September 18, 2019

Journey to Judaism

I grew up in Valparaiso, a predominantly white, Christian city in northwestern Indiana.  Brought up in a fervently Lutheran family, I attended a Lutheran parish (a church-run school) for eight years, went to church twice a week, and prayed before every meal and every night before bed.  Even with all of the influences around me that should have produced a dedicated young Christian woman, I did not feel like I was in the right place.

It was about a week before my confirmation in the Lutheran church, when I was 13, that I started to question my beliefs.  My doubts about Christianity initially manifested themselves in conclusions like, “Well, I must not believe in God.”  But the minute those thoughts surfaced, I knew they were wrong.  It wasn’t God I didn’t believe in — it was what Christianity was telling me about God. Why would God need an intermediary? Wasn’t God enough? Why would God only let people who thought a certain way into heaven, while everyone else was damned for eternity?  Didn’t God want us all to use the minds He gave to us rather than to have blind faith?  And shouldn’t we be focusing on living a great life this time around rather than centering our lives on being “saved” after we die?

So, in high school, despite having never once set foot in a synagogue and knowing only a couple of Jews — mostly nonpracticing ones — my official answer to questions about my religion became, “My family is Lutheran, but my beliefs are mostly Jewish.”  Honestly, I don’t think I even knew what I meant by that, as I knew close to nothing about the Jewish religion or community.  Here’s what I did know: I had a strong belief in the God of the Old Testament, I craved some type of organized religion, I gravitated toward Jewish friends and, in a trend that has endured over time, I gravitated toward Jewish men.  But most important, I had an unexplainable feeling that I simply was a Jew … without any reason to back it up.

It was in college at USC when I finally had sufficient autonomy to really do something about it. I went to the campus Hillel to meet with the rabbi, Jonathan Klein, and with full conviction told him I wanted to convert.  He smiled at me with a combination of support and acknowledgment of my naivete, and told me I had a lot to learn. 

After I spent months studying Jewish topics and Hebrew, Rabbi Klein became my sponsoring rabbi,  helping me enroll in a conversion program through the American Jewish University; I will be completing the program soon.

My reading and studying enabled me to articulate the reasons for so many of the feelings I had when I was younger. “For every three Jews in a room,” I learned, “you’ll hear four different opinions.”  To me, that was comforting: The expanse of this faith and its people, and how it manages to encompass a vast and diverse range of interpretations on pretty much every topic excites and moves me.  I feel free to have my own unique set of beliefs while still being part of a bigger whole.

Even with such passion, though, this conversion has not come easily.  In the beginning, the No. 1 one thing that ate me alive daily was the guilt (yet another sign that I’m a true Jewish woman).  I felt guilty for turning my back on the faith I had known my whole life, guilty for abandoning the God that my parents so deeply love and so badly wanted me to love, and guilty that I felt so guilty in the first place.  After the first Christmas Eve church service I attended with my family during my conversion, I cried. For days I couldn’t stop thinking that I was abandoning someone who had died for me.

Over time, this guilt subsided.  But after the guilt came a series of personal religious jabs — from both sides.  I had Christians asking me with disgusted faces why I would “ever want to be Jewish,” and others openly expressed their “shock” and “disappointment” at my not accepting Jesus.  A relative of mine came up to me once with a huge smile on his face. “I just saved a Jewish guy!”  he said.

And I had Jews tell me that even when my conversion is complete I still won’t be Jewish — that it’s not in my “blood” and never can be, no matter what I do. Upon hearing about our engagement, a relative of my fiance’s told him she was sending him a book — “Why Marry Jewish?” Apparently, to some, marrying a Jewish convert is nowhere near the same thing as marrying a Jew.
But most of my family and friends have been supportive or, at the very least, neutral and non-intrusive about my decision. It feels wonderful when my Lutheran grandmother sends me a “Happy Passover” card, or when my rabbi is always available to give me guidance over coffee, or even when my Jewish boss jokes, “She’s Jewish if I say she’s Jewish.” This support is important, but I’ve actually gotten through most of my conversion difficulty by reminding myself of a question I heard once on a TV show, of all places: “Do you want a safe life or an authentic one?”
It might be comfortable and pleasant to stick to what you know and to avoid controversy and people’s disappointment with you, but I can’t believe that’s how to live a life, including a spiritual one.  Sometimes you have to be a little bit brave just to get to where you’re supposed to be. 

Olivia Gingerich studied theater, law and society at USC. She is currently an actress living in Los Angeles with her fiance and her terrier, Moses.