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.
The Turning Point
Becoming Jewish was a difficult decision for Gail Michaels, who had been raised Catholic. At 47 she is in a long-term relationship with a Jewish man whom she hopes to marry shortly, but she couldn't have converted just to make him happy.
"It had to mean something to me," she says, "or I would have felt disrespectful of both Judaism and Catholicism."
Before Gail met Alan, she had experienced a yearning for a deeper spiritual connection than her own religion had given her. "It worked so well for my mother," she says. "Mom sang in the choir in the old church my grandfather helped found; my family had been a part of the church for generations."
But for Gail the comfort of the small-town church was not enough to nurture her own spiritual needs.
"Many things bothered me," she replied. "I was uncomfortable with the concept of original sin; we never studied the Bible, only memorized the answers to the Catechism; and I found no solace in confession."
Gail recalled the old priest of her youth who heard her confessions on a weekly basis. "Confession meant nothing to me," she says. "I told him what I thought I had done or said that was wrong, and he told me to do so many 'Our Fathers' or 'Hail Marys,' but I never felt cleansed. I did no reflecting."
Gail and Alan met in a gym shortly after her divorce, at a time when religion no longer played a significant role in her life.
"I really didn't know where to turn," she says. "I was unhappy with what I had, and I was uncomfortable with the fundamental Christianity of my closest friend."
Alan did not take long in introducing her to Judaism.
"When we started to get serious about each other," Gail says, "Alan made it clear that his religion was important to him, and he couldn't be serious about me if I didn't at least learn something about Judaism."
And so Gail began going to the synagogue with Alan.
Drawn to the richness of the cantor's voice, she felt an attraction for the service right from the start. She and Alan took an Introduction to Judaism course together, and then began attending a variety of study groups.
"The religion seemed so rational to me," she says. "I loved the idea that Jews didn't believe in original sin, that they were encouraged to question and debate."
Joining a group that discussed Torah, the five books of Moses, was a joyful experience for Gail, who at last found encouragement to study Bible stories in depth.
En route to an ultimate conversion, Gail was drawn to other aspects of Judaism as well--particularly the celebration of Passover and the "tashlich" ceremony following the Rosh Hashanah service, when the congregation symbolically casts their sins upon the waters before beginning the new year.
"The symbolism is wonderful in both those holidays," she says. "I love the whole concept of the seder (Passover meal) and all the symbolic foods and gestures that accompany commemorating the exodus from Egypt."
Since the synagogue stretches along the bay, following Rosh Hashanah services Gail walked across the street with hundreds of other congregants to toss their sins, represented by small pieces of bread, into the water while the rabbi recited a prayer. "It was an awesome way to end the day," she says with a big smile.
Five years, though, had elapsed from the time she began to study until she could bring herself to convert. Already comfortable in Judaism and in the synagogue, Gail still found herself immersed in guilt.
"I was so fearful," she says, "of offending my family, particularly my mother's sister and other deeply observant family members. I felt disloyal even considering conversion."
The last High Holiday season proved to be the impetus she needed.
"I went through the whole day of Yom Kippur this year," she exclaimed, "and something changed in me. I truly valued the idea of reflection, of asking others for forgiveness, of fasting and focusing on prayer, and of the mass confessional--especially in contrast to the old weekly confessions I used to make."
Gail felt comforted chanting the range of sins all human beings commit, and asking for forgiveness as a community. "I felt," she said, "that even if a person hadn't committed a given sin, the potential to do so existed."
When the holiday season ended, Gail converted and joined the adult B'Nei Mitzvah (when a person assumes the rights and responsibilities of an adult Jew) class for men and women who had not experienced that rite of passage in their youth.
"I no longer feel guilty," she claims. "I feel God's presence more strongly then ever, and I know I belong in the synagogue."
The next step is her impending marriage to Alan--under the wedding canopy, the huppah, in the synagogue by the bay, which is now her spiritual home.