Elaine K. Markowitz, a former English teacher and current freelance writer, lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes at Congregation Rodeph Sholom and is an avid biker.
Tested through Conversion: A Tale of Sibling Love
My six female students in the adult B'nai Mitzvah (ceremonies in which people accept the responsibilities and privileges of adult Jews) class were rehearsing for the last time. All six had been studying for over a year: learning the Hebrew language, chanting from the Five Books of Moses (Torah) and the Prophets (Haftorah), and delving into the weekly portion of the Torah.
As I entered the sanctuary, I found Caroline, one of the six women, in tears. "What happened?" I asked. As the coordinator of the B'nai Mitzvah class, I took pride in the women who went through the program. Many of them, such as Caroline, were recent Jews-by-choice.
"It's Margaret," she said, trying to restrain her emotions. "She won't even speak to me."
I had come to know these women well. Caroline, now in her fifties, was the eldest of four siblings, and Margaret was the closest to her in age. These two sisters had grown up like twins in a devout Baptist family.
I put my arm around Caroline and hugged her. "Are you still happy that you are doing this?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" she said, wiping her eyes. "I have found my spiritual home, just as Maggie has found hers." She looked at me with wide eyes, still glistening with tears. "It's just that she's my sister and I love her. I want her to accept my choice as my children and mother have."
"Caroline," I said, "Maggie is as passionate about her religion as you and I are about Judaism. Can you deal with disapproval?"
"Yes, I can. I've always been strong and independent," she said, and then smiled. "You know I took the Hebrew name 'Miriam' for a reason." I recalled that during Torah discussions Caroline had valued this sister of Moses, who saved her brother's life and sang and danced after crossing the Red Sea.
Friday night arrived, and the six women led the service. At her mother's urging Maggie had consented to come that night, although she said she would not be present for the longer service and the reading of the Torah on Saturday.
I arrived at the synagogue early Friday evening and greeted guests as they entered, hoping to meet Maggie and say a few words to her. When the petite blonde woman clutching her husband's arm came through the heavy wooden doors, I knew her instantly. She had a pained expression and walked in slow, measured steps.
"Maggie?" I asked as I approached the couple.
"Yes," she said curtly, looking at me quizzically.
I introduced myself and welcomed her warmly. "You have given your sister a beautiful gift," I said. "You must truly be the wonderful person Caroline told me about."
"You have no idea how hard this is," she said, her words as measured as her steps. "Why did she take this path?"
This was Caroline's story, I thought. I couldn't answer for her. I knew she had spent years seeking to fill a spiritual void. She had grown uneasy as a Baptist and later as a Catholic. In Judaism she at last felt at home. Her marriage to a Jewish widower several years back had reinforced leanings she'd already recognized in herself.
"She is fulfilled spiritually now, Maggie," I said, "just as you are."
Maggie didn't respond. She just nodded her head slightly and, spotting her mother, headed toward a seat. Caroline was already on the bimah (podium), wearing a traditional white prayer shawl, a gift from her husband. She smiled as she spotted Maggie in the congregation.
The six women beamed throughout the entire service, and the congregation was alive with song. I hoped the Christian relatives who had never before been in a synagogue were enjoying it. From the bimah, I spotted Maggie half-way back in the congregation, her lips clenched and her eyes focused on her sister.
On Saturday morning, Shabbat, I wondered how Caroline would handle her sister's absence on her big day. She didn't have to. Maggie entered the sanctuary accompanied by the other family members who had come to support Caroline. I greeted the family and hugged Maggie's shoulder. I was delighted to see her.
I've thought often of Caroline since that weekend, and admire her courage and determination. In matters of religion, as with other major issues in family life, people we love often make choices we wish they hadn't made. Our loved ones stretch us spiritually and emotionally. With time and love, perhaps Maggie, too, will come to understand that Caroline's spiritual journey led her to Judaism, and that at last she is at peace with herself and with God.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.