Families and Conversion: A Complex Story

By Toby Kovacs | Issue Date: February 2010

When I recently converted to Judaism, I chose Jacob as my Hebrew name. We learn in the Torah that Jacob wrapped sheep skin around his arm to trick his father Isaac into thinking that he was Esau, the brawnier brother, thus stealing his father’s blessing. While we might denounce Jacob’s deviousness, this story suggests—among many lessons—how personal growth sometimes requires consciously adopting a new identity. My conversion to Judaism was a process of discovery and reinvention, a process in which I sometimes felt that I was pretending to be someone else.

As a young boy, if posed the simple question—what religion are you?—I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer, “I am Christian.” After all, my father was once a Congregational minister and my family celebrated Christmas and I attended Sunday school. I was baptized as a baby and confirmed as a teenager.

But as I grew I learned that my family’s religious roots were more complex.

My paternal grandfather, born in Hungary, was an evangelical Christian minister. He and my grandmother would answer the phone, “Jesus loves you and I love you.” Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, my father was ordained as a minister, although he served in a church only briefly, and today is a financial planner.

My maternal grandmother, who grew up in Vienna and whose parents were secular Jews, was the first child in her family to be baptized Lutheran. My maternal grandfather, from a secular Jewish Viennese family as well, converted as an adult. My mother, born in New York City, was baptized and grew up attending Riverside Church. Shortly before I was born, my grandmother remarried another Viennese refugee who was Jewish. As a result, with my mother’s family, I grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays: Passover and Hanukkah with our step-family and Christmas and Easter with my mother and father’s families.

By my early twenties my answer had become, “I am Christian but…”

Like many others, religion became more important to me when I had a family of my own. My wife, Rachel Laiserin, grew up certain of her Jewish identity. At first Rachel and I either melded our religious backgrounds or avoided religious decisions altogether. Our wedding was officiated by both a rabbi and my father. When our first son Daniel was born we conducted a simple non-religious ceremony before our families instead of having a baptism or bris. We continued to practice religion as we had when we were single—Jewish holidays with Rachel’s parents and Christian holidays with mine.

Within a few years, with a second son, Joshua, we moved to New York, and soon thereafter started looking for a more spiritual life and a larger religious community. Though we had earlier believed we could simultaneously observe two religious traditions, our desire for a deeper commitment forced us to choose.

Although Rachel had always accepted my background, it was clear that it would be difficult for her to join a Christian community. Already partly Jewish, it was easier for me to join a Jewish community. Though some rabbis considered me Jewish, I began a search to discover what it would mean to be unquestionably Jewish. If we were going to raise our children as Jews, I wanted to serve as their role model.

Jacob was prompted by his mother to disguise himself; several people served as catalysts in my conversion. My primary guide on this journey was Rabbi Felicia Sol of B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Every several weeks she would present me with a new “sheep skin” to try on. She encouraged me to:

Observe Shabbat as strictly as possible. Off went all the electronics and we walked five flights of stairs rather than take the elevator (not easy with a baby stroller!).

Keep kosher. Though we already ate primarily vegetarian, this gave me a sense of the sanctity possible in everyday activities.

Learn Hebrew. I stuffed Prayerbook Hebrew: The Easy Way into my briefcase and studied on my subway commute. Not only did I begin to recognize words in synagogue but I also met countless other New Yorkers who spotted my Hebrew reading on the subway.

Explore my concept of God. Did I believe in God? As a child I was so certain of God’s existence that I would pray to him regularly. Now I wasn’t so sure. Ultimately, I concluded that, at the very least, this wrestling with God was an experience I wanted for my children.

Attend services. At first, I felt like an imposter sitting in synagogue. I didn’t know when to bow or which way to turn. And I was sure that everyone else could see that I was merely mumbling the words. Like Jacob, I felt as though I was fooling someone.

Discuss my plans with my parents. This was not an easy step as converting had the potential to distance us. Not because they might reject my decision, but rather because it would be introducing new traditions and new ways of being together as a family. Would they feel that I was leaving them? And what did I risk losing? How could I commit to Judaism AND treasure and honor my unique roots and the people I love?

Fortunately, my discussions with my parents helped free me to make my own choices while not severing my ties to a rich past. My father and step-mother were excited for me and thereafter always eager for the latest update. And my mother and step-father took courses on Judaism themselves and today join us at synagogue. I will always cherish the kiddush cup they gave me as a conversion gift.

Today, we light Shabbat candles on Friday nights and attend children’s services at synagogue. Our boys know to kiss the Torah when it passes us in synagogue and they’ve memorized an array of blessings. I continue to study Hebrew every morning on my way to work. And when asked my religion, I answer, “I am Jewish. But there’s more to my story…”

Toby Kovacs has been a member of BJ with his wife, Rachel Laiserin, and their sons, Daniel and Joshua, since 2005.