Rewards, Challenges Of Converting To Judaism

Jennifer Hanin grew up Catholic, but a few years ago, she replaced her Christmas tree, lights, ornaments and fake snowman with a Menorah and shabbat candles. She's the co-author of the new book Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion. She talks with Michel Martin about her conversion, particularly as the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur comes at sundown today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today at sundown marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and reflection. It's one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar and, as such, is a time when many people who are not especially connected to their faith traditions the rest of the year may find it important to reconnect. And it can also be a time when nonbelievers find themselves yearning for whatever it is that a faith foundation can provide. They may find themselves thinking about converting.

Jennifer Hanin converted to Judaism three years ago. And while going through that process, she found herself longing for a guide that would help her wade through the history, beliefs and traditions connected to her new faith. That's why she paired up with Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben to write the new book, "Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards and Path to Conversion." And Jennifer Hanin joins us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JENNIFER HANIN: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that your husband is Jewish by birth and you have two children together, but you weren't practicing. He wasn't practicing. And there was something about a visit to a synagogue. Tell me about it.

HANIN: You know, we would practice - when I say faith, it was really more of light the Menorah, have a Christmas tree, that sort of kind of joint thing, but we weren't actually going anywhere to practice. But the mother of another child who was Jewish invited us to her synagogue for a puppet show. But we actually went to the wrong synagogue. We went to a totally different one that was on a different street, but we loved it so much that we came every Shabbat, every Friday. I wasn't quite Jewish yet. But within a matter of weeks, I knew that's what I wanted to be.

MARTIN: What was it, you think, that grabbed a hold of you and wouldn't let go?

HANIN: I think it was the joy. I mean, these were people, congregants that were celebrating joy and the joy of being Jewish, the joy of loving God. They were very excited about it. They were very warm about it, very friendly to us. And I think that it just kind of got wrapped up in that.

As a child, I kind of searched a little bit for religion. I grew up Catholic, but I went to other friends' services, as well, so there was always that part of me that was sort of searching for something that was missing.

MARTIN: Now, it sounds to me that you and your husband were both on the same page about your decision to embrace the faith, in his case, the faith to which he was born, but was not really practicing, and for you to convert. How did the kids react to it? So no more Christmas tree?

HANIN: Yeah. No more Christmas tree, no more 12-foot snowman in the front yard. I mean, we actually lived near a rabbi who went to the synagogue we did and he would say, well, aren't you the one that had the 12-foot snowman in your yard and the, you know, Christmas lights? I mean, we had all of it right before I decided to convert, but they understand. They dealt with it, I guess. I guess they were so young, too, at three.

MARTIN: For this week's Faith Matters, we're speaking with author, Jennifer Hanin. She converted to Judaism three years ago and she has a new book about the experience. It's also a guide, really, for others who are contemplating or going through the experience of conversion to Judaism. It's called "Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards and Path to Conversion."

Speaking of challenges, you devote a whole chapter to telling your family and working with your family through this. Do others with whom you spoke encounter resistance, tears? And tell us about some of the ways that you discovered to work through that.

HANIN: Sure. Well, Rabbi Reuben and I both believe that it is something that a lot of converts go through, especially if you're used to celebrating, whether it's Christmas for Christians or Eid for Muslims. And definitely, I talked to one person who I wanted to interview who - she used to be a Muslim and she would not let me interview her because she had family back in her predominantly Muslim native country and she felt like they would meet reprisals, so she had to say no.

But I talked to another person who - an in-law asked, what can I help you with for Hanukkah? This person said, well, you can - how about if you wrapped presents in blue and white for our family? And she ended up wrapping it in Christmas paper and bringing it over and then giving a book that was about the best Christmas ever. So, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So not very supportive there.

HANIN: Yeah. You do get that.

MARTIN: Well, we're making light of it because, you know, some of that is, like, people being, you know, people. But there are those who I'm sure for whom there are painful risks. There are people who, frankly, will perhaps believe that, you know, the loved one is going to hell or something of that sort. For people who are encountering that level of pain and dissention within the family, do you have any advice?

HANIN: Well, I would say always tell your family member or your friend, whoever it is, in a neutral place. You don't want to tell them at a party or something where there might be some emotions. Tell them in a neutral place, and then let them see gradually that you're committed to this new faith. I mean, let them know you're going to synagogue. Let them know that you're practicing the holidays and invite them. There's nothing wrong with inviting them to synagogue, inviting them to a holiday celebration.

But the more they're involved and the more they realize that you're not disowning them or you're not dissing the religion you grew up with, that you just somehow grew apart from that or, you know, your childhood beliefs aren't the same now that you're an adult.

MARTIN: What about those who feel that they are being rejected? You can see where someone might feel that they are being rejected. How do you answer that?

HANIN: You try to let them know you still love them and that your choice has nothing to do with not loving them or not appreciating the values and the lessons that you learned. I think a lot of times, parents might think, wow, I can't take my grandkid to an Easter egg hunt or I can't take my grandkid to a Christmas party or teach them about those things. And so, they may feel like, I'm a third wheel or I'm left out.

And I think the basic thing that you have to get across is that you're not left out. We did make this choice and we want you to support us on it. We will definitely still come to your holidays and your celebrations. We want to be part of that. But at the same time, we'd like you to, you know, hopefully reciprocate, but not necessarily feel like you have to...

MARTIN: Convert with us.

HANIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, we've talked a lot about the challenges. What about the rewards? Tell us briefly, if you would, what has been the most rewarding part of your conversion experience of your decision to embrace Judaism?

HANIN: I think, honestly, it's knowing that I feel closer to God and there's no middle man. I used to feel that way, especially in my religion growing up, is that I had to go through a priest. I had to go to confession. I had to talk to somebody else about how I felt towards God or what I wanted to say to God and now I do it straight to God.

And also, the cultural aspect. I mean, there is a real warmth and a real celebration of faith. I talked to one convert that said he felt like a lot of people mourn their faith. You go to the - whether it's a church or it's mass or whatever it is and it seems sad. It seems like you're mourning. But in synagogue, it seems like a celebration. You feel happy.

MARTIN: Jennifer Hanin is the co-author, along with Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, of the new book, "Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards and Path to Conversion." She joined us from the studios of the campus of U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us. And, of course, we wish you a meaningful Yom Kippur.

HANIN: Thank you so much.

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