After years of wandering in a theological desert, Barbara Johnson finally feels like she’s found a permanent spiritual home.
Raised Anglican by English-born parents, the British Columbia native sampled several other faith traditions before her recent conversion to Judaism, marked last June at Congregation Etz Chayim.
"I tried different churches within the Christian faith, wandered around with the Baha’i for a year. I never felt settled," Johnson, 48, says of her long quest for a new theological home.
Johnson is one of half a dozen or so adult converts to Judaism at the North End synagogue each year, says Rabbi Larry Lander, who will lead conversion preparation classes beginning in September. Open to potential converts and their significant others, the 90-minute classes in the Conservative Judaism tradition run weekly until June.
Lander says most Jews by choice fall into two categories: people such as Johnson who have been drawn to Judaism in mid-life and younger ones who are marrying someone already in the faith.
"Maybe a grandparent was Jewish and they remember their grandparent, or they remember doing something Jewish and they want to convert 20, 30 years later," he says of some reasons for becoming a Jew by choice.
Anyone who is born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew, as are people who have gone through a formal conversion process.
The course includes an overview of Jewish beliefs and theology, Jewish life and holidays, the history of anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Holocaust, and enough Hebrew language lessons to follow the prayer book, Lander says.
In addition to the formal study, a potential convert must attend services weekly; meet with a tribunal of three rabbis; then go through the ritual immersion, call a mikveh. Men who are not circumcised must undergo that procedure while circumcised men submit to a ritual pin prick to symbolize their conversion.
Throughout the course and conversion process, Lander is available for discussion and questions.
"I’m their Jewish personal trainer and I put them through their paces," Lander says of the wide-ranging study of Judaism and Jewish life and history. "Once we have established the theoretical groundwork, we put it in practice."
Lander says he encourages potential converts to take up Jewish practices gradually and at their own comfort level. He encourages Jews by choice to "do as much as they can" when it comes to Jewish traditions, but says there are some non-negotiable issues.
"There’s a few things they’re going to have to give up. For instance of you are Jewish you won’t be able to have a Christmas tree and Christmas lights in your home again," he says of what he calls a "litmus test" for converts. "You have to come to service and there will be no Christmas in your house."
For Kirsten, a recent convert in her mid-20s, taking up Jewish traditions was one of the benefits of becoming Jewish.
"There’s so many beautiful traditions that follow with it, for example Shabbat (Sabbath) and visiting with family," says the elementary school teacher who didn’t want her last name used.
Engaged to a Jewish man, Kirsten says she was attracted to Judaism at a young age and her parents encouraged her to make her own choice about religion in adulthood.
Johnson has adopted several rituals into her life, such as attending synagogue, lighting candles and making her own challah, a special braided bread, for Sabbath and holiday dinners.
The mother of three young adults invites her sons’ friends for the Friday night meal, but doesn’t keep kosher since she doesn’t expect her children to follow Jewish rituals involving food.
"The boys have been really supportive throughout the conversion process," says Johnson, a lawyer by profession now recovering at home from a car accident. "They’ve attended synagogue with me and they participated in holy day celebrations."
Lander says converts must be mindful of the impact their decision might have on other family members.
He emphasizes that recent converts must balance enthusiasm for their faith with respect for differing beliefs within the family.
"How do you make them feel included and not rejected? We talk very much about keeping that respect and the lines of communication open."
Not only do family members have to feel comfortable with the decision but the converts themselves should realize that it can take years to feel completely at home in their new faith, he says.
"You’re taking something so big and you’re putting it on you and it takes a long time."
Johnson says she is finding a place in the life and community of the synagogue but she’s aware she has much more to learn about the theology and traditions of one of the world’s oldest religions.
"It was a very interesting process for me," says Johnson, who moved to Winnipeg a decade ago to study law.
"Although I completed my conversion process, I feel like it’s an ongoing process for my entire life. I learn something new every day. There’s so much to know."