By: Jillian/Yosefa Gross
I was born and raised in a Philadelphia, PA suburb, where you were either Jewish, Catholic or plain gentile. I was one of three children who went to public school Mondays through Fridays, Hebrew School on Sunday mornings, as well as on Monday and Wednesday nights at our local “Conservadox/Traditional” synagogue, and I loved it. This was where I learned about my Jewish history, how to daven, and how to live as a Jew. Being that my Hebrew teacher taught everyone in the school, we all learned to pray the same, and we all thought everyone around the world prayed as our synagogue did. It was not until years later when I visited a Shiva home, that I learned the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic praying, as I was taught Sephardic and that is how the families in our synagogue had prayed.
As I grew older, there was a fire in my soul to learn more and to be something more, especially when I attended my first and only NCSY Shabbaton. Something about the lifestyle and shutting the world out for 25 whole hours a week, put me at peace and gave me a new happiness that I could not put my finger on. We prayed, ate, sang, danced, learned, and I floated home in a bubble of bliss. This bubble did not last very long, as it burst when I walked through the door of my parents’ home wearing a long skirt and a long sleeve shirt. My parents told me that they did not approve of an observant lifestyle in any way. No help. No support. I cried, begged, and pleaded, for I felt that the fire in my soul refused to dwindle and turn to embers. I wept for my mother’s childhood, as I remember her telling me how she herself was raised in an Orthodox home. At the immature age of twelve, I felt as though she had betrayed her faith. Life went back to normal for the next six years…well as normal as any Jewish teenager in a public Philadelphia High School. After all I was also the artsy type, not very popular if you catch my drift.
When I was eighteen, I graduated high school and I decided that I would go to college all the way in Nashville, TN. It was me starting my life over and getting the chance to be popular in a state where nobody knew me or my helicopter parents. Two weeks into the semester, I met my soul mate. He was 5”11 in height, with a high and tight Marine Corps haircut. He was shy, and alone, just like me. We were introduced by a mutual friend and we became best friends. I instantly fell in love. The year ended and we parted ways to be back at home for summer holidays. He told me that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that he thought of nobody but me all summer. He then asked me to be his girlfriend. My heart leaped and I immediately told him yes! Two months later, on October 15, 1999, he asked me to marry him. He said to me that he had dreamt of me since he was nine years old, but his heart had forgotten that dream until I came along. On October 15, 2005, I became his wife. We got married under a Chuppah, with an interfaith wedding Rabbi officiating. To fully grasp our dynamic and special relationship, I need to backtrack a little bit.
During the six years that we were engaged, we fought through many challenges including but not limited to; him being raised in the Lutheran Church (and trying to “save my soul” LOL), being in the Marine Corps and deployed (my father made him promise to wait until he was done before marrying me for personal family reasons), alcoholism (now he is over 10 years sober), physical abuse (he was abusive for the first year that we dated; however, we went to therapy and Thank G-d he has not been violent in over 9 years), self-mutilation due to depression (he has not cut himself in 5 years), his family not liking me originally because I was not a Christian, and some other “minor” issues. But on our wedding day, I stood under the Chuppah with my Marine in full uniform, I took my vows seriously, and drank from the Kiddush cup of my maternal grandmother – which was passed to my mother and that I will pass on to my children for theirs in the future, G-d willing. I carried my mother’s white leather bound Torah and married the man of my dreams. Eighteen months later my company transferred me to Nashville, TN, back to where we met. Ironical? I think not! And thus, we began our spiritual journey.
I found a Conservative synagogue that would welcome me for being married to a non-Jew even though I am a Bat Kohen and started attending there. At this time, I had no what Chabad was, or even that there was a Chabad House that started in Nashville a year into my college education, years before. My husband joined a church and we were happy… at least we thought. We had been back in Nashville for three years when my husband starting attending a “Bible Study” with some male church friends and he kept coming home with questions that he could not find sufficient answers to. By this time we were occasionally attending Chabad events, as I had found them through some type of online search. When we attended a Friday night service and dinner, a change occurred in my husband. As to how and why, you would have to ask him. My husband was working nights at this point and went to work that Friday night. He came home Saturday morning and he did not go directly to sleep. Instead, he went back to the synagogue for services, came home and read his Bible cover to cover, and only then did he take a nap because he had to. He returned to work that night, came home Sunday morning and DID NOT go to church. Instead he said to me that he no longer believed in the religion of his childhood and family, and that he knew in the bottom of his soul that Judaism was right for him. He asked me if I would help him find a Rabbi that would convert him.
My parents had their Orthodox Rabbi, who was a pulpit in their Conservative congregation, call my husband. They spoke for a very long time and the next time we visited my family, they met and agreed to perform the conversion. Due to distance, however, it was advised that it would be easier to find someone in Nashville. This was easier said than done. My husband asked the Rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue of Nashville, if he would perform his conversion and the Rabbi accepted, based on what he had already learned on his own. At this point, my husband had taught himself Hebrew and he was able daven in Hebrew, as well as effectively being able to follow the Torah portion in his stone Chumash. He also knew many of the laws of Kashrut; however, we would have to move to a very expensive part of town to become Shomer Shabbat and we could not afford that. He then went to the Chabad Rabbi and asked for a referral to a Rabbi that would do it, as after attending Chabad Nashville for over two years, the Rabbi was very familiar with us and loved us. My husband was told to have a private meeting with the Rabbi the very next day, and so he went. As my husband reminisced, he described it to me – how walking through the door was like walking on air, and after talking to the Rabbi for about an hour, he said that not only would he refer him to a Beit Din, but that he would also vouch for my husband the whole way! He said that a Jewish soul is a Jewish soul no matter what it is born into and it sounded like he was just born into the wrong body this lifetime. Later he we would learn through a class, that it may not have been the wrong body, but a soul with more T’Shuava completed in this lifetime.
