A young college student, a Jewish girl named Michelle, walks up to the front, surprising the minister
unday, July 26, 1981. The scene: a small, one-room church filled with rows of pews.The congregation sings a hymn, after which Joseph, the minister, invites anyone who wishes to confess their sins or be baptized to come forward. A young college student, a Jewish girl named Michelle, walks up to the front, surprising the minister.
Joseph’s eyes widen. “Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes,” the girl says.
The congregation sings another hymn, and a curtain opens at the back of the church, revealing a baptism pool. The girl dons a plastic robe, immerses in the water, and is pronounced a Christian.
As a child growing up in a Chicago suburb in the late 1960s, I dreaded Sunday school at the Reform temple. I hated missing Sunday morning cartoons on TV, and I didn’t understand why I had to learn Hebrew and hear all about Israel.
My parents were gastronomical and social Jews: They ate bagels and lox and preferred associating with Jewish friends. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, my father went to temple for Yizkor.
My parents encouraged me to be friends with Jews, but honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between the Jewish kids and the Catholics. At my parents’ urging, I attended Reform or Conservative youth activities, but I found them disappointing and meaningless.
When I was ten, my brother Zack celebrated his bar mitzvah, after studying a lot of Hebrew in preparation for the event. Subsequently, when my parents offered me the choice between a bat mitzvah or a Sweet 16, I immediately opted for the latter, which wouldn’t require any Hebrew. At that point, my parents canceled their membership at the Reform temple.
By the time I was ready for college, I knew I wanted little to do with Jews, whom I found materialistic and shallow. I chose to attend Illinois State University, where there were few Jewish students.
In college, I studied special education for the visually impaired. One of my classmates, Stacey, was mostly blind, having lost her vision due to a medical error; her doctor had prescribed a medication that destroyed her eyesight.
“Did your parents sue the doctor?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied. “They felt that it was G-d’s will.”
Her answer astounded me. “Do you think it was G-d’s will?” I challenged her.
“Yes,” she answered simply.
I had never before met someone with that type of attitude.
Stacey’s family belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church that had recently embarked on a nationwide campus-outreach campaign. Fascinated by her faith-based outlook on life, I began conversing with her about religion, and she invited me to attend Bible studies classes, which were given by the campus minister’s wife every Thursday night in our dorm meeting room.
I had no interest in attending these classes, but Stacey kept urging me to come, and eventually I felt uncomfortable saying no. One Thursday night, when I had nothing else to do, I finally agreed to attend.
The campus minister’s wife, Linda, focused on a section of the New Testament that discussed interpersonal transgressions — jealousy, hatred, discord, and the like — and the concepts she discussed resonated deeply with me. Wow, I thought to myself. I believe in this!
Only much later did I discover that prior to my first appearance at the Bible study, Linda had called a special meeting of campus ministry members where they strategized how best to attract newcomers. Not only had Linda selected the text and discussion material for my first class based on what Stacey told her I would be interested in, she had also charged various girls in the class with the task of actively befriending me. One girl was to invite me out for dinner, another was to slip kind notes under my door. Everyone was to tell me “I love you” on a regular basis. In general, they were to shower me with attention and affection — all for the purpose of subtly warming me to their faith.
I was a popular student and had lots of friends, but I was still touched by their friendly overtures, even if I was slightly suspicious of their motives. I was also very impressed by the purity of their lifestyle: They abstained completely from alcohol, drugs, and non-committed relationships. I had been hoping for years to find spiritual meaning in life, and these people seemed to have found it.
Almost by default, I continued attending the Thursday night Bible classes. Around the middle of the semester, Linda offered to study with me one-on-one, and after she made the offer numerous times, I accepted. I also started attending Sunday church services and Friday night devotional meetings with the campus ministry group. All this happened very organically; I enjoyed being spiritually uplifted and spending time with so many positive, happy people.
Around this time, a new Hillel group formed on my college campus, and, as one of the few Jews on campus, I was repeatedly invited to join their events.
“We’re organizing a hayride this Friday night,” one of the members told me once. “Why don’t you come along?”
I knew almost nothing about Judaism, but I did know that Friday night is not a time for hayrides. I didn’t attend the event, and the invitation only reinforced to me that there was nothing to Judaism except a bunch of Jews thinking they should stick together.
