From Sister Delores to my sister the Jew

SLICE OF LIFE. ‘I did feel fulfilled as a Christian, but I had a lot of questions on doctrine that no one could answer’

Saturday night at Jerusalem’s Neve Yerushalayim seminary in Har Nof, and the events hall is abuzz with the sound of young girls spending a year in Israel.

When the speaker is introduced, the girls rise to their feet in the traditional show of respect for a learned rabbi.

But instead of a bearded sage or bewigged teacher, a businesslike woman makes her way toward the podium.

Ahuva Gray has been invited to tell the story of what she calls “my 14-year-long search mission,” a spiritual journey that ultimately led to her conversion to Judaism. Whatever one’s preconceptions of a convert to Judaism, Gray is sure to shatter them.

Neither ethereal nor self-righteous, her down-to-earth speech abounds with expressions – “gam zu letova,” “talking my kishkes out” – that reflects the milieu in which she has lived for the past eight years.

At ease in front of an audience, the former ordained Christian minister and recently accredited tour guide, demonstrates a comfortable sense of humor, often as not directed at herself. She tells of her friends’ little boy who exclaimed upon seeing her after she returned from the mikve immersion marking her conversion: “But, Ahuva, how come you’re still black?”

The anecdote also features in Gray’s recent autobiography, My Sister the Jew.

Born to a working-class family in Chicago, Delores Gray was 34, married and in the midst of her 23-year career with Continental Airlines, when she embarked on a program of Bible study.

It was an interest that took up all her free time, at the expense of sleep and social occasions. She made a point of studying the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history to better understand the background of Christianity.

Following an amicable divorce, she was transferred to Los Angeles, where she purchased a San Fernando Valley condominium. Her spiritual hunger, however, remained unsatiated. Gray’s sister worked in the local entertainment industry and would dangle invitations to Grammys and Oscars ceremonies. More often than not Gray would refuse, explaining that she was researching a biblical problem.

Gray’s reference to the difficulty of wrestling with textual conundrums without the benefit of Rashi, Kli Yakar, Ibn Ezra – the classic Jewish commentaries – resonates with poignancy for the audience of young students in Jerusalem.

It was through her sister that Gray connected up with a Watts pastor, Dr. Charles Queen, who emphasized Christianity’s Jewish roots and taught his congregation about Judaism. Gray began to study Hebrew at his institute. She traveled to Israel – where she felt instantly at home – and started her own travel service targeting the African American community that specialized in tours to Israel, Egypt and Greece. She had logged 14 trips to Israel within the space of five years when she met the woman who inadvertently set her on the path to conversion.

Film-maker/journalist Ruth Broyde-Sharon was working on a documentary on the trend of non-Jewish groups in Los Angeles to celebrate the Pessah holiday of freedom. She overheard two members of Gray’s congregation ask for a video on the afikoman in her local library. She met Gray while filming the congregation’s 600-strong seder – complete with a rhythm-and-blues version of “Dayeinu” – in south central Los Angeles. In 1992 the two women, now fast friends, put together their first Festival of Freedom, recreating the Exodus story through a pilgrimage from Egypt to Israel led by Queen. Besides traditional seders at Jerusalem homes, the group also celebrated a “universal seder” at Beit Shmuel – on the third day of Pessah – for people of different faiths.

Through Broyde’s many contacts in Israel, where she had once lived for 10 years, Gray met the people who would prove instrumental in the long, rocky conversion road ahead. Broyde-Sharon and Gray repeated their venture a second year, but by the time the third rolled around, Gray had decided on conversion and their project came to an end.

Broyde-Sharon recalls with irony how when Gray – “Sister Delores” to her congregation – first approached her, she had been needlessly worried that Gray was interested in converting her to Christianity. Ironically, their trajectories would cross over the years to come, as Gray became a meticulously observant Jew, while Broyde- Sharon worked on increasing her observance.

That their friendship hasn’t suffered as a result is testimony to Gray’s refreshingly non-dogmatic nature. Not only does she take the Jewish prohibition against proselytizing to gentiles seriously, she doesn’t preach to Jews either, not publicly criticizing any branch of Judaism.

The first Orthodox service Gray attended was at the liberal Yakar congregation. She went on to study at the intellectually rigorous, national-religious Nishmat seminary, and finally found her niche among the English- speaking Litvak haredim of Bayit Vegan.

She has managed to stay on close terms with her devoutly Christian family. Her siblings’ card on the combined occasion of her 51st birthday and her conversion dip in the mikve – “Congratulations, to my sister the Jew. We’re proud of you” – provided the title for her book. A substantial portion of it details the spiritual heritage that her mother and grandmother, both devout Christians, bequeathed. Gray recalls how their family meals routinely included destitute strangers off the street. Her sister continues in that tradition, organizing communal meals for the Los Angeles homeless for the past 20 years – from Beverly Hills.

In her attractive, attic-floor apartment, as the phone constantly rings with friends calling about pool dates or the progress of her latest shidduch, Gray talks about the theological implications of coming from a family of righteous Christians. “Rambam [Maimonides] says that Christianity [and Islam – A.R.] came into existence so that that the concept of God could be taken throughout the world.”

But for Gray that was not enough. She accepts the view that converts are Jewish souls found in different ethnic kelim (vessels). In many ways Gray was living a Jewish life before she ever dreamed of converting. From her beloved Psalms – passages of which she recites by heart at every opportune moment – she learned that King David prayed three times a day. She proceeded to do so as well. For the morning prayers, she would awake at 5 and pray for hours – good preparation for her long days of worship from a siddur in Hebrew.

Rachel Schwartzbaum, author of The Bamboo Curtain and one of Gray’s many Bayit Vegan friends, notes Gray’s special strength in prayer, which has made her “one of the first who people turn to when special davening is needed.”

Gray’s book, published by Targum Press, doesn’t dwell on details of her theological struggle. The words Jesus, trinity, even original sin are not mentioned. The haredim were one target audience of the book, the first printing of which quickly sold out. Gray’s perspective as a serious former Christian who grappled with her religious faith, gives Jews – even fully observant ones – a fresh appreciation of their heritage.

In her talk at the seminary, one student asked Gray what in Christianity would trouble her. “I did feel fulfilled as a Christian, but I had a lot of questions on doctrine that no one could answer,” with the trinity and original sin being the hardest concepts for Gray to accept. “The first time I read the [Jewish morning] blessing, ‘the soul You have given me is pure,’ I started weeping.”

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