When the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck, Delores Gray had an unusual response. Gray, an African American ordained minister and sales representative for Continental Airlines, took one look at the shambles the temblor had made of her Van Nuys condominium -- the furniture overturned and every conceivable breakable object broken -- and decided, "I'm moving to Israel."
She told her family and friends of her decision that day, and their response was unanimous: "Relax, Delores. We know you're shaken up, but don't lose your grip. It was only an earthquake."
"You're right," she conceded. "I am shaken up. But I'm still moving to Israel."
Gray's decision wasn't the panicky non sequitur that it appeared at first. During the previous seven years, Gray had been making a quiet but determined study of Judaism. Growing up in Mississippi, the granddaughter of devout Baptist sharecroppers, Gray came from what she calls "a praying background." Sunday was "the Lord's day," when all wore their best clothes, ate the best food that could be enjoyed, and sat around the table together in family harmony, she said.
In fact, Gray attributes her Baptist religious training to her ability to become an Orthodox Jew. "My grandmother did bikur cholim (visiting the sick), brought food to the needy, said the Psalms every day. I had role models of compassion and prayer. I got my boot training from my grandmother. Her commitment to God was mesmerizing."
Taking her grandmother's lead, Gray embarked on a lifelong spiritual quest that would one day lead her to renounce her title of "Sister Delores" and become known as Ahuva, an Orthodox Jew who would find friendship and a spiritual home in the charedi (fervently Orthodox) neighborhood of Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem. She was formally converted on her 51st birthday three years ago.
"I like the charedi approach," Gray explained. "They cut it straight."
On a recent swing through Los Angeles at the tail end of a seven-week speaking tour throughout the United States and England, Gray spoke to a packed crowd at Young Israel of Hancock Park at an event sponsored by the Jewish Learning Exchange, where she peppered her story with quotes from Psalms and the Prophets and tossed around Hebrew expressions that are the common parlance of the Orthodox.
"The Vilna Gaon speaks about a gilgul, a lost soul that was meant to be Jewish all along but who wasn't born Jewish," she tells listeners." Gray considers herself a gilgul who found her way home.
Leading the first of 14 tours to Israel of Christian groups, "I felt immediately that I was home," she said. "I looked at this lovely Catholic lady on my tour and said, 'You may not believe this, but I'm going to live here one day.' I had this dream and this vision."
Her connection to Jewish practice was uncanny. Before she knew that Jews prayed three times a day, she began doing so. Using a siddur she purchased in Safed that contained both Hebrew and English, she taught herself the Hebrew alphabet. "The power and authenticity of Jewish prayer set me on my course," she said.
After three years of leading tours to Israel, Gray decided to study at ulpan in Netanya. Although not Jewish yet, she wanted to prepare for the upcoming High Holidays and did so in earnest. She davened the special selichot prayers said before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "I had preached about repentance before, but this time I experienced it personally," Gray recalled. "It was like I had spiritual surgery."
She didn't quite understand what was happening to her, but she went to an Orthodox shul for the first time on Rosh Hashanah and returned for Kol Nidre. "I'll remember this for as long as I live," she told the crowd in Hancock Park. "After the service, I walked around Jerusalem. I felt the kedusha (holiness) all around me. Not a leaf moved; all was still. I felt that my efforts of study and research all culminated with this night of Kol Nidre. After searching for my entire life, I realized I would have to tell my parents I was going to live in Israel permanently and become Jewish. I knew they'd think I had fallen off the turnip truck."
Gray gave up her job in the travel industry and moved to Israel, where at first she supported herself by cleaning houses. She acknowledges that part of her reason for leaving the United States was that she was fed up with corporate America and with the tacit racism that she felt lay under the surface. "In America, people always looked at me as black, and not as the essence of who I am. As a Jew in Jerusalem, people see me as a neshama [soul]," she explained. Although she acknowledges that converts often face discrimination from the Jewish-born, she herself has never experienced it.
Giving up material comforts was easy, she said, since living in Israel gave her a "much higher quality of life," including a group of close-knit friends in Bayit Vegan. She also praised her own parents, brother and sister for their understanding and acceptance of her decision to convert.
Although her study and preparation for it was intense, she noted that "the real test isn't the conversion; it's what you do each day afterwards. But I knew this was beshert [destined]."
Today, Gray works as group coordinator for Bound to Travel, a Fullerton-based travel agency, and leads inward-bound tours of Israel. Additionally, she lectures at Nishmat, a seminary she praises as the only one in Jerusalem that accepted her as a student before her conversion.
Though she once spread the word about Jesus, Gray now champions the 613 mitzvot and Torah from Sinai. She worries about the successful efforts of Jews for Jesus in Israel, who, she said, "prey on Reform and Conservative Jews who don't know their Judaism and to whom they know they can sell a bill of goods."
That's one reason Gray tells her compelling story to audiences everywhere: to help less affiliated Jews connect with their heritage. Gray's autobiography, "My Sister, the Jew," will be published this June by Targum Publishers.
"I hope my story will offer some people some clarity," she concluded. "If it does, then baruch Hashem."