September 17, 1998
Knowledge is Power
Recent converts to Judaism experience the High Holidays with a new understanding
Most Jews bring to the High Holidays indelible memories of their childhood. But those who have chosen to become Jewish as adults have their own special feelings about the holiday period. Such is the case with many graduates of the University of Judaism's Introduction to Judaism program. These new Jews, who have gone through a formal conversion after finishing the 18-week UJ course, carry into the High Holiday season memories of their own religious upbringing, as well as an enormous enthusiasm for Judaism's spiritual richness.
Some 1997 graduates approached their first Yom Kippur with trepidation. Valencia Smith, for one, worried that "as a person who can't sit still very well" she would disrupt the service. Those fears proved groundless, but when a sympathetic friend came over at sundown to help her break the fast in style, "I got sick as a dog." Still, the graduates were quick to appreciate the day's spiritual dimensions. Amber Davidheiser, who converted in preparation for her upcoming wedding to Paul Kalt, was able to translate her gnawing hunger into the awareness that "I'm doing this for a reason. I'm not just doing it to torture myself."
Davidheiser has found meaning in the High Holiday customs of her fiancee's family. The fact that the elder Kalts are Holocaust survivors adds poignancy to an observance that Paul Kalt calls "a remembrance of our sins and of the tragedy that was pronounced upon the Jewish people." Around the Kalt dinner table on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the mood shifts from cheerful to solemn as family members make apologies and ask forgiveness of their loved ones.
Those new Jews who don't fit into a family unit still respond strongly to the High Holidays as a time of teshuvah, or repentance. When Roma Rodgers, then a student at a Lutheran seminary, first began exploring Judaism, "I was very impressed as I watched my friends by how much soul searching was going on." Edy Roberts Rossman (an African-American whose devotion to Judaism runs so deep that she has adopted a Jewish-sounding last name) cherishes the distinctive Jewish formula for righting a wrong done to another, thus allowing "a full return to integrity and wholeness."
George and Jeanne Mitchell, who both converted to Judaism along with two of their teen-aged children, insist that the High Holiday focus on self-scrutiny, combined with the discipline of a day-long fast, would be a valuable experience for all Americans. Says George, "If President Clinton knew how to exhibit self-control over his body, perhaps he wouldn't be in the trouble he's in." Jeanne describes Yom Kippur as a day of "trying to find the strength within you to correct the things you've done wrong. I personally find myself, as the day is ending, trying to pray harder and harder."
Several graduates point out that part of the beauty of Yom Kippur is its emphasis on communal, as opposed to personal, prayer. Roma Rodgers stresses that at her first High Holiday service, "Everyone knew that although we were standing there individually, we were standing there collectively," praying for the welfare of all. Cliff Secia had attended services with his Jewish wife, Vickie, but not until he studied Judaism did he feel the holidays' full impact: "For the first time I grasped the solemnity of the ritual. The communal confession, including the beating of the chest, seemed more powerful than the one-on-one confession of the Catholic Church. I realized that Judaism is a community and not just a religion, and I felt a part of it."
Though many new Jews insist their synagogue friends have become their family, others are admittedly lonesome at holiday time. Surrah De Almeida, born to intermarried parents, didn't dare adopt her father's religion until her mother died at age 95. A single woman with two grown children, she admits to feeling isolated within family-based congregations: "I'm finding [that] doing things alone gets to be harder." Still, De Almeida hardly regrets completing the Introduction to Judaism program. As a child, when she had attended High Holiday services with her father, "I just knew that people were fasting and were grouchy and had bad breath." But "things are much sweeter for me now because I have some knowledge, and knowledge is power."
Much the same feeling is expressed by Hanokh Golshirazian. Golshirazian was born Jewish; he attended the UJ course along with his new Guatemalan wife, and it changed his entire outlook. Back in Iran, where his autocratic father demanded a rigid observance of the holidays, "I was doing it not because of the spiritual part of it, but because I thought God was going to punish me. I would feel really guilty, to the point that I would punish myself." With the course under his belt, he's learned "how easy and light and beautiful it gets if you have [the] background." Last year, for the first time, "I felt I was really talking to God."