In what was likely a record for The Kehilla in Sandy Springs, a group of 10 – two families with two children each and two men – recently completed their Orthodox conversions and are now fully immersed in their new Jewish identities. One of the new converts even had a bar mitzvah March 2.
Overseen by the Kehilla’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Karmi David Ingber, all conversions were done in accordance with Jewish law, resulting in all 10 meeting before the beis din panel of rabbis on Jan. 1, followed by visits to the mikvah (ritual bath) and three weddings in a single week, according to the rabbi’s wife, Elisheva Ingber.
“There was so much joy,” the rebbetzin said. “We were flying on a cloud.”
While the group members completed their conversions at the same time, each family or person came to Judaism through their own unique journey. Ingber said she and the rabbi often meet people “on a very serious spiritual path wanting to know what is true, what does G-d want from me in this world? Sometimes they come to Torah as an instruction booklet and find their way.”
Stephanie Morrison said she and her husband Ian had been on a path of spiritual and religious exploration for nearly 15 years, never imagining that it would ultimately lead to conversion to Judaism. Stephanie, originally from Calhoun, Ga., and Ian, who grew up in Canada, attended churches in various Christian denominations over the years, but Morrison said that never felt right. But reading and learning from the Old Testament, starting with Genesis, did feel right.
“We were completely blown away about observing Shabbat,” she said. “With everything we read, we felt compelled to do it, and [back then], we did it in our own uneducated way.”
They observed Jewish holidays and raised their children as if they were Jewish. But it never occurred to them to convert. It wasn’t until the family, then living in Cartersville, Ga., decided to take a trip to Israel two years ago that their spiritual path became clearer. The two weeks in the Holy Land were transformative, according to Morrison.
Her husband and son, Samuel, wore tzitzis and Stephanie covered her head. They met many Jews who asked them why they didn’t convert.
Looking back, Morrison says, “It was obvious, but we thought it was impossible. We didn’t think we’d be accepted.”
When they returned, they reached out to rabbis in Atlanta, and eventually the family began studying with a Conservative rabbi. After nearly a year, however, the Morrisons amicably parted with the Conservative community, knowing that it still wasn’t the right fit.
Their next steps led them to a meeting with Rabbi Ingber at the Sandy Springs Kehilla and committing to an Orthodox conversion. “It was overwhelmingly clear that he was the right person and we were in the right place,” Morrison said.
Daughter Madeline, now 15, has the Hebrew name Devorah, and Samuel, now 13, Schmuel Yitzchak. Stephanie and Ian have become Sara Chana and Boaz Betzalel, in Hebrew.
Kathleen and Paul Gray, both raised in non-religious Christian families, began exploring Judaism about 20 years ago, before they were even married. The Jewish faith resonated with both of them, and when their children came along, they raised them as though they were a Jewish family.
Their daughter Elisheva (Shoshonna Elisheva), now 14, and son Donald (Doniel Dovid), now 12, always considered themselves Jewish, even though they knew they really weren’t, said Kathleen, whose Hebrew name is Nechama Miriam. Paul is Moshe Eliyahu.
“We started out and gradually increased our level of observance,” she said. About ten years ago, they began to consider conversion to Orthodox Judaism. One obstacle: the family lived in a small Texas town five hours away from the closest Orthodox synagogue in Denver City.
Then about five years ago, Paul took a job in the Atlanta area, a place where they knew they could also pursue their family dream of conversion.
Both the Gray and Morrison families moved to Sandy Springs in the year leading up to their conversions to be fully immersed in the community and observances.
Finally, after their long preparations, the two families and the two individual men completed their conversions by separately appearing before the beis din, essentially affirming their commitment to Judaism.
Of the beis din experience, Gray said, “We were nervous because it means so much to us. At the same time, they made us feel pretty relaxed talking to them.”
When all the beis din sessions and mikvah immersions were complete, the Kehilla then prepared for the weddings. During the next week, Jewish weddings were celebrated for three couples: the Grays and Morrisons, as well as one of the other men whose wife – and therefore children – were born Jewish.
Now that their long journey has been realized, Kathleen Gray said for her and her husband, completing the conversions and becoming Jewish has made them “feel complete” at last.
For her part, 15-year old Devorah Morrison told her family: “Finally we are with our people. We really belong.” And in another simcha and Jewish milestone for the Morrison family, son Schmuel Yitzchak became a bar mitzvah on March 2.