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The Inexplicable Convert

As told to Rhona Lewis

Chaya Nechama was raised as a Christian in a small German town. Yet her thirst for anything Jewish was insatiable, even as a small child. The story of her conversion — and how she finally made it home.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

painting sunset I grew up in a little town in Germany. There were no Jews there, no trace of Jewish life. And yet, even as a young girl, there was always something nudging me toward Judaism.

When I was seven, I was fascinated with stories about Eliyahu HaNavi. I can still recall the pictures of the caring ravens in the children’s Bible I used to read. I remember sitting in church and listening to the priest read words that I now know are from Mishlei: “Everything has its time: a time for weeping, a time for laughing.” The words stood out as being different from other things in the church. They were an ancient breeze blowing in from the past, sweeping by me softly.

As a child, I lived in a world of books. Paperbacks, hard covers. Books about art, gardening, handicapped children, nutrition. It was my only solace, my only refuge from the abusive home I grew up in.

When I was nine, a neighbor lent me a novel for adults about the Holocaust. It left me rather puzzled. Why did the girl and her family suddenly flee from their home? Why did they have to live together with so many people in one room? Why did her parents send her away to a not-so-nice family? And who were the men with black hats? Although I couldn’t put the pieces together, I remember thinking that I understood the girl. She was the same age as me and she also lived in a state of confusion and fear.

I read the diary of Anne Frank when I was 11, and by that point, I already understood far more about the Holocaust. Later, to quench my curiosity about Jewish-German history, I gained permission to check out books from the public library’s adult history section. But there were only so many titles available.

At age 15, I went on a school outing to a bigger city. By now, I knew plenty about Jewish history, so I felt the next logical step was to learn Hebrew. I bought two or three books to teach myself the language. I found each letter, each word fascinating.

One of the first people I met who could add to my knowledge of Judaism was a Chinese woman who shared an interest in the topic; she gave me books on Orthodox Judaism and information on Israel. She was the closest I got to anything Jewish that wasn’t a book.

I loved reading, learning, thinking. But these didn’t shield me from the abuse I continued to endure at home. Neither did the youth groups I joined, although they did provide a brief respite. Finally, at the age of 17, I ran away from home. It was the only way I could escape.

Over the next five years, I wandered around a lot, trying to find myself, to drag myself out of the pit. Eventually, with the right therapy, I began to rebuild my life far from my parents. I knew I wanted to convert to Judaism, but did little to follow through. Still, I often dreamed about being in Jerusalem, meeting and talking with people. The dreams were comforting, but so far away.

On a winter day in December 2006, a chance meeting with a Jewish woman in a café led me to the beis din in one of the bigger cities in Germany to officially begin the conversion process. People still ask me why I wanted to become a Jew, but I can’t really explain it. Converts are born with a Jewish soul — maybe I was just listening to my soul. Also, the more I learned about Jewish values, like tzniyus and hakaras hatov, the more I realized that I had known about these values all along because they were already a part of my internal makeup.

Converts must be tested and rejected, and my case was no different. People in the local Jewish community were cold, unwelcoming. They didn’t invite me for Shabbos, not once in the two years I tried to reach out. They didn’t show any interest in learning with me. They wouldn’t even give me information. It was tremendously painful.

In my dreams and waking hours, Eretz Yisrael still called to me. I planned a trip, leaving Germany behind me. I spent a week with a family in Beer Sheva, then three weeks in Jerusalem. It was, for me, a homecoming.

People complain about the lack of Jewish unity, but coming from the outside, I saw things through different lenses. In Eretz Yisrael, people help each other; there is a palpable sense of responsibility and togetherness. I remember the warmth generated by simple acts: a woman offered me space to put down my load in her shopping cart at the checkout line; a man ran into the bank with me to help me reclaim my card after the ATM had swallowed it.

My short stay confirmed what I already knew: I wanted to be a part of the Jewish People. It also made me realize that, to do this, I couldn’t just learn from books — I had to live a Jewish life. Before I even left Eretz Yisrael, I knew I would return soon. 

 

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