The JC interview Sister act
Jenni Frazer meets a woman who has written a book which details a remarkable spiritual journey – from ordained American church minister to an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem.
Jewish law tells us that we should not discuss the life of a convert before he or she has embraced Judaism. We are enjoined to treat them as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet, so that when we are faced with a fully formed adult who has often overcome huge challenges to become Jewish, we are supposed to deal with them only as their Jewish selves. Their previous lives as Christians or Muslims are not meant to inform us.
But then we run across the thoroughly captivating Ahuvah Gray, an African-American and former ordained Christian minister, whose very presence in Jerusalem’s religious neighborhood of Bayit Vegan begs hundreds of questions. And Ms. Gray is not only ready and willing to answer most of these questions. She lectures frequently and says that she looks upon her extraordinary journey from Christianity to Judaism as one which can inspire.
Strictly speaking, her story begins in Chicago, where she was born. But she attributes much of her personal development to a formidable sounding grandmother, Ola C. Gray, who lived in the all black community of Mount Bayou, Mississippi. “My parents would send all of us kids south to stay with my grandparents every summer.” How many were you? “There were five of us Kein ayin hora.” Ola insisted that all the children know the psalms and spent most of Saturday preparing for church on Sunday, since that was the Lord’s day. “So I guess you could say that the catalyst for causing me to make such a radical metamorphosis was the teaching and example that I saw in my grandparents’ home. The only thing I ever saw my grandmother do was pick apples, make apple pies, sack up big sacks of potatoes; she would go and visit the sick and my Uncle Jesse would drive us and I would go with her. Even as an adult I would go back and visit every year in July, the hottest month. I would always say that if I had one-tenth of what my grandmother had, I think, I would be OK.”
Gray had gone to work for Continental Airlines, initially as an hostess, then becoming a supervisor, and finally graduating to the sales and marketing side of the airline. She married, and at about the same time became an ordained minister in a non-denominational church. Initially, “Sister Delores” went to a Chicago church. Then she moved to California, where she lived for 10 years in the San Fernando Valley, also deeply involved in church work.
One summer, Delores went to visit her grandmother and saw her, by this time about 78 years old, getting down on her knees to pray. The action inspired her, “and I decided to dedicate my life to prayer.” By this time, she was working in sales and marketing for Continental, and on a trip to Israel, found a siddur in Safed in a bookshop. “It said ‘siddur,’ and I didn’t even know what a siddur was. But I bought the book and I started davening from it; I thought that Jewish prayers were unique, authentic and very powerful. So one of the things that I attribute to drawing me to Judaism is the Jewish prayers.”
Even though Delores was living in an area which she describes as “about 90-per cent Jewish,” she did not seek out a rabbi to help her on her way. Instead, she spoke to the pastor of her church, Dr. Charles Queen. “He was a very erudite man; he taught tenach in Hebrew, and he believed in the oneness of G-d. What happened for me was that there were a lot of philosophical things in Christianity which I questioned, such as the doctrine of original sin. But this was not something which you discussed openly with people, because they would think you had fallen off the turnip truck. “But I used to ask him, my spiritual leader, these questions, and he was able to answer some of them, to some degree of satisfaction.”
At this stage, she says, she had no idea that she wanted to convert to Judaism. She walked a solitary path, studying the Bible, saying Jewish prayers. She still did not look for a rabbi. Instead, she became close friends with a pair of travel agents, traditional Jews called Mini and Lenny Rich. The Riches kept insisting that Delores should open a travel agency specializing in tours to Israel. In 1990, Lenny sent her on a pilot tour to Israel. “The first time, I was with a group of Catholics, we were Leaving Tel Aviv, coming around that first curve into Yerushalayim. My heart started pulsating like it was coming out of my chest and I just said, “Oh my G-d, I’m at home.”
When she went back to California she told someone that she was ready to live in Israel. “He just looked at me and said. Sister Delores, please don’t tell anybody that. You’re losing it.” Convinced by the Rich Family that she should begin her own business, Delores, who was no longer married, made 14 trips to Israel in five years. Along the way, she resigned from her church. “It got to a point where I could no longer teach the Christian teaching with conviction. Anytime there was a Jewish holiday I felt compulsion to be with Jewish people.” It was in Jerusalem, after an emotional Kol Nidre service at the Yakar Centre, that Delores realized she was ready to convert to Judaism.
She had become friendly with a Jewish documentary-film-maker, Ruth Broyde-Sharon, who was looking at the way non-Jewish communities took part in Pesach. Delores’s church, the Strait Way Church, held a Passover Seder. After the filming was over, the two women began to organize “Festivals of Freedom,” Taking multi-cultural group to Egypt and Israel. On one of these tours, Delores and Ruth Broyde-Sharon went to see Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief Rabbi of Ireland who is now director of the Anti-Defamation League in Jerusalem.
“He told me that I shouldn’t be called Delores, but Ahuvah (Beloved). Ahuvah Gray began to study Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva in Israel and attached herself to the Nishmat seminary, where she could study Judaism. Of her immediate family, she says, it was only her elder sister who had difficulty with Ahuva’s new life. “She called me and asked how I could possibly be an ordained minister and not go to church. But my parents, when I went to tell them I was converting, gave me their blessing. My mother just looked at me and said, “I know any decision you have made about that, you’ve thoroughly investigated. ”
On her 51st birthday, in 1997, Ahuvah emerged from the mikveh in Jerusalem as an Orthodox Jew. She had moved from California to a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. She was studying at Nishmat and she had surrounded herself with Jewish friends. Her conversion complete, she went straight home and began to write.
The book that emerged, “My Sister, the Jew,” is due to be published in June. The title derives from her old life as Sister Delores. “It was not hard for me to take on the duties of Jewish life,” she says. “There is a psalm which says, ‘My soul thirsts for the courts of God.’ I found what I had been looking for for 49 years, a spiritual thirst. When I found it, I knew this was it.” While she knows full well the restriction on referring to her past life, Ahuvah Gray has deliberately opened up and offered details of her journey to Judaism. ” The reason I have made myself an open book and go around telling my story is because people tell me that I inspire them. For me, being from a Gentile background and being told by a Jew that I inspire them- -I don’t have words for it