My father, a non-Jew fascinated by Judaism, started attending classes at Beth Jacob, the Orthodox shul in Atlanta, Georgia. He liked how observance was part of everyday life with the Orthodox. Classes led to Shabbos morning davening. He soon discovered the parking lot was closed-off, so he would park down the street and walk the remainder of the way to shul, beads of sweat on his forehead like the rest of the shul-goers in Atlanta in the summer. He would always decline offers to have an aliyah to the Torah.
My father encouraged my mother to set aside one night a week to have a home-cooked family meal. He suggested Friday night. The T.V. would stay off, no one would be rushing to the mall, and wouldn’t it be nice if you lit those candlesticks your mother gave you. When my father started bringing flowers home, my mother agreed.
My father continued to regularly attend Beth Jacob – alone. He convinced my mother to come along, but she still harbored numerous resentments against the Orthodox. She remembered her mother talking about her “meshugenah” grandmother who would stick forks in the dirt in their backyard. Orthodox women were baby-making machines, although she was impressed with the stylish Chabad women she had met who made her rethink some stereotypes. And the Orthodox shul had that mechitzah. Having strong feminist tendencies ingrained in her since the 1970s, my mother had her concerns about the Orthodox and Beth Jacob.
When my mother and I walked into the beautiful, light-filled sanctuary of Beth Jacob, veering to the right as my father veered to the left, my father noted my mother’s shoulders release. She was at ease.
The more my father learned and prayed at Beth Jacob, the more he realized he had found his way. He would convert Orthodox. He first needed to find out what that meant.
My father scheduled a meeting with the rabbi, Rabbi Ilan Feldman. Rabbi Feldman listened to my father’s story but was hesitant. He told my father to come back with my mother in one month.
At the next meeting, Rabbi Feldman was still unsure. He recognized that my father’s case was different than the many cases of prospective converts he had dealt with in the past. My father was in his 50's, was married for 20 years to a Jewish woman, and didn’t have a Jewish mother-in-law breathing down his neck. Rabbi Feldman also couldn’t dismiss my father’s sincerity.
Rabbi Feldman said that the conversion process could take two to five years, but my father didn’t care if it took ten years. He wanted to do this properly, for himself and for his family. Rabbi Feldman explained to my father that he would be put to the test – my parents would have to sell their home and move into the Orthodox community. He would have to study regularly with the Atlanta Scholars Kollel. But Rabbi Feldman still hadn’t said if he was willing to convert my father. He continued to push him away as he was required to do for potential converts to test his sincerity, dedication and commitment.
At the end of the next meeting, Rabbi Feldman asked my father to come into the shul library. He sat down across a table from my father. Suddenly, Rabbi Feldman leaned forward on the table and blurted out, “I’m compelled to convert you!”
Rabbi Feldman used to marvel at my father’s innate understanding of Judaism. “I wish I knew your lineage,” he would say. “Most converts need to figure out how to think like a Jew. You already do.”
My parents put their lovely home in the suburb Sandy Springs on the market, sold it at a loss, and began house-hunting. They would also need to switch their daughter in September to the Jewish school, Torah Day School of Atlanta, which at the time, was located in a strip-shopping center.
They did not keep kosher, did not keep Shabbos, but knew they were about to make a major commitment that would inextricably change their lives forever.
Once, my mother decided she would order her usual sandwich for the last time from the local fast food drive-thru. She pulled in, placed the order for her chicken sandwich, and took a bite. She couldn’t even swallow it.
The summer before we moved into the community, I attended a drama camp at the performing arts theater. There I learned fundamentals of acting and put on a performance at the end of summer. The director of the program came up to my mother at the end of the performance with an invitation for me to join the children’s troupe. The children’s troupe would provide the children actors for the plays in the main theater.
Touched, my mother had only one question: When are the practices? Saturday. My mother proudly replied that we were Sabbath observant, even though we were not yet, and her daughter would not be able to participate.
Once we moved into the Toco Hills neighborhood, word spread quickly. The community opened their arms to us and we hardly ever ate a Shabbos meal alone at home. My new teacher hosted a pizza party for me to meet my new classmates, so I would be comfortable knowing the girls before the first day of school. And my father quickly became known as the Shabbos goy on the street with an amazing story to tell at your next Shabbos table.
