Sitting in her shul in Bayit V’Gan, Jerusalem during Shavuot, Ahuvah Gray listened as Rabbi Leib Heyman gave a “vort” where he acknowledged that the Book of Tehillim is an instrument that can bring a person full circle to do complete teshuva. Although he didn’t mention her by name, when he proceeded to tell the story of a woman who taught her grandchildren Tehillim, Ahuvah realized that her rabbi was talking about her family. “I thought what an honor that my grandmother, who came from such humble beginnings, would be mentioned at a Haredi Litvak shul in Jerusalem.” As we trace Ahuvah Gray’s extraordinary spiritual journey, it becomes increasingly clear how the diverse paths she has followed have led this African-America woman, formerly known as “Sister Delores,” to embrace the life of an Orthodox Jewess.
Our story begins in the rural south of Mount Bayou, Mississippi, the home of her paternal grandparents. Born and raised in Chicago, Ahuvah and her siblings returned each summer to Mount Bayou to experience the rich Baptist traditions of a grandmother who loved G-d and worshiped Him with reverence.
As she looks back, Ahuvah believes, “It was the training I had in my grandparents’ home that taught me how to live as an Orthodox Jew. My grandmother taught us that Sunday is a holy day and all of the preparations were made on Saturday.” Ahuvah affectionately describes how her grandmother would “iron our clothes, braid our hair and cook all our food on Saturday night. On Sunday morning we got up, got dressed and went to church. When we got back home our grandfather would lead us in prayer and every child around the table would recite a Bible verse.”
There was no television in the home so the children’s only form of entertainment was studying all the books of the Bible and participating in quizzes based on what they had learned. It was here, in the nurturing home of her grandmother, that Ahuvah learned to say the Psalms. “Tehillim have always been an inspiration in my life.” And just like her beloved grandmother, whenever Ahuvah ran into difficulty she would always “set up residence in the good Book of Psalms.” Her favorite has always been the 23rd Psalm which she first learned when she was only four years old.
Her spiritual journey is mirrored by her extensive travels world-wide. After graduating from Eastern Illinois University where she majored in Business and minored in History, she went to work for Continental Airlines as a Flight Attendant. When she married, Ahuvah took a ground position as a Flight Attendant Supervisor, followed by l6 years in sa1es and marketing for the airline. It was at this time that she became “Sister Dolores,” a minister in a non-denominational church in Chicago.
Twenty years later, no longer married, she took early retirement and moved to California where she started her own travel management company. She specialized in group tours to Israel, Egypt and Greece because “that way you had the Old Testament Story, New Testament Story and the Greek Islands which was like Paul’s missionary journeys.” She visited Israel a total of 14 times in five years. It was on one of these fateful trips that Ahuvah walked into a book store in Safed and walked out with the tool that would ultimately reshape her life. “I had been totally committed to studying the Bible, but there was something missing. Prayer was what was missing.” In Safed she picked up a book that said Jewish Prayer Book Siddur. “I had never seen a Siddur before. It had English on one side and Hebrew on the other and I started reading. I thought these were the most beautiful prayers I had ever seen in my life.” Although she was still an ordained minister she found the prayers very, very powerful “and started to daven three times a day.”
Festival of Freedom
When she began to question a lot of the philosophical teachings of Christianity, she was referred to Dr. Charles Queen, a very unusual man who was the Pastor of the Strait Way Church in Los Angeles California where Ahuvah became a member and a minister. “He had been to Israel, he knew Hebrew, and he could answer my questions.” Because Dr. Queen firmly believed that since Christianity’s roots stem from Judaism, “he set the mode for me to ultimately make the transition,” said Ahuvah.
It was at this time that Ruth Boyde-Sharon, a documentary filmmaker, entered her life. Hearing that members of the Strait Way Church observed Christians and Jews retracing the Exodus and arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover seder. Ruth and Ahuvah organized three “Festivals of Freedom” beginning in 1993 bringing multi-cultural groups to Egypt and Israel. It was during one of these trips that she met Rabbi David Rosen who suggested that her name should not be Delores, it should be Ahuvah, “beloved of G-d.”
As she became more immersed in Judaism she decided to resign her position as a minister of the church because she felt she could no longer teach with conviction. “I knew I was going through a transition,” Ahuvah noted. “Any time there was a Jewish holiday I felt this compulsion to be around Jewish people.” Fate intervened once again in 1995 when a tour group that she had arranged to visit Israel for the High Holidays canceled as a result of a bus bombing. She was already in Israel studying Hebrew at an U1pan and decided to remain in a hotel in Jerusalem. She spent Yom Kippur at the Beit Knesset Yakar synagogue in Old Katamon with the Goldbergs, one of the many families she had befriended during her travels.
“I did the fast for Yom Kippur and heard Kol Nidre for the first time in my life and I sobbed all the way through it,” she related. “When I left the shul I knew I was converting to Judaism.” Walking down the streets of Yerushalayim on the holiest day of the year, Ahuvah Gray experienced the peace that had eluded her for 49 years. “I finally knew who my G-d was.”
She went home to Chicago where her older sister found it difficult to understand how Ahuvah could be an ordained minister and turn her back on her responsibilities to the church. Her parents, however, gave her their blessing, and she moved to Israel. Then she embarked on the most difficult part of her journey as she found herself in a catch-22 situation. In order to convert, she had to have a Jewish education, but in order to be admitted she had to be Jewish. Determined, she met with the Rabbis in the neighborhood who finally agreed to accept her.
Her formal education began when she enrolled in Nishmat College for Women in Bayit V’Gan. “I will always be eternally grateful to Chana Henkin, the Director of Nishmat where I studied for a year.” It took another year for Ahuvah’s conversion process to be completed. Friends suggested that this was also bashert. In hindsight, she agrees that it was probably a good thing that she was turned down the first and the second and the third time that she went for her conversion interview. Because when Ahuvah Gray finally emerged from the mikva, the document that officially certified her as a Jewish woman carried the signature of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Quite an enviable hechsher.
What’s it like being a Black woman in Israel? “I moved from one Black neighborhood to another,” she answers good-humoredly. “I have not experienced any kind of bias in Jerusalem or Israel and certainly not in my community. They have loved me and embraced me through everything, from the start to the finish of my conversion.”
Bayit V’Gan, an English-speaking neighborhood that is home to Jews from all over the world, borders on Gilo, an area that has recently come under fire. In response to questions about her safety, Ahuvah offers that the community’s response is “to daven with as much kavanah as we can. We daven for Moshiach.”
In addition to being a licensed Israeli tour guide, (a solidarity trip from the U.S. is in the works) the public’s interest in her personal story has made her a popular lecturer in Israel and on the international scene. While she attended college, Ahuvah always wanted to study at Oxford University in London so she was grateful to have the opportunity to address a group of students there recently. She is currently on a six-week tour in the United States sharing her story with Orthodox and Reform audiences from New York to Boston to Detroit and then on to California. Not surprisingly, after hearing the inspiring story of her journey, many admit that Ahuvah’s passion for being Jewish has rekindled their own spirituality. And she finds their enthusiasm equally rewarding. “It’s a mechaya,” she says appreciatively.
As she eagerly anticipates the publication of her autobiography, “My Sister, The Jew.” which will be published by Targum Press in June and has been endorsed by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell and Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, she is grateful for every blessing that she has received. The title of her book comes from the card which she received from her older sister on the day she converted, her 51st birthday, which said “Congratulations to My Sister The Jew.”