explained that warning non-Christians of the “eternal danger” they face in not embracing Jesus “is the ultimate act of Christian love.”