When Donna Levine told her mother she had converted, the response was that she would burn in hell. A friend encouraged Levine to join Jews for Jesus. She had to explain to this friend that, unfortunately, that wouldn’t work.
“I told her that if you are really serious about being Jewish, that you can’t belong to Jews for Jesus,” Levine said. “I told her I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that anyway.”
Levine, who converted through the Conservative movement in August 2000, was born in Kansas and raised in Florida. Judaism, for her, was completely different than being a Baptist, as she experienced it growing up. “You were not supposed to ask questions. When I was in Sunday school, I would get into trouble for questioning things. That was something I really liked about Judaism. Not only are you allowed to ask questions, but also you are encouraged to ask questions.”
Now 58, Levine lives in Arleta, north of Los Angeles. She has lived in Los Angeles for 37 years and managed dental offices for 30 of them. She attends Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, and now spends her time working on projects around the house and looking for employment.
Levine first became interested in the religion when she attended the bat mitzvah of a former employer’s daughter. She then met her future husband (now former), who was Jewish, and that gave her the push to decide to convert. She went to services with Rabbi David Vorspan of Shir Ami, and started taking classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). “Rabbi Vorspan let me know that if I needed any help or had questions or anything, that he was available for me,” she said. “I felt really comfortable with him, and he was so sweet. He didn’t know me, and yet he volunteered to help me out, and I thought that was really great.”
Levine began her conversion studies in March 2000, and decided to take the Conservative route because she thought that Reform Judaism was too relaxed and Orthodox too strict.
Attending the weekly classes was not the only aspect of Levine’s conversion process. She had to learn how to read Hebrew and to keep kosher, which she found especially difficult when going out to eat at restaurants. At the end of the five-month learning period, she was required to take a test and translate sentences from a prayer book from Hebrew into English. “I was very nervous about it,” she said. “Hebrew is not an easy language to learn.”
On the day of her meeting with the beit din, she received a certificate. Though she had been nervous about going before the rabbis, having Rabbi Vorspan there made her feel more comfortable. After she came out of her immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), she said, she “jumped into synagogue life with both feet,” attending meetings, helping to plan for the holidays, sending out letters and membership packets and serving as the synagogue board’s vice president and, finally, its president, from 2006 to 2008.
Although Levine’s mother wasn’t accepting of her daughter’s new religion, Levine said she learned not to bring up the subject with her. She also got support from a Catholic friend, and from her own son, who was 23 at the time she converted. “He said whatever made me happy was fine with him.”
By now, Levine has been a Jew for almost 13 years. She said that every day she celebrates her religion by “trying to treat everyone the way that I would want to be treated. That’s one of the main lessons of Judaism: Do you treat others as you would want to be treated?” And, she said, “I try to be active in my community as far as doing good work.”
Judaism has given Levine value that she never found in her former religion, as well as a whole congregation full of new friends. “I feel more spiritual and comfortable in my religion than when I was a Baptist. I love my synagogue and the people there. It’s like my other family.”
She added, “I feel like converting was the best decision of my life.”