Falling in love with a Jewish man was Erica Hooper’s introduction to Judaism, but the religion’s ideals were ultimately what made her want to embrace it for life.
Hooper, 30, grew up in East Los Angeles in a Catholic home. She attended Catholic school and considered herself religious — that is, until she went to college.
“There was this disconnect between things I learned in high school and the questions I asked as I got older,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting answers to certain things, and it made me feel disconnected from the religion.”
In 2007, she met and started dating Robert Mahgerefteh, 31, an Iranian-American Jew. Four years into their courtship, they got engaged and started to talk about the future. Although Hooper hadn’t considered conversion before, she and her fiancé were beginning to think about what their family dynamic would look like.
“That was really the first time we even started talking about conversion,” the Long Beach resident said. “I decided to give it a try and see what we thought. I ended up loving it, so it worked out.”
After researching various options, Hooper decided to enroll in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program, which is recognized under the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. When she stepped into that initial class one Sunday morning in the winter of 2012, she felt at home.
“I liked what Neal said, which was that you’re not converting someone to something that you want him or her to believe,” she said. “You can talk about it, but it’s more about whether or not it resonates with a person when he or she hears it.”
Hooper began to discover through the lessons that her beliefs were aligned with those found in Judaism.
“I remember saying that I wanted my funeral to be very simple,” she said. “I wanted to be wrapped in white cloth and buried in the ground. My family said I was crazy. Catholics have a fancy casket and get embalmed. I was sitting in that class and the rabbi started talking about the way Jews think about the approach to death and how you don’t put the body on display. I got chills because that was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about before.”
At that point, she knew she had made the right decision to take the class.
“I said, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’ ” she said.
The more she learned, the more Hooper realized her beliefs were aligned with the ideals behind Judaism. She especially enjoyed learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world), since she works at S. Groner Associates, a social and environmental marketing company that helps foster positive environmental change.
“The focus [in Judaism] is what are you are doing now in the present moment to be a better person,” she said. “It’s about trying to make this a better place for the people around you.”
Although she began to feel more a part of the Jewish religion, there were some who were not very accepting, she said.
“I would tell some Jews that I was converting, and they’d ask why. The religion I came from before was about trying to actively get people to join them. It was come one, come all. I liked that very welcoming spirit to it. Going to Judaism by Choice was very welcoming, but as a whole it felt more like I had to work my way into becoming Jewish. Some people said that if I convert, I’m not really Jewish.”
Fortunately, Mahgerefteh’s family was accepting, as was her own.
“They said they trusted that I was going to do what was best for me,” she said.
In November 2012, Hooper made it official. She converted at the mikveh at American Jewish University, and then married Mahgerefteh in February. Both partners have taken an active role in their religion by partaking in fast days, joining Leo Baeck Temple and keeping a kosher home. Hooper said that celebrating Shabbat every week has added another layer to the couple’s relationship.
“When we do Shabbat on Fridays, we bless each other,” she said. “The rabbi told us the traditions that he and his wife do. They tell each other one of the things they appreciate about each other. That’s what we do. Even if we get into a spat beforehand, it’s Shabbat and it’s time to bless and tell each other what’s great about one another. You follow the rituals, and they bring you closer.”
Whenever Hooper participates in the holidays or goes through Jewish rituals, she knows that she is a small part of a bigger history, people and tradition.
“It goes back through generations all the way from Moses to the slaves in Egypt,” she said. “I am now one little thread in the huge fabric that’s Judaism. It feels special to be connected to something bigger than yourself.”