During this transition, the fire in my belly burned again and I made the decision that this time, because I was now a married adult, I would not let anything stand in my way to becoming the “Orthodox Jew” that I felt I was born to be. Feeling this strong passion for a destiny that I thought was mine, did not make the process any easier. The first issue that we battled through was when we were becoming Shomer Shabbat. Being that we were not officially considered Shomer Shabbat, as we have not yet moved to a home with walking distance from the Shul, we would stay with different friends of ours so that we could attend Shul. When we stayed at home, we would try to keep Shabbat to the best of our ability. It was during this challenge that I learned two valuable lessons in my life. The first was how to ask friends for the favor of letting us stay with them on Shabbat, which at first, I felt awkward doing so. The second was how to stand up for my marriage. It had not occurred to me that in Orthodox Judaism, my Ketubah was not Halachically recognized because my husband was not Jewish at the time we married. It brought on some hurt feelings when it was brought to my attention, thus for sleeping arrangements, we were placed separate in some homes. However, in the long run, it made our marriage and our friendship with each other stronger. While it also challenged some of those other friendships, it made them stronger in ways as well.
Now we live in our townhome .2 miles from our synagogue and have a little (ok tiny, but who cares?) kosher kitchen and we are happy! The only thing that would make it more perfect is if my family was more supportive.
My parents and siblings were happy and proud with the original announcement that my husband, whom they adore, was converting to Judaism. However, when I announced that it would be an Orthodox conversion and that I was becoming more observant as well, the happiness ended and the disappointment poured in. My mother again said that she did not support it because she was raised in Orthodox Judaism and she did not like it, as she felt that “it is a very narrow minded and secluded way to live”. My father felt that many of the commandments that the Orthodox practices today are not only no longer necessary, but also financially strapping. Thus, he said that it is shunned by society and resulting in the seclusion of Judaism in the secular world, and forces Jews to live in their Shtetl. When I announced to my parents that I would no longer be answering my cell phone to them on Shabbat, as they were the only call I took and I did drive, shop or even leave my home when I was home with them on Shabbat, they were disappointed and asked how would they get in touch with me if there was an emergency? I explained to them that even if there was an emergency on Shabbat (1,000 miles away), I would not be able to do anything anyway until I got there. The disappointment lasted for a little while but I am happy to relay that as I write now, things have gotten significantly better. My mother and I have an agreement that if I leave the cell phone plugged in and on, she will not call and she has kept her word. She even helped me when it was time to replace my kitchen items by reminding me that I had to get rid of all my glass that had been heated at any time, including all my Tupperware, etc. I think that while they may not agree, like or even support our choice, they have definitely gotten to a place of respect and that is enough for me so far. While this may be the case, it is still hard because no matter the age, we all want to make our parents happy.
It was not any easier with my husband’s parents, as they show that they do not truly understand what it means to convert. I believe that his father knows and understands, as he is very worldly and has made some comments in the past that show some level of understanding, but I think his mother may honestly be in some sort of denial (not like the river in Egypt LOL). When he told her that he was converting to Judaism, she told him to make sure that with everything he learns, he should still “read his Bible.” Over some years, things have gotten a little easier with them, and they now understand some things about keeping Kosher. We are now embracing the challenge of how to address the fact they cannot bring food that they made at their house into our home. Wish us luck and give us Blessings!
An inspiring, divine providence tale: a friend of my husband’s from college, whom we have not seen in over seven years, had found us on Facebook about a year ago and has been following our journey. She is the mother of somebody that we went to college with and she is Native American. Well, over the past few months, she has studied and has become very familiar with laws of Kashrut. Last week, she privately messaged me with an amazing offer, and a true blessing. Around two years ago, she bought her new house and she was going to renovate the kitchen. She purchased some countertop appliances and never ended up using two of them, and they were sitting in her garage untouched and unopened. She saw my Facebook posts and she offered me a new toaster oven, a new roaster, and other goodies for my new kitchen. As she was unable to get them to me, I was welcome to them free of charge if I would just come get them and stay for a visit. I immediately jumped at this amazing opportunity. Hashem really has his way of providing for my mitzvah! We went over to her one Sunday evening, for a four hour visit. It was wonderful. She believes in and supports what we are doing. She was full of nothing but love for us, just as we remembered her! She even joked with my husband and told him that moving onward, she would happily eat all of his pork chops and shell fish. When I came home and opened the toaster oven to remove the insides to be Toiveled, I was amazed! This thing was huge!! It can bake two 12 inch pizzas or roast meat on a rotation, like a rotisserie. Well, being that we now keep Kosher, it has become my new dairy oven.
Well, this is our journey thus far! I would be honored to share more with you – my wonderful, balaboostas women!
Photo by Rivka Bauman Photography and Other