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January 31, 2011

Conversion: From Ex-Mormon to Jew, Part I

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/conversion_from_ex-mormon_to_jew_part_i_39110131/

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And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. – Ruth 1:16

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While conversion to another faith is a rather sensitive topic for Jews, it is rarely a topic of conversation in Mormon circles. Although both communities are roughly the same size both in the United States (6 million) and worldwide (14 million), Jews have endured centuries of persecution, pogroms and anti-Semitism, and continue to be targeted for conversion by well-funded Evangelical groups like Jews for Jesus. Organizations like Jews for Judaism seek to counter these proselytizing efforts with varying degrees of success.

Mormons, on the other hand, are usually very tolerant of missionaries from other faiths, since we send out more than 50,000 of our own to dozens of countries every year. In addition, religious instruction for members born in the faith begins at age three and includes special scripture study classes for high-school and college students. Most LDS parents believe in administering the conversion inoculation found in Proverbs: Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

That said, there obviously are Mormons who convert to other faiths (though at a rate considerably below average). Last month I received a thoughtful e-mail from Ethan, an “ex-Mormon” who is considering conversion to Judaism. His letter inspired me to launch a search for Mormons who have become Jews. While I was unable to find a case where an active, temple-going Mormon had decided to become Jewish, I was contacted by two people who, like Ethan, were ex-Mormons when they began the conversion process. I’d like to share their stories with you in the next two posts.

Johnny is a gay ex-Mormon who once served as a missionary in Rome, Italy. Prior to his Jewish conversion, he had not attended religious services of any kind for six years. He started accompanying his Jewish partner to synagogue services, though he had no idea that Judaism accepted converts. What initially attracted him to Judaism? A Friday night sermon: “That first night, the rabbi spoke about the genocide that was taking place at that time in Rwanda. He said that as Jews, we couldn’t just sit back and say, “Tsk, tsk, isn’t that terrible?” We had an absolute obligation to do whatever we could to stop the slaughter … I remember thinking, ‘I would never have heard this sermon in a Mormon church.’ I decided to join an Intro to Judaism class just to see what it was all about.” Johnny went on to express his appreciation for the inquisitive Jewish mind: “I found I liked the fact that Jews were allowed to question. People debated over the meaning of scripture and what we should do with the information.” He also feels that his “contributions” to Jewish life are appreciated by his new coreligionists.

As with many conversions, there is a downside for Johnny: “I don’t feel I belong, the way I used to feel I belonged in Mormonism. I don’t know that this particular need will ever be filled again by any group… I find Jews in general much less open to meeting new people in their congregation.” Though Johnny clearly feels that he has been treated poorly by Mormon homophobes, he is also able to offer some words of praise for their faith: “How do I view Mormonism now? Well, part of me will always believe in Mormonism…It’s impossible to fully rid yourself of things learned in those formative years. Also, part of me rather likes some of the Mormon doctrines. I would like to believe in eternal progression toward perfection. I’d like to believe there will be peace and happiness, if not in a Millennium, at least in ‘heaven.’ Jews have a hundred different beliefs about the afterlife, and none of them seems any more comforting than Mormon beliefs. I don’t actually know what to expect after death, but I trust that God (who I do believe in) is kind and benevolent, and that’s all I need to know for now.”

I appreciate Johnny’s candor and fairness. While I regret that he is no longer part of my church, I’m happy that he now feels that he is part of a community that values his ideas and his service. I share his belief in a kind and benevolent God, and pray for Johnny to find the sense of spiritual belonging that has thus far eluded him.

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Hillel Rabbi Lori Schneide and I will be making a joint presentation on the role of Israel in our respective faiths at USC on February 9.   

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