Life Sketches: The Convert at Kol Nidre

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Life Sketches: The Convert at Kol Nidre

by Zushe Greenberg - Solon, Ohio

December 5, 2016

It was 1991, our first year in Solon, and a week before our model Passover Seder when a woman in a local supermarket approached me. She introduced herself as Connie and told me she was studying the Book of Exodus at her church in Hudson. She was very interested in seeing how the “Chosen People" celebrate and commemorate the Exodus, she said.

I invited her to our model Seder at the Chabad Jewish Center of Solon. When the model Seder was about to begin, Connie walked in with a friend from her Bible class.

The evening began with a havdala service, marking the end of the Shabbat, and I was surprised to see that Connie’s friend, Pam, seemed vaguely familiar with the service.

During the Seder, Pam made educated comments about various traditions. She knew the reasons we eat matzah on Passover, the significance of the bitter herbs, and she even seemed to recognize the taste of charoset.

I wondered how such a traditional Christian was so informed about Judaism. When we took a break during the Seder she asked me, "What is your background, Rabbi?"

I explained to her that I grew up in Israel but my parents immigrated from Russia when I was an infant.

"Oh, my parents are also from the Soviet Union," the 40-year-old woman said.

"From Russia?" I wondered aloud.

"Yes," she replied. "And actually, they were Jewish too!"

Seeing my surprised look, she explained that she grew up in Los Angeles, with Jewish parents but a very limited Jewish education and hardly any Jewish participation. She recalled attending services periodically for Shabbat and holidays.

As a teenager her hunger for spiritual meaning was not satisfied by her local rabbi. Through friends she became involved in a nearby church, and before long she decided to convert to Christianity.

"This is the first Jewish event that I’ve attended in twenty years," she said.

Now it was my turn to surprise her. "According to Jewish law, you are still Jewish," I told her. "Once a Jew, always a Jew. All the conversions in the world cannot extinguish your Jewish soul."

We spent a lot of the evening discussing Judaism and then we proceeded with the Seder. Upon reaching the afikoman, Pam was moved to tears.

Before she left I offered to put her on our mailing list.

Six months passed. It was Yom Kippur eve. The room was filled with solemn worshipers. Kol Nidre was about to begin. I noticed Pam come through our door and take a seat.

Later she apologized for not telling us that she was coming. She had been tossing the idea back and forth for weeks. At the last minute, she couldn't stay away. "Of all the prayers and Jewish ceremonies" she said, "the Kol Nidre melody has been haunting me all these years." She just had to hear it once again.

She also asked my wife if she had time to teach her Hebrew. They set up a weekly lesson.

But soon her husband (who was not Jewish) was transferred and the family moved away. We tried to keep in contact with her, but that only worked for a while. Three years passed.

The third time she came into our lives was through a telephone call. Pam was living in Rochester, New York, and she wondered if we could hook her up with the local Chabad rabbi because, it seemed her daughter was showing interest in learning Hebrew.

It’s been 20 years and we haven’t heard from her since. No matter, I am grateful for each of our encounters which reminded me of the enduring power of the Jewish soul.

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