This is the second in the three-part series. Click here for Part One.
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) used to run a program in Jerusalem for would-be converts. It worked in conjunction with the Chief Rabbinate, who took over the process once students finished the RCA's comprehensive course. The program closed in 2006, but Ashirah Yosefah is grateful to many Rabbis who stewarded the program, including Rabbi Yitzhak Rubin of Jerusalem.
"I converted here through the RCA with panel of five rabbis. I went through the whole process and was accepted. About a month and a half into the course I am sitting in class and they start pulling students out one by one for separate interviews."
"All of the sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder."
It was Michaela Lawson, Yosefah's coauthor on Spark Ignited: The Difficult Journey to Orthodox Judaism: The Process & The Perils, who was working closely with the RCA program at the time.
"I was supposed to be part of the interview committee but I was away," she told Yosefah.
There is an established tradition in Judaism to try and deter prospective converts, in order to ensure that only those candidates truly committed to accepting the stringent requirements of Jewish law will persist. It is spoken of in detail in the Talmudic tractate Yevamot (47b), where teachers would talk of the hardships of being Jewish to the person asking to join. If the would-be convert is not deterred after three of these attempts, he or she is accepted as a candidate.
In some modern conversion programs, a different approach is taken to deter candidates that is far less explicit (mainly because the abovementioned approach is quickly found by people searching for information about converting to Judaism in books or on the web).
In Yosefah's case, Lawson was also interested in testing to see if she still had any ulterior motives to go through the class. There have been rumors for years that people have completed the conversion process when really acting as undercover missionaries. With Yosefah's background, that seemed to have been on Lawson's mind when she pulled her into another room and surprised her.
“She was nose to nose in my face. Then she started screaming, 'You look like a goy! You sound like a goy! You talk like a goy! You're a goy! You're a goy! You're a goy!'"
Yosefah was surprised, but not frightened. Her reaction did not read like someone who had just been outted, rather someone simply bewildered by the situation - as anyone would be. That was enough for Lawson to confirm she was dealing with an authentic student.
"I passed the test. She knew that when I didn't freak out. “
But her 'trials' did not end there. While driving near Jerusalem in 2004, she was the victim of a terrorist attack that caused her to lose hearing in her right ear. The injury only expanded on the hardships Yosefah was facing living in Israel and committed to the orders of her teachers. At that point, her program's Rabbis urged her to move to Jerusalem. Still reeling from the attack, Yosefah moved from a caravan in Judea to a city apartment that more than doubled her living expenses. To help cover that drastic financial change, her instructors suggested she room with two other students from the conversion program, two German-speaking students from Switzerland.
After the physical shock of terrorism, Yosefah then had to contend with another emotional storm. When they would speak German, it would not bother her, until it became clear they were talking about her a lot. One day, one of the roommates asked to use her computer before Yosefah stepped out for the day.
"I come home and I'm deadbolted out of my apartment. Once they let me in, it's clear someone's been on my computer. She had gone into my email. We were to have no contacts with Christian organizations and we would accept no help from anyone who was not Jewish.
“I was still corresponding with some other people trying to make decisions like I did though, a select few people I knew were really sincere.
“She had printed copies and took them to Misrad HaPanim (the Interior Ministry), Rabbanut and the Committee. I get call from Michaela Lawson - what have you done?! We need to talk right away. I had no idea.”
One of those roommates and fellow students had some apparent, unknown psychological issues. There was a sudden and stressful period where Yosefah was challenged again for her Christian religious roots.
“Apparently she was alleging I was a missionary. There were five days of hearings I wasn't allowed to attend. She had my roommate testifying against me. All I could say was 'Hashem, you know I am sincere.'”
"Michaela Lawson was my interrogator!" referring to her fellow coauthor for Spark Ignited.
At this point the older roommate broke down and spilled she had been threatened by the younger roommate. The revelations exonerated Yosefah, but added another bump in her journey.
After that, she was able to push forward and finally achieve her goal in the summer of 2005.
“On the 12th of (Hebrew month) Av, 50 years to the day I was born, I went to the mikvah. That was like my own yovel (Jubilee). That’s when the magnet stopped; when the intensity stopped."
When asked if she felt there might be too much finality to some of these conversions - that people converting might be led to think this was the culmination of a process rather than another step in one’s religious lifestyle - Yosefah did not think her conversion personally panned out that way.
“When I say the magnet turned off, I simply meant that being Jewish is a lifelong learning process and you never really arrive. It's not just Torah; you're becoming a part of the people. That's the thing about my conversion course. We took philosophy, history, psychology and comparative religion, all these things to learn to become part of the people. I was told at the time it would be 10 years before I settled into who I was as a Jew. I think it's much longer and it takes for the rest of your life.”
She speaks of one lesson that is inescapable for converts.
“Hold on, because the more Hashem shows you, the more your outlook changes.”
Finally breaking through and realizing her identity as a bona fide Jewish woman, Yosefah was still faced with the challenge of finding her precise place in it.
In the final piece in the series, Yosefah will discuss the challenge of living in Israel with her family back in Canada and the common obstacles that converts face - practically, psychologically and emotionally - when they realize that they are newly minted Jews who still have to grow their roots deep in Jewish soil.