As we discussed in previous letters, there were leading activists within the modern Zionist movement who adopted the slogan, “Let us be like all the nations!” From the perspective of our spiritual tradition, this slogan is a symptom of an unhealthy inferiority complex which causes Jews to want to imitate other societies instead of being true to themselves and their universal mission to serve as a social example of the Divine Teaching. This slogan, however, was not invented by those Zionist activists. It is found earlier in our history, and an example can be found in the following rebuke that the Prophet Ezekiel gave to the Jews of his generation:
“What enters your thoughts – it shall not be! That you say: ‘Let us be like all the nations’ ” Ezekiel (20:32).
Converts who join our people serve as a healing antidote to this unhealthy attitude. For example, in my outreach work among Jews, I have noticed the following, hopeful development: When Jews who want to be like the nations meet converts from the nations who have lovingly embraced our Torah, these Jews often experience a desire to explore their own spiritual heritage.
I will therefore begin to share with you the amazing stories of some converts. In this letter, I will begin with the story of Ahuvah Gray, a granddaughter of African American sharecroppers and a former Christian minister who is now a Torah-committed Jew living in Jerusalem. After her conversion, she received the following note from her sister and brother: “Congratulations, my sister, the Jew. We’re proud of you.”
When Ahuvah Gray began to write the book which would tell the story of her spiritual journey, she decided to call it, “My Sister, the Jew.” The noted Torah educator, Tziporah Heller, wrote the following introductory comments to this book:
“Knowing Ahuvah Gray is a spiritual adventure. The drama and sincerity of her search for a way of life in which her mind, spirit, and body are all dancing to the tune of the same fiddler is unforgettable.”
In her book, “My Sister, the Jew,” Ahuvah Gray describes how her parents and grandparents – who raised her with spiritual values – prepared her for Judaism. When she later got to know altruistic Jews who were connected to their Judaism, she became more aware that the spiritual values she learned in her childhood were rooted in the Torah, the Jewish heritage.
She also began to challenge certain Christian doctrines. For example, she could not accept the traditional Christian claim that Jews could not go to heaven because they did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Messiah. She describes in her book how she became very upset when she attended a Christian service where she heard the pastor say that the Jewish people were all damned and going to hell, unless they accepted the Christian belief in Jesus; moreover, the congregation applauded approvingly. She got up and left the service. As she writes in her book:
“My heart was so grieved by his words. I couldn’t describe the pain I felt. I knew that this would be my last day sitting in the pews.”
I met Ahuvah through my outreach work, and I had the privilege of becoming one of the guides on her journey to Judaism. Ahuvah felt drawn to Jerusalem, and after she came to Jerusalem for an extended stay, I arranged for her to meet some friends of mine who could help her on her journey.
I later arranged for her to spend a Shabbos in Bayit Vegan – a neighborhood of Jerusalem where the majority of residents are Chareidi Jews. She was very moved by the warm welcome that she received from her hosts, Rabbi Gavriel and Chaya Beer. In addition, she was inspired by the spiritual atmosphere of the community, the friendly manner of the people she met, the fervent prayers at the synagogue, and the holiness of Shabbos which was felt even on the streets. She had an inner feeling that she belonged in this spiritual community, and she decided to move to Bayit Vegan right away, even though she had not yet converted. With the help of Hashem, she found an apartment in the neighborhood within a short period. A number of families in Bayit Vegan then “adopted” Ahuvah. They helped her get settled in the community, and they also helped Ahuvah to prepare for her conversion. These families demonstrated to Ahvuah that to be “chareidi” – fervently devout – is to also be fervently devout in the way one fulfills the mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Ahuvah’s journey caused her to develop a deep appreciation of how the mitzvos of the Torah elevate every area of human existence. As the following passage from her book indicates, she discovered that the mitzvos enable us to sanctify the Divine Name within “this” world, especially in the home:
“Spending much time in other people’s houses leaves me in awe of religious Jewish women. Our homes are a daily sanctification of the Name of Hashem. I came from a fine family. I saw love and kindness and devotion to the poor, and I was raised with values of strict morality and refinement. Yet when I enter a Torah home, the daily, moment-to-moment sanctification of God’s name that I experience far surpasses anything that I was raised with.”
