Growing up Catholic in Ireland can be intense, and it may be one reason why Philomena Wallace decided to become a Jew.
“There were too many questions and no answers when I was Irish Catholic,” said Wallace, who grew up in the small village of Wexford. “It was a very strict religion. I broke most of the rules by the time I got into my teens. It was unforgiving and judgmental. Judaism teaches you to question everything. It was very refreshing.”
Wallace converted to Judaism through the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2000, but her desire to convert didn’t happen all at once. Throughout the years, beginning when a traveling library stopped at her school and she picked up “The Diary of Anne Frank,” she became more and more interested in the religion.
The Irish native bought a Star of David and lived in a Jewish area of London, Golders Green, while employed for an Israeli shipping company. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, she got a job in the office at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she still works today.
After she began working at the synagogue full time in 1997, Wallace started her Jewish education. Despite the fact that she was going from one major faith to another, it just felt right, she said.
“One day the light bulb went off, and I said it’s not just a major religion. It’s a way of life,” Wallace explained. “I felt I was on the cusp of it, and I wanted to be official.”
At the UJ, which offered a Conservative conversion, Wallace, 56, learned about Jewish history and traditions. She shul-hopped on Fridays and Saturdays and kept kosher for a weekend to experience different facets of the religion.
After immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) in 2000, Wallace said she didn’t feel Jewish right away. It wasn’t until the next year that she started being comfortable with her new identity.
That’s when she went to Israel and for three weeks participated in Sar-El, which is the National Project for Volunteers for Israel. There, she lived on a base with soldiers and helped with recycling and reconstructing antennas for tanks. One day, she and the other volunteers spent 12 hours filling food bags for soldiers deployed at the Lebanon border.
Wallace prayed at the Western Wall and stayed in Jerusalem with Evangelical Christians. One night, she was invited to a “Shabbat” dinner by one of her Christian friends. A woman lit the Friday night candles, and the hosts were going through all the usual rituals. Throughout the dinner, however, the vibe began to change, and Wallace saw that it wasn’t a regular Shabbat meal.
“The host goes around and says something like, ‘Let’s have a drink so that all the Jews can be converted.’ My glass went down. I looked at my friend and she looked at me. I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ The host had everybody around the table introduce him or herself and say who we were. He got to me, and I said, ‘My name is Phil. I am from the United States and I’m very proud to say I’m a Jew.’ The host didn’t know what to do with himself.”
The experiences at the dinner and with the troops solidified Wallace’s new identity. She started to call herself a Zionist and pro-Israel Jew.
“Going there really made a difference to me,” she said.
These days, along with her job at the temple, Wallace volunteers there as a chaver (friend) for the Caring Community. She explores her spiritual side at Agape, an international spiritual center in Culver City.
Her family has accepted her conversion, and her parents told her that they were happy with whatever made her happy. Pearl Nolan, Wallace’s sister, was asked to contribute to “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker,” a book by Rabbi Harold Schulweis and edited by Michael Halperin in which Wallace was featured. In the book, Nolan says, “When my sister Philomena told me she was converting to Judaism, I thought: ‘Bloody hell, she is mad going from one major religion to another. But if it makes her happy, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Wallace said that after all of these years, her favorite aspect of the religion is the community.
“If I go to High Holiday services, I’ll always see people that I know and maybe haven’t seen since the previous year. Everybody is on the same page. If it’s Rosh Hashanah, you say ‘Shana Tova.’ On Yom Kippur, you ask people how their fasts are going. I like that sense of camaraderie with people. I never felt that with Catholicism.”
Being a Jew, Wallace said, is what “feels right. It feels normal. And it feels like coming home.”