George Guzman, 45, grew up in a Catholic home in Corona, Calif., and though he served as an altar boy at his local church, he never felt connected with the religion. In 1995, he turned his back on Catholicism forever.
It happened when Guzman, who now lives in Long Beach and works as head hairstylist for the TV soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” visited a Catholic church in West Hollywood with his sister, who was going to confession. While the priest forgave her sins, Guzman was met with hostility because of his sexuality.
“I told the priest I had used profanity, and he says, ‘That’s it?’” Guzman remembered. “He asks, ‘Have you ever been with anyone? Were they male or female?’ I say male, and he asks if there were many males or one male. I said many males at one point, but now one male that I’m in a relationship with. He told me it was a sin against God and the church, and that he couldn’t absolve me of my sins, because I was going to do it again. He told me to break up with the guy I was dating.”
After that, Guzman said, “For the first time in my life, I was able to look at what I was investing my faith in, and said that this is a joke. That experience, coupled with the Christian right being so vulgar about being against gays ruined my whole idea of God and the church.”
Following his fallout with the church and then the end of his relationship, Guzman decided to seek out a relationship with a Jewish man. Although he hadn’t considered converting or seriously looking into the religion, he said he had always felt a bond with it. “Back in sixth grade, when we started studying the Holocaust, I remember always asking the nun, who taught our class, why we didn’t do anything to help the Jews. There was never a good answer for me.”
Guzman started dating Craig Astrachan, who is Jewish, in 2007. They traveled together to Germany and Austria, where they visited the concentration camps. It was on one such trip that Guzman realized that he wanted to convert. “I was in the Schindler factory in the final room of this wonderful exhibit, with the sound of a somber cello playing what sounds like Jewish prayer,” he said. “I heard sobbing that was getting louder. To my surprise, it was me. It was at that moment that I realized that my Jewish soul was born.”
In 2012, Guzman started to pursue conversion at American Jewish University (AJU). His sponsor was Rabbi Lisa Edwards, the spiritual leader at his synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim.
Guzman said he struggled with giving up non-kosher foods, although did not grow up eating pork. He said he believes his mother’s side of the family may have Jewish roots, because his grandmother wouldn’t eat pork, prayed three times a day and covered mirrors and would not use the electricity on certain days. She also prayed in a closet, as if she was trying to hide her practice, he said.
“Jewish people in Mexico would be Catholic in the street and Jewish at home,” he said.
When Guzman converted at the AJU mikveh last July, his parents told him they were just happy that he had found a faith. Astrachan’s family members also were in attendance to celebrate. “They have been so welcoming and loving,” Guzman said. “Both his parents and their partners showed up at the mikveh, as well as his sister, and they brought me gifts.”
Following his conversion, Guzman traveled to Israel for the first time with A Wider Bridge, a group that connects people who identify as LGBTQ. On the tour, which lasted just over two weeks, the group met with political and religious leaders supportive of Israel’s LGBTQ community. He also visited the Western Wall and Tel Aviv.
“It’s so modern, and there are a lot of positive aspects of the gay community there,” Guzman said. “Craig and I have traveled a lot throughout Europe, and there are parts of Europe where we could not feel comfortable as a gay couple. But in Israel, I didn’t feel that way. We felt very at home.”
When he got home, Guzman started to study for his bar mitzvah, which is set for July 26. Every week, he and Astrachan pause to celebrate Shabbat. Since his conversion, Guzman said, he’s grown as an individual because Judaism inspires him.
“I’m able to see things in a better light than I ever did before. Knowing that I’m responsible for my actions and I have to answer to myself and not rely on the absolution of sin makes me a better person.”