Everyone at upstate New York’s small Temple Beth El knows Linda North as an active member of the Jewish community. The 70-year-old regularly attends services and celebrations with her husband, Bruce, supports her grandsons with their religious education and milestones, and pitches in at temple whenever she is needed.
What not everyone knew was that until May 24, North was not Jewish. She grew up as a non-practicing Christian. “My early experiences with organized religion consisted of my mother sending me and my two sisters to Sunday school when she needed a morning of peace and quiet,” North wrote in her congregation’s newsletter before her conversion.
North wanted to belong to a religion, but just couldn’t seem to find the one that made ethical and intellectual sense to her and also touched her heart.
“During my teens, I went to many different church youth groups with my friends. I was always seeking a religious home that felt right to me, but never found what I was looking for,” she also wrote in the newsletter.
Like a modern-day Ruth, North found her tribe at Temple Beth El. Her first serious exposure to Judaism came in the form of her husband, Bruce, and whom she married in 1970. “I first started coming to temple after my son-in-law Matt and daughter Allison married and had children,” she wrote. “Bruce was already playing the cello for services on a regular basis. Since our grandsons … were being raised Jewish, we wanted to understand the importance of being Jewish in their lives. What we found was a welcoming spiritual community with teachings and values that matched our own. I found the peacefulness of Shabbat brought me a sense of joy that I had never experienced in another religious setting.”
“I want my grandchildren to know that I stand for them and that I stand with them as a member of the Jewish community.”
North’s official steps toward Judaism began after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in October, which had a profound impact on her. “It hurt me that I was not Jewish,” she said. “It made me know that I no longer wanted to be an outsider. For a long time, I have felt a spiritual connection to the practice of Judaism. I have attended services for several years and relate to the value and ethics and practice of social justice that are inherent in the teachings of Judaism. I want to be part of the community that stands for those things. I want my grandchildren to know that I stand for them and that I stand with them as a member of the Jewish community.”
At Shabbat services on May 24, North got her wish. Before Rabbi Norman Mendel began the words of welcome and official blessings, North’s husband surprised her with her own tallit, saying that if she was going to be a Jew she needed to dress like one.
“We’re simply doing what’s already been a part of your life. You’re already a part of this congregation,” Mendel said as he faced North in front of the open ark. “You’re already a part of our spiritual family.”
Presenting her with a certificate acknowledging her study, Mendel then revealed North’s chosen Hebrew name to the congregation: Ruth. An apt choice for a woman who embraces her chosen religion as if she had been born to it.
“This is a beautiful moment,” Mendel said. “You are part of the very foundation of what makes Judaism, Judaism: thinking, questioning, involving, being socially just and impacting everyone you meet with that philosophy.”
Said North: “I feel complete and joyous.”