Kimia Sun was born a refugee.
Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.
When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”
At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”
Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.
Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said.
Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion.
“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.”
For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”
Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English.
Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”
The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said. “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”
Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”
Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”