Throughout his conversion process, Michael Pershes claims he was an “obsessive superstar Jew.” The 42-year-old real estate developer and fashion designer studied Torah and the laws of kashrut, learned modern Hebrew at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, volunteered for the first time at Jewish Family Service, wrote monthly essays, celebrated Shabbat every week and joined his synagogue’s choir in the two-and-a-half years it took him to convert.
Three years ago, Pershes’ dog, Ellie, was getting old. He was trying to cope with the fact that his beloved pet was going to die, which brought up memories of his sister, whom he had lost at age 16 to cystic fibrosis. Growing up Catholic, he said, there was no way to get out of the mourning process for her. “I didn’t know where to go. All I knew is the religion I grew up with didn’t work for me, and I needed a deeper connection with my life. I was floating around in the universe with no connection to anything.”
While Pershes’ sister was alive and dealing with her illness, their mom brought in different religious leaders to try to find a cure for her. “It was like a spiritual quest in the house,” he said. “My mom would do anything to find a cure for my sister, and at any given time in my youth, you may have found a rabbi, a priest and a swami in my home.”
Years later, Pershes found he was taking a cue from his mom in trying to figure out where he belongs in terms of religious practice. Through his research, he found Judaism. He started attending classes with Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism course, then studied with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “I just kept trying to learn as much as I could and engage in Judaism as much as possible,” he said. “I never felt lost, but I always felt like I needed more information. One question always led to another. I have never been so engaged and so comfortable as I have been studying Judaism.”
Pershes, who is gay, chose to become a Reform Jew because of the movement’s liberalism and attitude toward homosexuality. He also felt at home at Temple Israel, he said, and valued that he could follow along with the services. “I felt comfortable with my partner [at synagogue],” he said. “It was a nice experience to feel so welcome and embraced. I never experienced that with religion. No one [at Temple Israel has] ever made us feel uncomfortable or looked at us differently.”
Pershes and his husband, Clifford (who shares the same last name), live in Silver Lake and have been together for 19 years. Clifford also happens to be Jewish, but Pershes said before he began his own pursuit, he never experienced much of his partner’s culture and religion. “In all that time, we went to three seder dinners in Boca [Raton, Fla.], and that was it. He did not sign up for this. This is not the person he got together with. But he has embraced it. In a weird way, he’s remembering all these things from when he was a kid, like Shabbat and his bar mitzvah. Now he’s experiencing Judaism without all the baggage.”
When Pershes decided to convert, it strengthened the relationship between him and Clifford’s family. “They were ecstatic,” he said. “After I started the process, I got the ‘I love you’s’ on the phone.”
Although Pershes’ mother had a tough time at first, by the time the process was completed, she had accepted her son’s conversion. His father was supportive from the start, downloading the Jewish calendar onto his phone to keep up.
Pershes stepped into the mikveh in November 2011 and said he felt truly like he was being reborn when he emerged from the water. “There is an educational and spiritual process and building up of this foundation all for this moment,” he said. “When I came out of it, I felt like it was a new beginning for me. It really felt new. When that cold water comes out of the little spout, it has this kind of spiritual connotation to it, and it really transforms you. I felt different from that moment I got out. I felt like a Jew.”
Next May, Pershes will become a bar mitzvah, which he is planning and preparing for now. He and Clifford are also in the process of adopting a child. And even though his partner didn’t “sign up” for a Jewish mate, Pershes said it has brought them closer together. Every week, they observe Shabbat and they continue to attend services at their spiritual home, Temple Israel. “I made a promise when I converted to continue to study and engage [with] Judaism,” he said. “I love the process of learning and challenging myself. I think it’s important for me to create my own Jewish history since I do not have a memory bank filled with Jewish moments. I am so happy to have found Judaism and cannot wait to see what is next for me.”
Pershes said what he values most about Judaism is “the sense of questioning. It’s so liberating and free not to have answers. Growing up Catholic, that was all there was. Judaism allows you to keep asking and growing instead of feeling like stopping. It means always moving forward and evolving, and I love the sense that it evolves with community instead of being stagnant. It’s really lovely.
“I also love the food. C’mon. I can’t be Jewish without saying the food.”