Toward the end of the college year, Linda inquired about my summer plans, and I replied that I planned to remain on campus for the summer semester. “You know,” she remarked, “three girls from our group are staying over the summer and looking for a fourth roommate.”
Linda was also able to help me get a lifeguard job, since the head of campus recreation belonged to our church.
Before the summer semester began, I spent the two-week intersession break at home. When I let on to my parents that I had some new Christian friends, my mother was spooked, and she urged me to meet with a local Reform rabbi. I agreed to meet with him, but he was more interested in touting his PhD in psychology than in proving that Judaism had any relevance. When he pointed to the dozens of psychology books on his shelves, I noticed that there wasn’t a single Hebrew book among them.
I left the meeting unimpressed; the rabbi hadn’t told me anything meaningful about Judaism, nor had he even tried to disprove Christianity.
I returned to campus and joined my friends in their apartment.
Here and there, Linda or her husband, Joseph, would drop odd statements like, “You’re going to be a great Christian,” or, “If your parents disown you, we’ll be your family.”
Meanwhile, I found myself thinking a lot about heaven and hell — a fundamental concept of Christianity — and wondering where I was headed.
One day, one of my roommates, Amanda, candidly told me, “You’re getting all the benefits of being a Christian without actually being one.”
Hearing this made me feel that it was only right of me to take the next step and convert. Still, I had trouble accepting the idea that their “savior” was the messiah, so I approached Joseph. “If you can prove to me that JC is the messiah,” I challenged him, “then I’ll consider converting.”
In response, he showed me various passages in the Old Testament, including verses that describe how the “savior” was afflicted for our sins. Not being familiar with these passages, I readily accepted his explanations.
My confusion intensified. Should I convert? I pondered. Will I go to heaven or hell? These thoughts kept invading my mind, while church hymns reverberated in the background of my consciousness.
One Saturday morning, the campus ministry held a picnic, where we played a dizzying relay race. After completing my relay, while I was cheering for my team, a six-foot teammate barreled into me, knocking me to the ground. Lying on the ground, dazed, I saw my friends gathered around me, obviously concerned. No one besides my family loves me the way they do, I thought.
Later that day, after recovering from my fall, I worked as the lifeguard at a swim meet.
When the swim meet was over, it was already dark, but I couldn’t get the door outside the pool to lock, and I couldn’t leave without locking the pool. I called campus security to come, but it seemed like an eternity before they showed up, and in the meantime I was alone at the pool in the dark. Frightened, I kept thinking, What if someone comes here and drowns me? Will I go to heaven or hell?
After finally getting away from the pool, I headed to a party hosted by a fellow lifeguard, the kind of party that included loud music, alcohol, and worse. I didn’t know anyone else there except the other lifeguard, who quickly disappeared after I arrived. When I tried to engage people in conversation, I was mostly rebuffed — something that had never happened to me before. I thought about how, when people attended a Christian event for the first time, numerous people would greet them and make them feel welcome.
I returned to my apartment late Saturday night smelling of smoke and feeling horrible. My friends, who had been worriedly waiting up for me, greeted me with concern, but were clearly disappointed in me for regressing from my “pure” life.
The following morning in church, while watching another college student get baptized, tears fell from my eyes as I thought to myself, That should really be me. Amanda sensed my distress, and we later sat in our room and discussed it. She encouraged me to take the plunge and get baptized that night at the Sunday evening church services. We planned my dream baptism, with all of my favorite hymns, calling the assistant campus minister to arrange it without divulging our plan to Joseph.
That evening, when Joseph invited attendees to come forward and be baptized, I shocked him, and everyone else, by walking up the aisle to the front of the church.
Before baptizing me, he addressed the congregation and spoke about my rich Jewish heritage. “Now, Michelle will become a completed Jew,” he concluded triumphantly.
When I informed my parents that I had converted, they went ballistic, screaming and crying on the phone. “How could you do this to us?” my mother bawled.
The next time I went home, after the summer session had ended, a tense atmosphere greeted me, and my mother asked me to see the Reform rabbi again.
“You’re a disgrace to the community!” the rabbi yelled at me. “You’re worse than Hitler!”
I walked out of that meeting thinking to myself, Thank G-d I’m not Jewish.