Ahuvah has shared with her neighbors in Bayit Vegan various stories about the faith and good deeds of her parents and grandparents that helped to prepare her for her eventual conversion. In fact, on the night of the Festival of Shavuos when Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah, Rabbi Leib Heyman, the rabbi of the Gra synagogue that Ahuvah attends, shared with the congregation the following remarks regarding Ahuvah’s family background:
“In our own neighborhood we have a genuine convert. This remarkable woman was taught the twenty-third psalm by her grandmother at the age of four. Her grandmother would read psalms to the sick and elderly in her town in Mississippi. The convert’s mother used to feed and care for the sick and homeless in her own home. With such role models our friend grew to maturity, with her love and admiration of the Book of Psalms growing too. She recited psalms daily – until her love for Hashem grew so strong that she felt compelled to convert to Judaism.” (Cited in “My Sister the Jew”)
Ahuvah was invited by families in Bayit Vegan to join them for Shabbos and Festival meals. She was inspired by the lively Torah discussions at the table, which involved all members of the family, as well as their guests. She also liked the way the “street talk” was often “spiced” with words of Torah. In addition, she liked the inter-generational population of Bayit Vegan, ranging from babies in carriages to great-grandparents. Another aspect of this Chareidi community which fascinated her was the diversity of occupations, and she writes: “Many residents have university degrees; in fact, there are a number of internationally renowned scientists living in the neighborhood.” Ahuvah, who loves to study Torah, especially appreciated the following aspect of Bayit Vegan: The pride and joy of the residents are the yeshivos for young men and Torah seminaries for young women, as well as the various Torah study programs for people of all ages.
In her book and in her lectures, Ahuvah tells story after story of how the residents of Bayit Vegan took her into their hearts and homes even before she completed her conversion. Ahuvah points out that whenever she tried to express her appreciation and gratitude for their many acts of loving-kindness, they would reply: “Ein davar” (It’s nothing). They would then add: “We learned how to treat our guests from Abraham, our Father.” Ahuvah also learned that Abraham is considered to be the “father” of all the converts in each generation that join the Jewish people.
As a child, Ahuvah dreamed of walking in the footsteps of Abraham. And it was Hashem’s call to Abraham to begin a new journey that inspired her own journey to Judaism. She writes:
“When people ask me what made me want to undergo the difficult and radical transformation of becoming a Jew, I tell them, ‘I was inspired by God’s Divine call to our father, Abraham.’ That call represented an awesome spiritual summons to Abraham and to all those who followed in his footsteps. ‘Lech Lecha,’ the passage begins in Hebrew. ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.’
“Only God – the great artist of the universe – could bring about the first imaginary steps in the secret thought-life of a little Black child and lead her all the way along a path which grows clearer day by day. I really don’t know where I would be if not for the awesome spiritual power contained in God’s call to Abraham and to all those who follow in his footsteps. A convert has to esteem God above her very own family. That became clear to me as I began to undertake the painful process of separating from everything and everyone whom I had held dear my entire life.
“Lech Lecha: And so I left my native land, my family, my relatives, and my father’s house to go up to the Land of Israel, the land of my ancestors, the land of my soul.”
In her autobiographical work, “My Sister the Jew,” Ahuvah Gray shares with us the moving story of her “homecoming.” It is a story that can offer each of us renewed faith and courage, for we are all on a journey to the “land of our souls.”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Ahuvah wrote a second book called, “Gifts of a Stranger” (Targum Press). In this book, she describes her life after her conversion. Much of the book is about her visits to Jewish communities all over the world, where she shares with people the story of her journey. She also discusses her personal devotion to prayer, as well as her love and appreciation for the traditional prayers of our people.
We find in “Gifts of a Stranger” the challenging questions that Jews from diverse communities asked Ahuvah, as well as the thoughtful and heartfelt answers that Ahuvah gave. These dialogues are a highlight of the book.
2. Ahuvah not only brings spiritual gifts to Jews with little or no Torah education; she also brings spiritual gifts to those who grew up in Torah-committed homes and went to Torah-committed schools. The stories in “Gifts of a Stranger” reveal that these Jews gain a new appreciation of their Judaism through hearing Ahuvah talk about her journey. For example, there were some individuals whose prayers had become perfunctory and lacked spirit; however, after hearing Ahuvah talk about her personal devotion to prayer and the way traditional Jewish prayers have strengthened her, these individuals begin to view their prayers in a new way. They would later inform Ahuvah that as a result of her talk, they began to pray with new energy and spirit.
There is a very moving story in this book about a young woman who was raised in a Torah-committed home, but who had gone through a rebellious period which caused her to go off the path. She heard Ahuvah speak, and as she later explained to Ahuvah, the talk that Ahuvah gave enabled her to view the path of the Torah in a new way; thus, she began a journey of return to the path of her people.
3. In “Gifts of a Stranger,” Ahuvah describes the visit of her sister, Nellie, to Bayit Vegan. Nellie spent a Shabbos with Ahuvah, and she experienced the warm hospitality of the neighbors that invited her and Ahuvah for Shabbos meals. When her sister returned home, she wrote to Ahvuah:
“I feel that you have truly found your niche in Bayit Vegan. I have never experienced such love and acceptance as I did from these lovely families in your neighborhood.”
4. You are invited to visit Ahuvah’s new and beautiful website: www.ahuvahgray.com . Before you press down on the interesting sections, enjoy the pictures of the places where Ahuvah has spoken.
In the “Shopping Cart” section, there is information on the DVD’s of her talks.