In 1993, nearly twenty years after Shoshana Zakar converted to Judaism, she found out she wasn’t Jewish.
Zakar had innocently posted a question to an online Jewish discussion group. The responses ultimately led her on a path that would dramatically change the lives of her and her family.
Born in Spokane, Washington, Zakar didn’t have much exposure to ideas about God and religion. “Religion didn’t play a part in our home life at all,” she says. “Other kids would go to church; I didn’t.” As a teenager, she began questioning life’s meaning but found few satisfying answers. That is, until she took an innovative comparative philosophy class in her senior year in high school. The teacher invited representatives of different religions and life philosophies including Buddhism, humanism, Catholicism and Judaism, among others, to explain the “what’s” and “why’s” of their belief systems. While the other presenters waxed esoteric, Leo Matzner, a concentration camp survivor, spoke of Judaism’s belief in one God and its emphasis on the afterlife–whatever a person does in this world, he explained, affects his life in the World to Come. Zakar was captivated. “His words immediately grabbed me,” she says. “I felt good about a faith that says that whatever a person does is important. That was a turning point [for me].”
She hungered to learn more about Judaism but hesitated approaching anyone. So she went it alone. “I read [any] Jewish books I could get my hands on,” she says. One of them was the siddur, from which she memorized the entire Amidah in English. All of seventeen, Zakar decided she wanted to convert. When she reported this to her parents, they were less than enthused, but consented to support her choice if she agreed to postpone the decision for a year.
That year, she went off to Western Washington University. Feeling painfully far from home, she turned to Tom, a friend and practicing Christian, for solace. He convinced her that she’d find her answers in Christianity. Zakar threw herself into the Christian coffeehouse scene on campus. “[Often, a person] doesn’t understand the difference between feeling warm and fuzzy and having a genuine spiritual experience. I felt connected and loved and mistook that for the truth.”
Zakar wrestled with the idea of the Trinity but kept her doubts to herself. “In Christianity you dare not ask questions,” she says. “It shows a lack of faith.” A telling moment forced the issue. It was October 1973, and the Campus Crusade for Christ held a social event. In the midst of the festivities, a student entered the room and relayed the news that Israel had been attacked. Zakar’s visceral response took her by surprise. “I felt sick,” she recalls. “I couldn’t possibly stay there celebrating. I didn’t feel part of it anymore.”
She saw graduating from college as an opportune time to make the final break with Christianity. She returned home to Spokane, accepted a job as a bank teller and decided to re-explore Judaism.
The opportunity came that summer at a local fair. Zakar noticed a booth with a banner stating “Free Soviet Jews.” Approaching the booth, she realized she knew the individual manning it; it was Leo Matzner, the survivor who had spoken to her high school class about Judaism some years back. Zakar told him of her interest in Judaism, prompting an invitation to the synagogue where Matzner served as cantor. She accepted.
Moved by the meeting, she wrote in her journal: “In many ways, I am a shy person and afraid to jump into the midst of this people on my own. Yet I trust God, and it seems that God is answering that trust. Last night the cantor himself invited me to come to services at Temple. I will go.”
She went Shabbat morning and, despite feeling a little disoriented while trying to follow the Hebrew prayers, she enjoyed the services. “It was the relief of having made the connection; just being there, in a synagogue, among Jews,” says Zakar. “I felt like an orphan who had found a family.”
“I knew that when I converted, I had supposedly gone to a mikvah, but it was just a swimming pool; there was nothing ‘natural’ about it.”
Unfortunately, her introduction to Jewish worship and community occurred in a Conservative synagogue, the only shul in the city. “I really had no counterpoint, [neither] to the right [nor] the left,” says Zakar. Eventually, she decided to ask the rabbi about converting.
The rabbi instructed her to join the synagogue’s confirmation class, an hour-long session on Sunday mornings for post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah children covering Jewish history and holidays. Throughout her preparation, she was disturbed by an underlying attitude that conversion was no big deal. “[The course] was not challenging or difficult. The whole process was just ‘hoops’ that I was given to jump through to make sure I was more or less serious,” she says. “I didn’t understand that Jews don’t really care whether or not someone becomes Jewish.”
