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Gay-by-Birth, Jews-by-Choice

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Originally published with title Finding Their Way Home to Judaism: Three Same-Sex Couples Share Their Conversion Stories.

Oct. 13, 2006

"My parents were old hippies," said Felicia Park-Rogers, who grew up in the Bay Area. "They were very suspicious of organized religion and anything else smacking of authority."

When Park-Rogers, 35, met Rachel Timoner, her partner-to-be, in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she was thrilled to be falling in love but suspicious of her new lover's involvement with Judaism.

Mike Loya (L) and his partner Ron Paler are both converts. Paler converted five years ago, while Loya was scheduled to complete his conversion late last year.

Timoner was raised in a Reform community in Miami. Although the lavish bar and bat mitzvahs at her parents' shul had turned her off, she still felt drawn to Jewish spiritual life. When she found a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, the seed of her faith began to take root. "And she began to drag me to holiday services," Park-Rogers said.

The couple's once-in-a-blue-moon joint appearances at synagogue evolved into a weekly return engagement at Shabbat. Then, about a decade ago, Timoner was out of town during the High Holidays, and Park-Rogers found herself with a decision to make.

"I went to Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on my own," Park-Rogers recalled. "After that experience, I said, 'I have my own relationship to this.'"

Park-Rogers finished her conversion about four and a half years ago, just before she gave birth to Benjamin, her first son. She and Timoner now have a second son, Eitan, who just celebrated his first birthday.

Same-sex couples confront the same choices that are issues for most straight couples. To live together or not to live together? To marry--or at least to formalize a partnership--or not to marry? To have kids or to have a second house in Palm Springs?

Spiritual decision-making is also frequently a factor in the calculus of gay life. In fact, finding a religious tradition that affirms gay experience and offers the support of a vibrant community can be one of the most important aspects of self-realization for gay men and lesbians--especially for people who see being in a committed relationship as a natural extension of their spiritual lives.

That kind of deep introspection led Ron Paler, a 40-year-old pathologist, to convert to Judaism five years ago. Mike Loya, Paler's partner for more than a decade, will finish his own conversion in the next couple of months.

"My dad's best friends were Jewish," he said. "Each year there were interfamily celebrations on the big holidays. As a kid, I was always moved by my Passover experiences. Those memories were really formative for me."

As a young adult, Paler had a hard time finding a sense of connection in Roman Catholicism. "I was missing something," he said. "I never felt I could express myself within the church, and there was no room for discussion."

Paler's spiritual hunger eventually led him to Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, where his faith finally began to blossom.

"I asked a lot of questions," Paler said. "And I found my questions were welcome. In Catholicism, questioning isn't valued, but in Judaism, questioning is intrinsic to the tradition."

That openness to inquiry is equally important to Park-Rogers.

When Arlan Wareham (L) and David Fyffe met in 1996, Fyffe had been a Jew-by-choice for 15 years while Wareham was just beginning his exploration of Judaism. In 2005, they moved to Israel.

"In my Intro to Judaism class, the teacher told us, 'It's not important that you believe in God, but if you did believe in God, it's important that you'd believe there's only one,'" she said. "That's still amazing to me. It leaves open a lot of paths to explore and gives you plenty of room to grow."

Exploration and growth have been the hallmarks of the life Arlan Wareham and David Fyffe have made for themselves. When the 50-something men met in 1996, David had been a Jew-by-choice for 15 years, and Arlan, who was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif., was just beginning his foray into Judaism.

Soon after the couple took a trip to Israel in early 2004, they began to talk about making aliyah.

"At first the idea sounded crazy," Wareham said. "But the more we talked, the less crazy it sounded."

Both men had lost their parents by that time, and with no other ties binding them to the United States, they moved into a house in a small development outside of Tsfat in summer 2005.

"It's like a dream," Wareham said. "On a clear day we can see Mount Hermon to the north and in wintertime there are beautiful cows grazing in the field across the road."

The consequences of their proximity to the Lebanese border have not been so dreamlike. During last summer's conflict, two Katyusha rockets landed in their neighborhood, shattering windows and spraying shrapnel. No one was seriously hurt by the explosions, and the ardor of the two men is undiminished by their experience.

"When we walk into our synagogue for prayers, we're often the ones who make a minyan," Fyffe said. "We're really contributing something to our community. I feel our move here is the completion of something very important for both of us."

That deep sense of fulfillment threads through the conversion stories of all three couples. Park-Rogers is now executive director of Beth Chayim Chadashim, and her partner, Timoner, is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"We're all up in it," Park-Rogers said.

Although she's now "all up in" just the kind of institution that tended to arouse suspicion in her counterculture parents, Park-Rogers believes she hasn't forgotten the important lessons they taught her.

"You can be a very active Jew and still have a very active critique of Judaism," she said. "In that respect, it's all coming together for me. My parents didn't use the words 'Torah' or 'tzedakah,' but those were the values they gave me."

For Paler, the sense of fulfillment has come as he has reached beyond the Roman Catholicism of his childhood to begin to explore his family's Eastern European roots. "I was telling my rabbi [Denise Eger at Kol Ami] about the fact that the ancestry of one of my grandfathers is sort of a family mystery," Paler said. "When I told her I think there's a Jewish connection there, she said, 'Jewish souls eventually find their way home.' That's definitely been my experience. I really do feel like I've come home."

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."

Nick Street is a freelance writer living in Southern Calif. His work has appeared in LA Weekly, Science & Spirit, The Los Angeles Times, and The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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