After one and a half years, Rabbi Feldman decided that my father was ready to go through the conversion process. The Friday before Rosh Hashana was selected as the date. He would be converted Friday, have his afruf on Shabbos and be remarried on Sunday. This was the year of my parents 20th anniversary, fulfilling my mother’s wish at their government ceremony in South Africa that she wanted a religious ceremony on their 20th. She even made my father kneel and propose to her again.
On Friday, my father had a ceremonial bris in the shul library. The Beth Din was comprised of my father’s favorite rabbis who had taught him over the past few of years. Rabbi Feldman told my father he could back out now if he wanted, but there was no turning back.
After the bris, the Beth Din would then ask my father numerous questions about Judaism. My father started to walk towards the rabbis at the table but felt the sensation of walking on a treadmill in the opposite direction. He had an urge to look to his right. Right there on one of the bookshelves was a book with a prominent swastika on its binding. My father at that moment was in the middle of two poles: the Jewish pole, as represented by the rabbis in front of him, and the gentile pole, with Nazism at its extreme. He had a decision to make: should he go back and be safe or go forward and become one of them, with everything that entails? He went forward.
My father told Rabbi Feldman about this experience. Rabbi Feldman responded that he was about to ask if he was prepared to join a people who suffered in every generation.
Now it was time for the mikvah. On their way, Rabbi Feldman continued to ask my father if he still wanted to go through with the conversion. While my father was in the water, standing looking up at Rabbi Feldman, he was asked a series of questions: Do you agree to keep the Torah? Yes. Do you agree to keep kosher? Yes. Do you agree to keep Shabbos at the expense of your career? Gulp, yes.
His rabbinical mentor and friend had disappeared, and he was looking into the eyes of a steely, rabbinical scholar representing thousands of years of faith. In truth, my father realized he was getting married to G-d.
Rabbi Feldman directed my father to go down into the water. My father describes the experience as floating in the womb. When he emerged from the water, he took three enormous breaths and felt something inside of him expand. He felt like he was shining like a diamond. And now he knew that all Jews, including himself, were diamonds.
My mother’s brother served as a witness to the conversion. He saw Rabbi Feldman holding onto the railing, shaking, when my father dunked into the mivkah. Rabbi Feldman told my uncle he was watching a new Jewish soul come onto the earth.
Back in the library, Rabbi Feldman and my father danced joyously in the center of the circle with all the rabbis of the Beth Din dancing around them. It was a joyous simcha. Before there was a distance between my father and his Jewish mentors. Now there was none. He was one of them.
The next day was Shabbos and time for my father’s first aliyah, and his ufruf. The whole community who hosted us for meals countless of times were there to witness it.
My father was called up to the Torah, and this time he was prepared and able. He recited the blessings. Suddenly there were red, yellow, orange, and green objects bouncing around him. The children rushed to his feet to gather as many as they could.
The young boys and girls ran off with their Sunkist candies, leaving behind a little boy scrounging around trying to find one. My father scooped a couple from the bimah, kneeled down, and handed them to the boy. He looked him in the eye and said, “Got any gum, chum?” The boy grinned and ran off.
My father had come full circle from 40 years ago. He had found the man he was to be, the real him, and he was an observant Jew! My father had found himself, his People, his Book and his G-d.
Now, it was time for my Jewish father to marry his Jewish bride. This could have been done in the shul library, but my parents felt they wanted the wedding they never had, and they wanted to celebrate with all the families who had become their Jewish family.
This unusual event didn’t occur without some element of comedy – and confusion. In their meeting with the wedding musician, my parents asked when they were to enter the hall. The musician replied, “After the chosson and kallah.” And my mother blurted out, “We are the chosson and kallah!”
After the aufruf during Shabbos morning announcements, the shul president exclaimed, “We’d like to wish a Mazel Tov to Mr. Keir Beard on his marriage to Mrs. Beverly Beard.” There were plenty laughs, cheers and tears that Shabbos morning.
At 12 years old, I walked down the aisle of my parents’ wedding as the flower girl. My father lifted his ketubah above his head like a gold medal – he did this! He won!
We danced with our whole community in celebration of a new household being created in the Jewish people. Families with little means gifted my parents with havdalah sets and kiddush cups, understanding that my parents were truly creating a bayit neeman b’Yisrael.
Growing up in the small religious community of Atlanta, I was always so proud of my father’s decision to convert and our religious journey as a family. As I got older and left the nest, gaining more exposure to the big Jewish world, there were a few reality checks waiting for me as I navigated young adulthood.
To be continued…