IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was an Atheist Gentile Who Became an Orthodox Jew

Danny took me to the Western Wall, where he revealed a ring and asked me to marry him.
Publish date:
March 25, 2016
religion, Dating, marriage, jewish, judaism, orthodoxy, converting

I had just finished my spicy pulled pork sandwich at the bar when I saw him. I wasn't normally sociable, but I felt a pull to go up to him and start a conversation.

His name was Danny, and he was the roommate of our mutual friend, and he was a comedian. He was very cute. And also Jewish.

Though I wasn't Jewish, the great loves of my life up until that point had always been Jews. Most of my friends were Jews. I had always felt a special connection to Jews. My aunt once mentioned that there were some Jews in our family, though there was no evidence of it. We seemed like straight up WASP to me.

A mutual friend suggested that I intern for Danny at his comedy radio show at Baruch College, and I did. I was in the final semester of my senior year at SUNY Purchase, and needed something to fill my time anyway. Plus, it would take me closer to the source of my burgeoning infatuation.

After college, I got another internship in the city, and Danny and I started dating. It turns out that since he had met me, Danny had also developed a crush.

I knew Danny was more observant than all of the Jewish men I had dated before, but I didn't know that his connection to his religion was so strong. He had grown up in a traditional Jewish household, keeping kosher and the Sabbath and going to Hebrew school, and then fell away from it when he entered the comedy world. Months before he met me, though, he started getting back in to it, going to a local synagogue for Sabbath dinner, which he explained to me as a "free meal." Why wouldn't I want that?

When I got to the synagogue, which was part of an outreach program called Chabad that aims to bring Jews back to Judaism all over the world, I felt peaceful. I felt that God was in the room.

It wasn't just a "free meal." It was a group of people gathering to celebrate a thousands-year-old tradition and share wisdom from their forefathers and foremothers. The attendees got this food and this warmth and this community simply because they were Jewish. There were no judgments that I wasn't Jewish, and the rabbi didn't care that some people were less observant. For one night out of the week, they just wanted to spend time with fellow Jews and inspire them. I thought it was beautiful.

We kept going to Chabad, and Danny took me to his parents' to celebrate the Sabbath as well. From there, I decided to pursue a Conservative conversion, because I always went for what I thought was the "middle ground" in life; Reform was too loose, and Orthodox was too strict. When I didn't have good experiences with the two Conservative rabbis I met with, and I didn't like the Conservative synagogues I attended, I gave Orthodoxy a try. Plus, if Danny and I were going to have a future together, we needed to make sure all the rabbis and denominations would accept me as a Jew.

Furthermore, Orthodox leaders wouldn't accept a Conservative conversion, and our kids would therefore not be Jewish in their eyes. If my child met someone who was Orthodox and wanted to get married, my child would have to convert and, most likely, question his or her Jewish identity. I didn't want to do that. Chabad was Orthodox and they had drawn me in in the first place, so it made sense to just go all the way.

We found a modern Orthodox shul in our neighborhood that allowed us to slowly start taking on the commandments (the mitzvahs) like keeping kosher and the Sabbath, praying everyday, and dressing modestly.

It was very easy for me to accept kosher. Though I had loved pork, I wanted to fit in with my people. The Torah gives no reason that pork isn't kosher, but it was the number-one taboo for Jews to eat pork. I didn't want to be an outlier.

I had also grown up in Baltimore, and I think I knew how to pick open a crab before I could walk. But once I was told they weren't kosher, I started seeing eating crabs as barbaric. One night, at a family dinner, I told myself that this was the last time I'd eat crab, and I never looked back.

I learned that while many animals are painfully killed via stun gun, kosher animals die in an instant by having their necks slashed. If they are in any pain or don't die immediately, they are not kosher. They are also shielded and killed in private so the other animals don't see it. I thought this was incredibly kind. I wasn't a vegetarian, which would be the kindest thing, but if I was going to eat meat, I didn't want the animals to suffer.

In terms of modesty, I never really enjoyed wearing pants, so switching to dresses and skirts full-time came naturally. In modern Orthodoxy, many women wear pants anyway, because they are no longer deemed men's clothing; if I didn't feel the pressure to perform a mitzvah, it was much more likely that I'd do it.

The hardest part of my conversion process was the Sabbath. For 24 hours, I couldn't use my phone, turn on and off lights, drive a car, watch TV, or spend money. The day was for praying, gathering with family, friends and community, and eating. At the start of the four years it took me to convert, I gave up pants and non-kosher food and took on plenty of other mitzvahs. But not checking my phone for a whole day? It's what I struggled with the most.

A few years in, for one Sabbath, I decided to put the phone away and observe all the laws. It was incredibly different than anything I had ever experienced. I felt free, and I could focus on the moment instead of worrying about what was going on on Facebook or my email. From then on, it was easier to not check my phone.

In December of 2014, I traveled to Israel for the first time, and studied in a traditional Jewish school for women for three weeks. Danny attended to the mens' division. This experience solidified my bond with our land as well, and took me closer to a traditional Jewish lifestyle.

One snowy night in January of 2015 in Jerusalem, Danny took me to the Western Wall, where he revealed a ring and asked me to marry him. Of course, I said yes. From there, I had to plan a wedding for July and make sure my conversion would be finalized.

A week before my wedding, I went to the mikveh, a ritual bath, and was questioned by three Orthodox rabbis on my observance. I signed a paper that said I had given up all other religions, and that I was committed to a traditional Jewish lifestyle. I was finally Jewish.

Today, Danny and I continue to grow. We attend synagogue every week and are heavily involved in our community. Like Chabad, we invite over any and every Jew for the Sabbath dinner, despite his or her level of observance. We just want everyone to know what it's like to experience it. I follow the ritual of covering my hair, which signifies that I'm married, and plan on sending our children, when we have them, to a traditional Jewish school.

It's not always easy to be Jewish. The laws are hard. I have to take off work multiple times throughout the year to celebrate the holidays. I spend a lot of hours per week prepping for the Sabbath. I don't always want to wake up early on Saturdays and go to synagogue. And the world has a long history of being against Jews. People have tried to wipe us out many times, seemingly for no reason other than the fact that they just don't like Jews.

When one of the three Orthodox rabbis asked me why I would want to join a nation that was hated and constantly being attacked, I simply replied, "Because I have a Jewish soul."

Inside, I've been Jewish all along. Just because I didn't believe in God and I enjoyed pork, it doesn't mean that I wasn't really a Jew. I knew where I belonged, and I fought hard to get there. I wasn't really taking on a new lifestyle or changing the fabric of my being. I was returning.