Ashirah Yosefah
Ashirah Yosefah Courtesy

Conversion to Judaism is a unique story for all who go through the process. Experience varies from country to country and person to person. It might be different also depending on the background: atheist or religious; black or white; rich or poor. The variety is one of the primary reasons that Ashirah Yosefah coauthored her new book with Michaela Lawson, Spark Ignited: The Difficult Journey to Orthodox Judaism: The Process & The Perils.

"My Rabbi in Canada asked me, ’Why didn’t you tell the whole story?’ At some point you decide ‘I don’t need to air that' because it’s not an easy journey. I keep saying when I mentor conversion candidates, 'This will literally cost you a lot and you don't know how that’s going to affect you.' You have to be willing to let go of material things, relationships, friendships and family in some cases.”

While there is a lot of respect for individual choice as it goes for religion in Western countries today, deep divisions might still be sown within families or from the convert's former religious community.

“My family is a bit of a paradox. My family was not religious and I never knew my mother and father to go to church. As a little girl I had this sort of yearning to get to know who God is. As a 4 or 5-year-old girl I would either go with neighbors to the nearby Baptist church or I would walk myself along the train tracks. I became involved in Baptist youth groups yet it was sort of on again off again relationship."

But Ashirah never got caught up in it. Even in high school in the early 1970s, she says, the spiritual movements of the time did not speak to her.

"There was this whole Hebrew roots thing going on. I was asking thing like 'What about the Jews? What about Israel?'"

That inquisitiveness got her kicked out of three different churches, she tells Arutz Sheva.

"Suddenly, in 1996 this whole Jewish world became accessible thanks to the web. Hashem led me to connect with the Rabbi of the community.”

"The internet provides an opportunity to make a tikkun [amends] and work on the good and evil inclinations."

Yosefah speaks of being the marketing director for her region of the New Brunswick province, where she wrote feature pieces in the local papers about events and communities across the province.

“I really wanted to write something about Hanukkah. I didn't want to publish something though until I had the Rabbi read it."

She refers to Rabbi David Spiro who ran the Synagogue in Frederickton, New Brunswick for 55 years.

"All of the sudden in the months that followed we couldn't stop running into each other. He never ever pushed me to convert; he just answered my questions. Before Shabbat each week, I would read Chumash (Torah). We'd discuss the Parshah (weekly portion) every Thursday." "I see where you're coming from but have you ever looked at this way," she paraphrases the Rabbi as saying.

She became interested in a number of revolutionary religious movements – the Noahide movement, groups trying to trace themselves to the Lost Tribes, or the Hebrew roots movement where Christians took a more introspective look at the Jewish origins of their own religious beliefs.

“I got involved in the Lost Tribes movement and rose up the ranks becoming one of their teachers. It was a process of getting rid of the baggage. If you're sincere, all the sudden Hashem starts showing you different perspectives on things. Sometime around 2001 or 2002, I jettisoned the rest of the Jesus baggage. From that time he was demoted from God to a man but still the messiah, then down to charismatic teacher, to the point I wasn't even sure this man existed. And if he had, he would probably be a composite of a number of different people who might be aghast by what people are teaching about him [now]."

“I came in 2003 [to Israel] knowing even in 2002 I had to convert.

After several months, she summarizes that, "I had no belief in him whatsoever.”

From that point forward she seems to have broken the reins. She shifted away from Christianity and was pulled in by Judaism.

“It was a like a magnet that was inside that turned on and one day I just realized 'I have to do this and not only do I have to do this but I have to do it in Jerusalem.' I knew that as clear as anything that it had to be here."

Once Yosefah arrived in Israel, she began looking for Rabbis to learn with and study under for formal conversion. She spoke to dozens of Rabbis in and around Jerusalem. It was a lengthy search process, possibly delayed because she had not made her own religious views clear to the Rabbis and herself. Continuing the world she had done in the past, she began leading tours for other like-minded Noahides or people involved in examining the Jewish roots of their faith.

“I was organizing these tours for 10-18 people at a time for like-minded people to meet 50 or 60 figures from all walks of life – from Judea, Samaria and Gaza; MKs, Rabbis, kids.”

A number of participants felt a special kinship, maybe even guilt, when it came toward the Jews they were meeting. They felt as if they were emissaries in another sense, being good-will ambassadors.

“It was an exhausting two weeks for everybody, who somehow wanted to make amends for the travesties the church had committed in the past.”

Her activism landed her at least one major interview on what she was doing in Israel, with someone fascinated by her work. That interview became a watershed moment.

“I was doing an interview and she asked me 'So tell me, who do you think Jesus was?' I was still under the radar. I was doing personal learning with them trying to show them Jesus wasn't the messiah.” But at that point, she felt she needed “to be straightforward and just lay it on the line. 'All I know is that whoever he may or may not have been he would probably be horrified by how he is being represented by the Christian church.'"

At that point, she cut her ties with her former religion once and for all with a dramatic statement.

"When we read what we see about the Messiah, it's clear he was not the Messiah.”

The backlash was immediate, says Yosefah. “Within 24 hours my inbox was filled with hate mail."

At that point, her months of searching for the right Rabbis to oversee her conversion became easier. Her path was clear and her motivations were equally apparent. She soon found a program affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), but that only marked the next step in a long journey to and through the conversion process. Her spiritual ties with Christianity were effectively severed, but she would continue to face challenges in the months to come.

Part II of this three-part interview will be published tomorrow, with special attention paid to the conversion process and the challenges she faced from peers and Rabbis before reaching the mikvah.