Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Sisterhood of the Book of Ruth

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When 7-year-old Jenna Bishop asked her mother, “Please tell me about God and heaven and what it all means,” the reply was swift. “You make your own heaven and you make your own hell. The rest is up to you. Go figure it out for yourself.”

Jenna was incensed. “I knew it couldn’t be true,” she told me years ago during the early days of our friendship. Spiritually hungry, this daughter of two nonpracticing Christians tried to make Christianity work for her, even becoming a self-described “Bible thumper” while in high school. But her minister had no answers to her growing list of questions: Why would anyone have changed God’s original law? If God wants us to pray to Him, why would we pray to an intermediary? She began calling herself “God-focused” but no longer Christian.

During her spiritual quest, she had been transformed by Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book “Becoming a Jew,” and by the time I met her, on Shabbat at Aish HaTorah (now The Community Shul), she was applying to convert through the Orthodox RCC, one of the most rigorous and demanding of all such programs. She knew there were easier paths toward conversion, but “I was willing to go the extra mile to ensure no one ever questioned my Jewish status or that of my future children.”

I loved Jenna’s authenticity, sensitivity, warmth, laughter, big, expressive green eyes and Midwestern idioms, such as “Oh my gracious!” Her natural exuberance had drawn her to a career as an actor, voiceover artist and even a stuntwoman, and we became fast friends. Before long she was practically family, a “big sister” to our daughter, helping her study for school tests and making crafts with her. She stayed with all four kids when my husband, Jeff, and I went away for the weekend.

After she had foot surgery, I insisted my fiercely independent friend not tough it out alone in her upstairs apartment and stay with us instead. In the mornings, I would watch her daven, concentrating on the words in her siddur, which she had filled with more than 100 color-coded tabs, signifying the meaning and purpose of various prayers. I was humbled by her focus and felt the stark contrast with my inconsistency with prayer. They don’t call prayer avodah — work — for nothing. I was humbled also by the dedication my friend was demonstrating to earn admittance to the Tribe, whereas I had been “grandmothered” in.

On April 17, 2005, after three years of formal study, I watched in awed silence as Jenna faced the three rabbis who had overseen her conversion process. They asked her blunt questions:

Do you realize this step is irrevocable?

Do you believe the Torah, oral and written, was given by God at Mount Sinai?

Is there anything that you have learned that you feel you are not capable of committing yourself to observe?

Her voice resolved and firm, she answered “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third. In the privacy of the mikveh, the woman known as Jenna immersed in the warm natural waters and arose with the new name she had chosen: Ora — light. I will never forget the beauty and the drama of that morning.

Ora is now a home-schooling mother of three sons in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, married to Rabbi Neal Kreisler, a military chaplain. With Shavuot on my mind, I called Ora to ask if she feels a special kinship with the Book of Ruth, where we learn about Judaism’s most famous convert.

She said, “When I first read it, it gave me a sense of hope, because people recognized Ruth for the purity of what she was doing and why she was doing it. If they could see it in her, they could see it in me. Ruth was determined to walk in the right direction, toward HaShem. It was not for personal gain. No matter what was to come, the whole purpose for her was the journey, not the outcome. I felt a real sisterhood with Ruth.”

Although the Torah discourages converts, it also exhorts us — repeatedly — to show particular sensitivity to them, as we would to other vulnerable groups, such as widows and orphans.

Although the Torah discourages converts, it also exhorts us — repeatedly — to show particular sensitivity to them, as we would to other vulnerable groups, such as widows and orphans. Ora has heard her share of breathtakingly insensitive remarks about converts, including the doozy, “A zebra can’t change its stripes.” Although the comment stung, “it also propelled me forward. I don’t like people to tell me I can’t do something,” she said. “I also wish that the lessons of Ruth would be remembered all year around, and that people understood better what it is to choose this path and the passion that goes along with it.”

Did she have any advice for others who are thinking about converting to Judaism?

“Anyone who is less than 100% sure that this is their truth should not do it,” she said. “The life of a Jew is challenging on many different levels. I rejected the ‘do what feels good’ mindset I was raised with and the inconsistences of Christianity. Coming from a family with generations of divorce, I was also looking for a solid foundation that I could build on. I wanted to begin to add stitches to the gorgeous tapestry of the Jewish people. For me, there was no other path. For anyone who also feels the same way, I would encourage conversion.”

I have known many other converts, but Ora’s path from outsider to insider was the first where I had a front-row seat. Ora may have been grateful for our family’s embracing her and what she learned about Jewish living from us, but we have learned and been inspired by her dedication to building a relationship with HaShem, to earning her way into a club so select that you automatically get kicked out the first two times you try to get in the door.

This never fazed Ora. “I knew that Judaism was not a religion of ‘just do what feels good.’ It’s about trying to do what HaShem knows is best for us. It’s about looking at the bigger picture.”

“I had given birth to a little Jewish boy,” she said. “Nobody can do that if they aren’t Jewish. That was my moment. I felt, ‘I’m truly part of our people now.’ ”

Ora and her husband were living in San Diego when their first son, Neriya, was born. I drove down with another of Ora’s L.A. friends for the bris. Ora was beaming with joy. No longer an outsider looking in, she had arrived.

“I had given birth to a little Jewish boy,” she said. “Nobody can do that if they aren’t Jewish. That was my moment. I felt, ‘I’m truly part of our people now.’ ”

Her sons, now 6, 9 and 10, know that, like Ruth, their mother is a convert. “They see that I have clarity in my relationship with HaShem, and they benefit from my being a convert. They know how hard I worked to be where I am today.”

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”

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