In 1975, shortly after Pesach, the rabbi informed Zakar that he was planning to go ahead with the conversion. Excited that she was “finally going to be Jewish,” she reviewed the Hebrew dates of the holidays, committed the order of the Hebrew months to memory, and chose the name Shoshana, a derivative of her English name Susan. The rabbi asked that she bring wine, cakes and cookies for the kiddush afterwards. Zakar and several other “would-be converts” were called individually into the rabbi’s study, where they sat before the beit din, composed of the rabbi, the cantor and one of the officers of the synagogue. “I was there for about ten minutes,” reports Zakar. “The beit din was satisfied [with my answers to their questions], and I was excused.” The group went to an apartment complex housing an indoor pool. The rabbi instructed them to change into their swimsuits, and dunk into the water. “We repeated a solemn statement of commitment and dedication to God and Torah, Judaism and the Jewish people; then we made a blessing and dunked again,” says Zakar. They were declared Jewish and returned to the synagogue for the kiddush.
Not too long after, Zakar moved to Laurel, Maryland, to accept a job offer as a government Russian translator. During this time, she met her husband-to-be, Joe, who was Jewish but not observant. The couple soon married and joined a local Conservative synagogue. “We felt that as Jews, we had a responsibility to support the general Jewish community,” says Zakar.
She gave birth to a son and then a daughter. As the family grew, the couple stopped attending services. “It didn’t make sense to drag a baby to services, and neither of us was likely to go alone,” says Zakar. “I wondered how it was that I had lost that same feeling for God that I had had before the conversion. It seemed like the ‘real world’ just got in the way of spirituality.”
As Zakar had already learned, some of life’s most important answers come from unexpected places. One evening, in April of 1993, Joe was busy posting messages on an online news discussion group, when his wife happened to glance over his shoulder. “Are there any Jewish discussion groups out there?” she asked. Within a few minutes, he located one, and it immediately captured Zakar’s interest. “I sat there for at least two hours, reading all kinds of messages from Jews of almost every persuasion.” She decided to initiate a topic. “Why do Orthodox Jews have the view of women that they do; why aren’t women allowed to read from the Torah, and why are they not counted as equals in a minyan?”
She received a flurry of interesting responses. Her spiritual appetite stirred, Zakar joined other Jewish discussion groups, feeling increasingly connected to her cyber chevra. “I found a group of people who were actually interested in talking about Jewish subjects, about God and about religion,” she says. “I felt more comfortable asking hard questions … and much less isolated.”
No stranger to difficult questions, Rabbi Dovid Y.B. Kaufmann, director of campus activities for Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana and an adjunct professor at Tulane University, maintained an ongoing dialogue with Zakar and suggested she read a number of books that effectively address the role of women in Orthodox Judaism.1 That Shavuot, Zakar found herself sick in bed reading some of the suggested works. Subsequently, she admitted to her online mentor that her perception of the Orthodox view of women was “flat out wrong.” Reading all those books prompted her to rethink “many elements of her own Jewish lifestyle.”
Some of the new information she learned not only took her by surprise but left her shaken. The laws of family purity, for instance. “I knew that when I converted, I had supposedly gone to a mikvah, but it was just a swimming pool; there was nothing ‘natural’ about it.” She read that there should be no intervening substance between her body and the water. She had worn a bathing suit. “I realized that there could be a very serious problem.”
Afraid to approach her husband, Zakar mulled over the worrisome repercussions of her situation for a day or two. One night, she couldn’t sleep and finally turned to Joe and asked if he would object if she were to speak to an Orthodox rabbi about the potential mikvah problem. “As far as Joe was concerned, I was Jewish; he had no questions about it,” says Zakar. “Still, he said I should feel free to do whatever I needed to do in order to settle this in my own mind.” She went up to bed and cried herself to sleep.
