January 30, 2013
When Jennifer Harrison-Gomez decided to convert to Judaism, her husband, Brian Gomez, followed suit.
At 8 years old, Jennifer saw a film about Judaism that sparked her interest. In middle school, she read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which further intrigued her. As an adult, she worked for a Jewish mortuary, where she admired the Jewish traditions of handling death. Jennifer began talking about Judaism with the shomer (guardian of the deceased) at her job, and, after learning more, she started her conversion process.
“I have always been interested in the Jewish religion, and it really spoke to my heart,” she said recently. “It felt like it was the right way for me to connect with God. I wanted to raise my children in a home filled with love and God.”
Brian worked for the same mortuary and is Jennifer’s second husband; they connected in 2005, after she became a widow. She had three children — Kaily, now 14; Adell, 10; and CJ, 7 — from her first marriage. Brian’s children, also from a prior marriage, are Favian, 17, and Alexa, 15. The couple married in a civil ceremony in November 2011 and celebrated again with a Jewish wedding last July, after both converted. Three months ago, the couple welcomed their first child together, a daughter they named Dani.
Jennifer grew up Catholic, though her grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness, as was her late husband. Her sister is a born-again Christian who took her to church services.
Brian’s family practiced Pentecostal Christianity. “The fire-and-brimstone type,” he said. “I believed in it, but I didn’t like the idea of not being able to enjoy the movies and things like that. It sheltered us from society. You were going to go to hell for everything you did.”
Jennifer began her conversion process in October 2010 at Temple Akiba in Culver City, taking classes with Rabbi Zachary Shapiro. Brian joined her a few sessions in; first he came in support, but then he was inspired to begin converting, too. “Rabbi Zach showed us a lot,” Jennifer said. “We were learning and interacting with the other students that were there. We heard about how they grew up. Some were Jewish already and wanted to know more about their religion, and others were coming from a completely different background. It was very interesting hearing everybody’s point of view.”
In the class, the two learned about the holidays, how to celebrate and enjoy Shabbat, and the meanings behind the rituals. Jennifer started eating milk and meat separately, and Brian began wearing a kippah. They decided on a Reform conversion, as they both agreed ideologically with the movement. “It seemed to fit my personality and the way that I viewed religion,” Jennifer said.
When they went to the mikveh one year after they began their studies, they brought Adell and CJ for immersion, too. CJ and Brian were immersed in one mikveh, while Adell and Jennifer, who was pregnant with Dani at the time, went into the other.
Although they studied for their conversion at Temple Akiba, the couple also attends Temple Beth El in San Pedro, which is closer to their home in Wilmington. For now, Jennifer is focused on being a full-time mother, but she plans to start volunteering at the synagogue when she has more time.
Adell and CJ are currently in Torah school, and their parents make sure they say the Shema every night before bed. Each Shabbat, Adell lights candles and says the prayers, too. When Dani is old enough, she, too, will attend Torah school.
The other children were accepting of the conversions. Kaily was 13 at the time and had the urge to push her parents’ buttons, Jennifer said. “She wanted to find her own place. I understand that. She wanted to be Muslim, and then Catholic. I said she could do whatever she wanted, as long as God was in her life. So now she kind of let up on that and attends services and observes Shabbos with us.”
Brian said being Jewish has made his personal life, along with his work, more meaningful. “Taking care of people who passed away at the Jewish mortuary takes on a whole different meaning. It takes on a whole different level of importance.”
The new identity has also had “its ups and downs,” he said. “It’s been good, because of the community. At the same time, because I do wear a kippah, I stand out as a Jewish man. Sometimes I get hard looks at the market or gym. There’s just a feeling that people don’t like you. I accepted that and understood that.”
Overall, however, Judaism has been a positive force in the couple’s lives. Jennifer said she has found the religion has strengthened their marriage and given new meaning to her family life. “I celebrate by thanking God every day. I’m doing my best to raise and instill the love of God and the love of everything in my children. The way I express my love of Judaism is through my children.”