According to a recent survey, Americans are very likely to leave the faith into which they were born and brought up — if you count shifts from one Protestant denomination to another, a whopping 44 percent of Americans have changed their religion. Our post about this a few weeks ago sparked some serious commentary, and ultimately inspired us to assemble a collection of American conversion stories. Below you'll find personal accounts of conversions to Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christian Science, and Islam. If you or someone you know has a conversion story to share, add to this collection in comments!
Teresa Lane, United Methodist to Jewish: I converted to Judaism almost four years ago. I did a conservative conversion through a relatively formal class. As the only “non-coupled” person in the class, I was a bit of a novelty. It was kind of great, as it gave me an automatic air of sincerity, but it also meant that I got a lot of the question, “And why exactly are you converting?”
So here’s my answer: I grew up in a very Jewish area of St. Louis; I may be off on my stats, but I think my high school was about 40% Jewish. Then I went to a college, where, let’s just say, Hillel is a big deal. All my life most of my friends have been Jewish, so I felt somehow connected to Judaism in that way. Even though I grew up in the Midwest, I have very little concept of a world where Jews are an actual minority. Not long after college I dated a guy who brought me to a seder, and I was hooked (on Judaism; the guy didn’t last). I picked up books on Judaism (Heschel’s The Sabbath, Kushner’s To Life!) and decided to take an “Introduction to Judaism” class. The idea was just to learn some more, not necessarily to convert. But, to be honest, that statement about "learning some more" kind of sounds like BS now, even to me. I must have been searching for more than I consciously realized. Four years after entering the mikveh, I’m not really observant. Which, it seems, a fair number of people find funny. All the same, there's a lot I love about Judaism. The way it celebrates life, the attitude of stumbling through life as best we can, trying to make it better, but having that mostly be enough. Even “Jewish guilt” (though because I don’t have a Jewish mother I may not be qualified to use that phrase) is so different from the Christian guilt of my adolescence that it’s hugely refreshing to me. I love the rituals of Judaism – lighting candles, hearing the same prayer over and over at services, the seder. I find them beautiful and comforting, even if they are still sort of foreign and a little bit stressful for me. Perhaps most of all I love the sense of belonging to a community, or at least knowing it’s there should I choose to become more involved. I am sometimes jealous of people who grew up as Jews, who know all the little things that Jews just do, that they don’t teach you in a conversion class. But sometimes I know that I'm lucky to be without the baggage of memories of being shushed in services and dragged to Hebrew school; that I consequently have a unique opportunity to appreciate all the beauties of Judaism.
Brad Warner, Non-practicing Protestant to Zen Buddhist Monk: I'm not sure I ever really "converted" to Buddhism, because before I got into Buddhism I had no real religious affiliation at all. When I was a kid I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for three years. There were a lot of Indian people and Indian culture around there. One of my dad's best friends was Indian and when we'd go over to his house I used to see all the paintings of Krishna and stuff. His wife and kids were vegetarians, which is something I'd never encountered back in Akron, Ohio, where I was from. I found all that fascinating. Later on when we returned to Ohio and I got to be a teenager, I started thinking a lot about death. That's what teenagers do, I suppose. But I had extra reasons since two of my aunts were, at the time, dying of an incurable genetic disease that I stood a good chance of inheriting myself. I looked into Christianity but it all seemed so cheap and tawdry and fake. I was interested in Judaism as well, but it seemed too closed to outsiders. In college I looked for some kind of Indian religion to study, thinking that might be a more pure path. I could only find one course available and it was Zen Buddhism. I had no interest at all in Buddhism and would have taken absolutely any other Indian religion if it had been offered. But Zen Buddhism was all they had, so I took it. The first day of the first class the teacher read this piece called the Heart Sutra, which contains the line "form is emptiness, emptiness is form." When I heard that I was hooked. I had no idea what the Hell it was supposed to mean, but I knew it was right. I'm still trying to work out what that line means…
Sat Daya Singh, Roman Catholic to Sikh: I was raised Roman Catholic, and was first exposed to the Sikh path early in life, when a preschool friend was a Sikh. My next major contact was while living in New Mexico for a few months in 2005. Since I do not view Sikhism in purely religious terms, I do not feel like I ever left my previous religion. I look at my adoption of a Sikh lifestyle as an upgrade. Sikhism is not a religious-based dogma. The principles of a Sikh lifestyle (uncut hair, a vegetarian diet, constant meditation on God, selfless service, etc…) are used to illuminate the path to happiness. They are markers on a map up the mountain where the peak is unshakeable serenity. By being stronger in myself, my presence can help others. My previous lifestyle was not bringing me as much serenity as I sought. I became much more stable and strong as a Sikh. It felt like upgrading from DOS to Mac OS/X. The most difficult part of my "upgrade" has been my dealings with my family. I can only compare it to experiences I have read of homosexuals coming out of the closet. Initially they were furious, and I can often sense their bewilderment in conversation.