Through the decades that I have worked as a rabbi, some of my deepest satisfactions have
come from the interactions I have had with individuals who sought to become Jews and with whom I was privileged to study and learn. In every instance, I have been given the gift of seeing Judaism from the outside, from the perspective of one who approaches our traditions, our values and our community with fresh and curious eyes.
I always invite new Jews-By-Choice to share with our congregation, if they so choose, the story of their journey to Judaism and I am always pleased when someone accepts the offer to either address the congregation during a Shabbat service or submit an essay for this newsletter.
On July 9, 2018 Pamela Rothstein and I had the privilege of accompanying Kristy Owen the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim in Newton to bear witness to her decision to become a Jew. As all such moments are, it was a deeply moving experience!
Kristy took me up on my offer to share with us the story of her journey. Though I am sad to report that Kristy and her husband, Dale Galileo, has recently relocated to Florida, I feel privileged to have been part of Kristy’s experience and I am grateful to her for sharing these words with us!
“Why did I choose to become a Jew and why now? I’ve never identified with a religion. Growing up, my grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness and my grandfather a Baptist (both former Catholics)…my Mom was unaffiliated. As a child I went to the Kingdom Hall with my grandmother on Sundays. She never did the door-to-door thing, so I got lucky with that. While she didn’t celebrate holidays, my Mom, grandfather and I did. I celebrated birthdays and we decorated and exchanged Christmas presents…not because of the “Jesus thing”, but for the “family thing”. As I got older my parents stopped decorating for Christmas (which I missed…I like the twinkling lights), but we still exchanged some gifts. I remember that once I had decided to join the Marines I was told that I was no longer welcome at the Kingdom] Hall. I thought, “What kind of religion watches a child grow up and then pushes her aside? Certainly one that I wouldn’t want to be part of.”
Fast forward to [Marine Corps] boot camp, where we were told that we could attend religious services on Sundays or stay in the squad-bay and have some “free time”. I thought, “free time” with drill instructors watching all the time or leave the squad bay? I chose to get out! So, where to go?…I went with the Jews. Why?
I grew up in a pretty diverse community in the suburbs of Washington, DC. In school I had several Jewish friends. My two best friends in middle school were Jewish and if we ever wanted to have sleep-overs, we had to go to [Shabbat] services. I had no clue what was going on. I stood up when everyone else did and sat down when everyone else did. Honestly, though, I never felt judged or awkward.
Rewind back to my senior year of high school when a very close friend died in a car accident. He grew up Catholic but neither he nor his parents were religious. However, the rest of his family was. There was a huge service at the church. Although I was crushed by his death, I thought the service/mass was strange. (It was my first Catholic experience). The creepy crucifix staring down at you, some guy in robes walking around swinging some incense thing. It was so cold and regimented.
So, in boot camp, when the decision to decide where to go for Sunday services came around it wasn’t hard to decide…creepy weird judgmental group or the group with less judgement? And I heard there were snacks. Well, the snacks won! Once again I felt welcomed (and they did have snacks!) I remember going back to the squad-bay and telling everyone about my Hohos and Twinkies.
After boot camp I moved on to a religion-free life. I’ve prayed over the years but, like most selfish people, I only prayed when I needed or wanted something. I’ve always questioned the God subject but I believe in something...I just can’t put words to it. One of the things that drew me to Judaism was its sense of community. A few years ago my husband and I were looking for a part-time veterinarian for the Woods Hole Science Aquarium where I worked and I met with Dr. Lisa Abbo. Not long after getting to know her I learned that she had chosen a Jewish life and I told her I had been considering it for years but that I didn’t know much about the process.
Late 2016….my most favorite dog ever, Trooper, was diagnosed with cancer. Lisa and her veterinarian husband, Andy Abbo, helped me out so much. They are a loving and caring family that I look up to. While grieving for Trooper I decided that I needed something more in my life. I asked Lisa what I should do to move forward with choosing a Jewish life. She put me in touch with Rabbi Lieberman at Falmouth Jewish Congregation.
I started my transition from gentile to Jew in February 2017. My first meeting with the Rabbi was moving. I was nervous and emotional but, once again, I felt welcomed and I knew this was the right decision. During my studies, my sister-in-law passed away two weeks after my husband’s knee replacement. As a result, my disabled brother-in-law moved in and then, in July, I lost both of the harbor seals I had taken care of for nearly ten years. Then my parents got separated in the fall because of my Dad’s mental health issues…it was a rough year! Through all of these struggles I felt so comforted by the Rabbi and by other members of the community that I had gotten to know. All along, I have been so impressed with this caring and giving community, the acceptance of all people no matter their race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation or gender and the desire to make a better community and, ultimately, a better world.
I was cleared for my transition into life as a Jew at the end of June. It just so happened that my Mom was visiting the Cape for the 4th of July and the timing was perfect. On July 9th I made the trek to Mayiim Hayyim in Newton for my mikveh experience. I was so nervous. I had watched all of their online videos, practiced the prayers and found an amazing (or so I thought) etrog dress (to most people it’s simply a dress with lemons). I wanted it to be perfect. I was worried that I wouldn’t feel “it”. Is it going to feel different? What emotions (if any) will I experience? Is this just going to be a same old day but one where I take an intensely different shower and dunk in a pool? Is the mikveh guide going to be appalled by my naked body? Am I going to screw up the Hebrew and people will laugh at me?
As far as I know none of those things happened. It was all so amazing. I followed the showering procedures and took the time to think about all the things Mayyim Hayyim suggested. I thought so hard that I scrubbed the skin off my knees! I walked out wrapped in a sheet to meet the mikveh guide and, at that point, I wasn’t concerned about what she thought about my body. My mind felt clear and focused; at that moment I knew this was the right choice for me. I submerged myself, lifted my feet and, upon emerging from the water, I recited the first prayer as I choked on water I had inhaled…I guess I really wanted that “living water” everywhere! I dunked again, recited the second prayer and the guide stated “Kasher!”(“Proper!”)…I cried, but the water hid it. I did feel different…I can’t explain why, but I did. It’s only been couple months but when I feel stressed or down I think of that moment and the new family I have gained. I love my new Jewish life!
It took me so long to write this (a whole month to hand write and another to type) that I am about to make another significant life change…I am now making a huge move to take a job down in West Palm Beach, FL. I have looked into finding a new Jewish community there, but I will always miss this Jewish community and the friends I have made in my short time here.
I’ve decided that I will make my own pilgrimage back North for the High Holy Days…so, I will see you all next year!”