Rico Collins, 39, was raised Southern Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., but could never relate to the messages he heard in church as a boy. “It’s very fire and brimstone,” he said. “I didn’t like it.”
Collins said he didn’t fit in with the other kids at church and felt alienated because he was gay. “In the ’80s, there was a huge anti-gay movement, and at almost every sermon they were bashing” homosexuality, he said. “I found it to be so negative. I knew I was gay at a young age and that this wasn’t for me.”
Collins turned away from religion. “I always had my relationship with God,” he said. “I guess you can call it Ricoism, but I knew organized religion wasn’t for me. I thought that [religious people] needed rules, and they needed someone to tell them what to do, because they wouldn’t do the right thing on their own. I abandoned it.”
In 1991, Collins, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles, and six years after that, he started dating Mark Goodman, who at the time was working as an actor and singer. Then, as Goodman went on to become a cantor and then rabbi at Valley Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sun Valley, Collins would attend synagogue with Goodman. Yet, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they were partners: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t put his reputation or job in jeopardy,” Collins said. “There were only a few people who knew who I was in reality, but it was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
All that changed in 2006, when the Conservative movement declared that gay people could serve as rabbis and that it would be up to individual synagogues to decide whether to approve gay unions.
That same summer, Goodman convinced Collins to check out Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s conversion program, which at the time was based at American Jewish University. Despite Collins’ resistance to religion, he went along with the idea, enrolled in the class, and began to study Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish rituals. Over months of study every Sunday, he began to feel at home with Judaism.
“I saw that it was something I really could be a part of,” Collins said. “It was something that was in me all along, and my resistance was just because I knew better. I knew better than what they were telling me in church.”
Following the class requirements, Collins began to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Because he was already a vegetarian, keeping kosher wasn’t too hard. “I was used to having restrictions on what I eat, so it was not that difficult a transition,” he said. “The thing that was hardest was Shabbat. I like to run, bike, lift weights and play on the computer on Saturdays. These are all the things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat. It is a constant struggle.”
Collins completed the program quickly, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to go before the beit din (rabbinical court) to complete his conversion, where he had to pass a written and oral Hebrew test. He said recently that he “aced it” and that, in the end, converting was “one of the most positive experiences of my life. There is an academic aspect to being Jewish. You have to know your stuff.”
Although he felt welcomed at Valley Beth Israel, Collins said that some of his own relatives were not so accepting. “I had some born-again Christians in my family. You have to be strong when you deal with them. … I was told I would go to hell, in a polite way.”
Collins’ immediate family, however, were fully accepting. “My mom and grandma were so happy I chose any religion,” he said.
Collins and Goodman have adopted three sons together, all of them now in their late teens. Two of the boys converted when they were children and now go to Hebrew school on Sundays.
The family, who live in Burbank, are proud Jews. “I tell other people about it because they’re so curious, especially in Southern California. When you tell someone you’re Jewish, it starts a conversation,” Collins said.
Through conversion, Collins said, he discovered his true identity. “I appreciate the fact that Mark led me to this point. I had to think about our relationship, and if he wasn’t in my life, would I still want do this? I think that’s why I hit the accelerator and went full throttle. I wanted to do it, regardless. This is who I am.”