Growing up in Colorado, Laura Waller wasn’t raised with a religion. She knew nothing about Judaism, save for the Torah — which she read as a teenager — and her community’s negative attitudes toward it.
“I didn’t exactly grow up in a town where being Jewish was acceptable,” she said. “I remember seeing anti-Semitic billboard signs in front of one of the churches I used to drive by. I remember one said, ‘Observers of the law are condemned by God, but the cross redeems you from your sin.’ Another sign said, ‘The Torah sends you to hell, the Cross saves you from hell.’ And another said, ‘The Jews forsook the Messiah and forfeited their inheritance.’ They were directing it at the small Jewish community that I later learned about in my hometown.”
The operations manager, who now lives in Encino, spent much of her adult life searching for meaning and a spiritual home.
As an adult, she enlisted in the Army, which took her to places like Tennessee, Mississippi, New York and Maryland. In all of these states, she explored Baptist, Mormon and Catholic churches, but none of them stuck.
“I did everything that the normative religious seeker would do,” she said. “I was asking questions, but rather than getting a welcoming response, pastors at the churches would get mad at me instead.”
Waller said she didn’t feel welcomed at the churches because she was a divorced and single mom. “I always had this stigma,” she said.
During her time of religious exploration, Waller walked into a Jewish community center in Pueblo, Colo., and stumbled upon a Chanukah celebration.
“I thought I’d be fashionably late so no one would notice me,” she said. “When I entered there were only six people in there, so everybody noticed me come in and sit in the back. But, for the first time in my life, I was home. I felt at peace. I felt like everything I needed to know about my life suddenly made sense. All of my answers were right there.”
After that fateful Chanukah, Waller realized that she wanted to be Jewish, and slowly began to keep kosher, learn about the holidays, celebrate Shabbat and read books about the religion. Because she was still traveling as part of the military, however, she didn’t feel like she had the option to convert. She directed her questions to rabbis, whom she corresponded with over the Internet.
Things were further complicated by her second husband, who was Christian and disliked that she wouldn’t eat bacon. While they were married, she said she had to deny her inclination to practice Judaism. When this marriage also ended in divorce, she returned to Judaism.
Over time, she became more immersed in her practices and, in 2010, moved to Los Angeles. In fall 2012, after spending some time researching prices and places to study, she reached out to Rabbi Adam Greenwald at American Jewish University (AJU) and decided to take conversion courses there.
Part of Waller’s Conservative conversion process entailed telling her friends and family about her decision. While some Christian friends disapproved, her Jewish friends said they knew it was destined to happen eventually. Her stepfather supported her, too, unlike her mother.
“When my mom found out I was converting, she was kind of ticked off,” Waller said. “I’d already been practicing for about 17 years and keeping kosher. It was always an argument. When I’d go home, she told me she’d made some pork stew, but I wouldn’t eat it.”
Waller decided to go ahead with the process nonetheless. On June 7, 2013, she stepped into the mikveh at AJU and officially converted.
“When I went in, it was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Waller, whose Hebrew name, Tikvah, means “hope.” “I was letting all my experiences, hurt and anger go. I started to climb out of the mikveh, and everything was pulling me back into the water. My past didn’t want to let go of me even though I wanted to let go of my past. I felt like I was leaving black tar.”
She added, “I felt human for the first time in my life. [I thought], ‘I am not a single mom, divorced twice, terrible past, a problem child, a betrayer of the faith, the sinner, the person with issues, etc. I am just ‘human.’ No other religion has done that for me.”
After she visited the mikveh, her youngest son, Adrian (Yishai) Waller, 12, did as well. Her other son, 16-year-old David (Dovid) Sandoval, didn’t end up converting, but he did take classes with his mom to show his support.
Waller said that in the Jewish community she has finally found the perfect philosophy for herself and her family.
“There’s something so beautiful in the humanity of Judaism and tikkun olam that you don’t find anywhere else,” she said. “It’s not just one person demonstrating it. It’s a whole community living it.”