At the suggestion of some of her Internet friends, she contacted Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum, principal of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, to set up an appointment. She handed him a letter she had prepared, detailing her spiritual journey. He read it carefully, as she silently waited for the verdict. “It seems clear to me that you are not Jewish,” he said. “I felt like I was returning my soul,” says Zakar. “It was very difficult to hear, but I think it’s important to hear the truth.” Rabbi Teitelbaum talked about the effect her status would have on her children and possibly her marriage. He also brought up the possibility of her undergoing a kosher conversion. “I had hoped that since I had been living as a Jew for eighteen years, an Orthodox conversion would be a [mere] formality. Repeat the mikvah, repeat the blessing, and that would be that.” She soon learned that simply saying she wanted to become more observant would not suffice.
She broke the news to her husband but fretted about telling David and Julie, her two children, who were twelve and nine at the time. “How strange it is–I often worried about my kids ending up intermarried,” she says. “I never dreamed I would.” Joe agreed to do whatever necessary to help her resolve the situation, but also shared her concerns about the children’s reactions. They decided to hold off telling them about the conversion problem and began, instead, to encourage the family to move towards greater observance. Zakar was concerned that taking on “new rules” would stir negative feelings about Orthodox Judaism. “How do I approach this so they will understand how mitzvot fulfill our lives, not imprison us?” she wrote to her Internet friends.
“As far as Joe was concerned, I was Jewish; he had no questions about it.”
As she struggled to change the family lifestyle, she had to contend with accompanying feelings of guilt. She asked herself: “Is my search for religious fulfillment and truth so important that I should make others suffer?” When her son went on overnight field trips with his public school classmates, Zakar would pack kosher food provisions. “I did my best to give him his favorite foods and lots of treats, but no delicacy compensated for the teasing that inevitably resulted from being ‘different.’”
The family soon stopped shopping on Saturday and became more vigilant about keeping kosher inside and outside of the house. Zakar was pleasantly surprised to see her children’s willingness to grow, despite the difficulties. “Both David and Julie seemed to accept ‘Jews are not supposed to do this’ as a sufficient answer,” says Zakar.
News arrived that Rabbi Mendel Feldman, the av beit din in Baltimore, was insistent that the Zakars move to a community with an Orthodox infrastructure before he would agree to the conversion. The Zakars put their house up for sale.
Zakar prepared for her conversion with Rabbi Binyamin Field, director of religious life at Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School–meeting with him weekly. She also began shuttling her children the forty-five miles to and from Hebrew school, three days a week. To the Zakars’ great relief, the children did not seem disturbed by the news that they would have to convert to Judaism. After informing David of the brit dam requirement, he responded, “You’re going to owe me for this one, Mom!” She inquired as to the exact price. “Ten bucks and a trip to the arcade.” They happily sealed the deal.
On Friday morning of July 15, 1994, the day the conversions were scheduled to take place, Zakar and her children stood by the phone, waiting to hear when the ceremony would begin. The phone rang. Rabbi Feldman reported that the mikvah was broken and the conversion would have to be postponed until the following Monday. Zakar fought back tears; she had hoped to celebrate that Shabbat as a Jew. “The broken mikvah felt like a final test and a final preparation.”
That Monday, Zakar and her children finally immersed in the mikvah waters that would make them complete Jews. “I stepped into the [mikvah] water, and a sea split before me,” relates Zakar. “I plunged beneath the surface, rising up to say the most important berachah I had ever said in my life.”
“People ask what it was that caused me to begin this process. I tell them … much of it began because of my conversations over the Net … from the deeply honest and caring answers I received from friends that I have known, really just [from] the Net.”
The day after her conversion, Zakar wrote a message to the loyal online friends who accompanied her on so much of her journey. “I just wanted to let you know that I have finally come home!”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is an award-winning journalist who lives in New York.
1. In 1998, Shoshana Zakar and Dovid Y.B. Kaufmann co-authored Judaism Online, which is based on Zakar’s journey from fundamentalist Christianity through Reform and Conservative Judaism and her ultimate conversion to authentic Judaism. Zakar describes the book as “a conversation between David Kaufmann and me over the Internet during the last leg of my journey home … his insights, shared in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of e-mail messages, helped me find a sure footing on the path. These messages, along with entries from my journal, provide a ‘real time’ glimpse into my life along the way.”
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