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Unaffiliated/Protestant to Muslim: A little more than a year ago, on February 19, 2007, I published a statement in Jewcy about my road to Islam. I have been asked to restate the story of my becoming Muslim in a simpler form. For many people in the U.S., it is obviously shocking to hear that someone with a “Jewish” family name became Muslim. (Elsewhere it is typically assumed I am of German Christian background.) Jews who react in this way often seem to forget that people with “Jewish” family names may not be halakhically Jewish. In my case, my mother came from a Protestant Christian family, and although my parents were leftist and antireligious, the first faith of which I gained detailed knowledge was Protestant Christianity. I later explored Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism before becoming Muslim; my journeys took the form of travel, reading, and study. But I was not what we call in California a “shopper for God.” I was an intellectual with religious beliefs, not a compulsive joiner seeking a home. In my new book, The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony, which will appear at the end of summer 2008 from Doubleday, I describe my encounter with the Jewish Kabbalah as a peak moment in my spiritual development. But my introduction to Kabbalah–which is so deeply influenced by Islamic mysticism or Sufism that it has been said that Kabbalah is Sufism in Jewish garments–proved a bridge to Islam for me. My entry into Islam may be explained most basically as follows: the Islamic conception of God is simpler than that in the other monotheistic traditions; the Islamic path to God through Sufism is the most direct. I love Christianity and Judaism but Islam is rigorous in its rejection of anthropomorphism, i.e. equation of the form of the Creator with the form of the human being. This embodies, to me, a liberation of the mind. All the rest – the problems besetting the sacred Jewish people because of their small numbers, the infection of contemporary Islam with radicalism – are matters of human history, not religion. I found in Islam a purity very close to that in Judaism, but with a broader, more universal reach – Judaism for gentiles, as Saadiah Gaon argued. And since I was born a gentile, this path, which may seem more difficult to others but was simpler for me, beckoned. Finally, if I may be forgiven a bit of immodesty – Christianity and Judaism have a surfeit of modern intellectuals. Islam today needs intellectuals more than clerics, demagogues, or academics. And so in Islam I found a spiritual and rational place.
Paul Widen, Protestant to Jewish: A few weeks ago I barged into the office of a shaliach that previously had declined to take my case before the special committee at the Ministry of Interior that decides who gets to convert (an illegal act, I later learned [his declination, not my barging into his office]). With his secretary as interpreter we were all sort of shouting for a few minutes, which I guess is what it took to make them realize that I'm serious and that I'm not giving up. However, they kept saying that I didn't have enough to show for myself ("What, you've only davened three times a day for six months?") and that my letters of recommendation were insufficient. I demanded that this shaliach see me again in a couple of months, at which time I assured him I'd have more to show for myself (e.g.,Yeshiva studies). He told me OK, to set up a meeting with the secretary. So the two of us went out of the rabbi's/shaliach's office and into the hallway, where we continued talking, and she asked, "What's the rush? Why don't you just wait for six months and then come back?"
I was incredulous. "I'm 30. I want to convert and get married and get on with my life." She wasn't convinced. "The Moshiach might come," I said, and this teenage, national-service excuse for a human being, started laughing at me. I got tears in my eyes and I said, "What are you laughing at? You know it's true, you know it's true." And I thought, "Wow, I almost believe this myself." "Credo quia absurdum" as the saying goes. "I believe because it is absurd." To proclaim this impossibility, to demand this, to stay true to this hope every day when nothing in the world seems to ever hint that it will happen, that is how I see Judaism. Judaism tells me that there is something wrong with the world, that it's broken on a fundamental level. This appeals to me, because this is how I feel. It is strange to long to be a part of religious community whose members are completely indifferent to my longing: It's even perceived as a bit suspicious, almost pathological. In one breath you can become a Christian or a Muslim: A simple prayer and you're a gold member. In Judaism, however, the potential proselyte is to be turned down thrice before being accepted: Thrice is the door to be slammed shut in his face. It's sort of like the movie Fight Club, where the candidates to Tyler Durden's nihilistic revolutionary club "Project Mayhem" are forced to stand at attention for three days while systematically being ridiculed by him for even trying to be accepted. Or, in a more tasteful metaphor, like Imre Kertesz's book Fateless, in which the Jewish protagonist is ostracized by his fellow inmates at the concentration camp because he doesn't speak Yiddish. "Di bist nischt ka jid, d'bist a shaygets. You're not a Jew, you're a Gentile," Kertesz writes. "That day I felt that I was struck by the same awkwardness, the same creeping insecurity that I remember from home, as if I didn't meet the criteria of the ideal, in one word: a little bit as if I were Jewish."
