With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, occurring this week,you’ll enjoy this story of one woman’s conversion.
You’ve met her before! Recently, I brought you the Adventures of Karen Raff, a story so engaging that I needed 3 of these columns to do it justice. Karen is the nurse from Kentucky who traveled far and wide in search of a more worldly life. She and nurse friend Nancy threw a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner party and invited strangers to their home. If you missed the story, it’s priceless.
By the end of the 3rd column, Karen had married Gil, the doctor/stranger she invited to the party. I promised you the story of Karen’s religious conversion. Here we go…
As young marrieds, neither Gil nor Karen observed religious traditions. Gil was Jewish; Karen, Presbyterian. Karen had occasionally asked Gil if she should convert.She says, “We were surrounded by Jewish friends who seemed smart, up on current events and respectful of women.”
Gil had a different take. He said, “Who would want to join a religion known for its pogroms and the Holocaust?”
“So,” Karen says, “I let it go.”
When they became pregnant with their first child, Karen brought up the notion again. She knew Gil wanted to raise their children as Jews. She also knew that Jewish lineage is handed down through the mother. (The Mishnah is the first major written version of the oral Jewish traditions known as the Oral Torah. This ancient record includes the concept of matriarchal lineage.)
While living in Albuquerque, 3 years before, Karen and Gil had had to “search around” for a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony. The Reform rabbi they found agreed only after Karen promised they’d raise their children Jewish.
In 1982, Karen took weekly one-on-one conversion classes with Rabbi Isaac Celnik. (Confession: As a lifelong Jew myself, I’m impressed that converts usually know more about the religion than I do.) After 8 months, the rabbi asked Karen if she felt ready.
Yes, she said. What did she need to do? Submerge yourself under water in preparation for the ceremony, the rabbi said. (Submersion is the final act in conversion. It represents purification and is the precursor to the Christian baptism. Orthodox Jewish women go to a mikvah, or ritual bath, once a month.)
Karen recalls thinking, “Egads. That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go to a mikvah, and I’m too pregnant to wear a bathing suit to get into a swimming pool. Besides, it was November.”
Her Jewish girlfriend said, “In your condition, submersion seems extreme. Tell the rabbi you’ll stand outside in a shower stall and he can spritz water on your head a few times. That should qualify as your symbolic rebirth.”
“Oh no,” said the rabbi. “You must be completely submerged. I will literally push your head down under the water.”
Ever resourceful, Karen asked, “How about a hot tub?”
He rolled his eyes heavenward, contemplated what his mentor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would advise.
Okay,” he said. “You arrange the place, bring two Jewish witnesses, and I’ll be there.”
They met on the appointed day, Nov. 22, 1982, at Karen’s friend Barbara Maddoux’s home. The hot tub was heated to “the perfect temperature.” There were Karen’s 2 Jewish girlfriends, Roberta Ramo, who became the first woman president of the American Bar Association, and Susan Cohen, who had previously converted to Judaism under Rabbi Celnik. Gil was also a witness. Karen wore a “way too tight” bathing suit, under a white terrycloth cover-up.
After those present recited the ritual prayers and Karen professed her faith, the rabbi asked, “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Karen said. She dropped her robe and stepped into the hot tub.
Karen recalls, “Before I got dunked, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said to myself silently, “Oh dear Lord Jesus, if you really are the true Savior, forgive me.”
And under the water she plunked.
“I dipped down a Presbyterian, and I popped up Jewish.”
Adam Benjamin Raff was born on December 16 of that year. Evan and Marika came next. All are practicing physicians. And practicing Jews.
When Adam and Evan were boys, studying Hebrew for their Bar Mitzvahs, Karen wanted to support them. She had wondered “If I were the only Jewish person alive, would I know enough of the prayers and rituals to pass them on and keep Judaism alive? The answer was no.”
Their cantor happened to be gathering some women to be the first adult females in their synagogue to become Bat Mitzvah. The women, she says, “were seekers like me.”
She was in. That process was completed in 1993.
Thanks, Karen, for being such a generous and open seeker.
Wishing you and all our Jewish friends Shana Tova, a happy and healthy 5778!