Kelly Riley, Catholic to Christian Science: I was raised Catholic, the youngest of eight siblings. We all went to Sunday school, we all went to catechism. At catechism they'd tell me that I was bad, that I was going to go to hell, just that I was inherently bad, and if you get hurt or sick, it's a punishment of some kind. My oldest brother is nearly 20 years older than me, so I was still very young when he got married. They were Catholic also. His first child was born healthy, but his second child got very sick when he was one. Doctors were baffled, and despite taking the child everywhere, no one could heal him. Getting desperate, my sister-in-law remembered someone from her college days–one of her roommates–who was a Christian Science practitioner. She tracked her down and said, "My child is going to die in six months, can you help me?" Her old roommate, who was in New York, said she could help. She flew out to Michigan, stayed with them, and within a week she had healed the child. After that, my brother and sister-in-law said, "That's it, we're turning to Christian Science." My sister-in-law even became a practitioner. They had six kids, raised them all in Christian Science, and they all turned out super successful. I remember times when I was a kid and I would get ill, and my parents–even though they were Catholic–would send me to my brother's house. My father just knew that something was good there. My sister-in-law would tell me that I was good, that God loved me. She was purely positive, which was confusing because it contradicted everything I'd been taught in Catechism and Sunday School. It was really hard to comprehend. Eventually I grew up and moved out to California. I was in a horrible relationship–I was 22, living the good life, very rich in a big mansion, but I was living in hell. I was getting beaten by my husband. We're talking broken arms, broken legs–you name it, I've had it all. I had watched one of my sisters transform her life through Christian Science as well, and I would call her, locked in the bathroom after a beating, and she'd heal me over the phone. Finally I said to myself, "That's it, I'm going to do it." My brother flew out, helped me get out of that marriage, and I came to Christian Science.
Michelle Golland, Psy.D., Catholic to Jewish: I was raised Catholic. We were religious when I was younger but even when my family really stopped attending church, I continued on after college. I even found a Catholic church when I moved away from home and up to San Francisco. In a way I was searching for a community but it seemed not to be found for me within Catholicism. I loved the pageantry and ritual but could not find comfort or peace in the dogma and lack of debate. As a sophomore in college I started to explore different spiritual paths. I finally settled on Judaism because I felt inspired and challenged at the same time. I realized that while in Catholicism I was "being good" to get into heaven, Judaism was about "doing good" to experience "heaven on earth." I respond to the focus on the present, which is grounded in tradition and ritual. My parents were supportive of my interest in and eventual conversion to Judaism, in part because they loved my boyfriend, Michael, who was Jewish. They were happy I was going to marry a "nice Jewish boy." This was important, because I tended to bring home more rebellious guys that frankly scared them a little. The struggle I have with my family of origin is not specifically religious, but more an issue of making different life choices overall. Inviting them in and creating a sense of inclusion was essential to fostering a happier relationship with them. I have been a Jew for sixteen years. Soon I will have been a Jew longer than I was a Catholic. I actually look forward to that year, I guess because I believe I was waiting to discover my Jewishness my whole life. Who I am as a person, the things I long for, how I fight authority, the way I question things and want answers, the experience of having a personal connection with God which requires no middle man—whether that is Jesus or a Priest—feels at home and honored in Judaism. I was always the child in the room pointing out the big elephant that nobody wanted to see. My catechism teacher—who finally kicked me out of class for asking too many inappropriate questions about birth control and abortion—would agree I am a much better Jew, because I failed miserably as a faith-filled Catholic. My spiritual awakening within Judaism has many layers that are still being discovered. The Torah for me is one big storybook that I choose to attach myself too. I gain insight, wisdom and hope from the reading of these stories, which are so beautifully filled with human flaws and struggles. As a Jew I don’t believe that any one religion or spiritual path is better or “true,” it’s just personal.