Zack, my only sibling, was dabbling in drugs at that point, and my mother decided to take us all for family therapy. The therapist, a nonreligious Jew, didn’t really understand what her issue was. When my mother complained about Zack doing drugs, the therapist responded, “It’s just a little marijuana, big deal.” And when she complained about me converting, the therapist said, “So what? It’s just another religion.”
Around this time, my grandmother watched a television show about a rabbi in California who deprogrammed Jewish kids who had fallen prey to missionaries and cults. She told my mother about this rabbi, and when my mother contacted him, he directed my mother to another rabbi in New York.
During one of our family therapy sessions, my mother asked me if I would go to New York and spend some time with this rabbi, Yedidya Stein.
My initial reaction was to refuse, but then the therapist intervened. “Maybe give it some thought,” she said. “You don’t need to answer immediately.”
A thought popped into my head. “Mom,” I asked, “If I agree to go to New York, would you spend a weekend with my minister?”
She immediately agreed.
Before flying to New York, I asked Joseph to review the proofs of Christianity’s authenticity with me. After hearing him cite the same few textual references as before, I thought to myself, That’s it?
When I landed at La Guardia Airport a few days after my graduation, Rabbi Stein and his daughter were waiting for me at the gate. I took one look at him, with his obvious Jewish appearance, and thought nervously, I think he knows more than I do.
Rabbi Stein drove me to his house and introduced me to his wife, Adina, who had once belonged to a Hindu cult. They were both baalei teshuvah, and had met when she was on her way out of the cult. After helping her extricate herself completely, he began working to “deprogram” other Jews who had fallen prey to cults and missionaries. Upon the recommendation of the rabbi in California, my mother had arranged for me to stay with the Steins for a week of deprogramming — or, as the Steins called it, “experiencing Jewish life.”
“We’re not going to force anything on you,” Rabbi Stein assured me. “We’re just going to show you what Judaism is and have you meet a few people, if you’re willing.”
“I’m willing to meet anyone,” I responded. After all, I considered myself open-minded.
Adina took me to meet an elderly rosh yeshivah, who told me, in his deep Yiddish accent, “If you’re searching for the truth, you must look in your own backyard before looking in your neighbor’s!”
“I looked in my own backyard for 22 years,” I retorted, “and found it shallow and meaningless.”
“You haven’t explored your own backyard!” he repeated, deeply distressed.
Following that encounter, I remember looking out the window while tears streamed down my face. Only much later did I realize how his words had awakened my neshamah.
Rabbi Stein learned with me a few times, showing me the beauty and authenticity of the Torah, and I spent much of that week with Adina, who showed me Jewish life in real time. We made challah together, prepared meals, and talked. A lot. One thing she said penetrated deeply. “A person can believe in something wholeheartedly,” she reflected, “only to realize later that it’s not the truth. It can be difficult to accept that what you believed in was false, but acknowledging that can be transformative.”
On Friday I experienced the rhythm of Shabbos preparations: the hard work, the anticipation, the spiritual infusing the mundane. As sundown approached, I lit my very first Shabbos candles. Was it magical? I’m not sure, but I’m certain that my neshamah was awakening even more.
The meals at the Stein home that Shabbos — my first authentic Shabbos — were replete with songs, inspiring divrei Torah, and stories. One of the guests was a baal teshuvah named Berel, who had a long discussion with me about G-d.
Then came the big question. “After spending a week with Mrs. Stein,” he asked, “do you think she is living her life to the best of her ability and pleasing G-d?”
Knowing where this was leading, I was hesitant to answer, but I finally said yes.
The next question was more difficult, and drove directly at the crux of Christianity. “If that’s so,” he continued, “when she dies, will she go to heaven or hell?”
My brain told me that G-d wouldn’t reject a person who was so deeply devoted to serving Him, but I had been indoctrinated to believe otherwise.
At a Melaveh Malkah the Steins hosted that night, I met a guest named Moshe who, like me, had converted to Christianity during college, but had later reembraced Judaism. Initially, I was reluctant to accept his reasons for ultimately rejecting Christianity, insisting that his denomination of Christianity had been the wrong one.
Hearing his story gave me pause, however. After he converted to Christianity, his mother studied an English Chumash carefully, and then showed him the places in the Torah where G-d declares that His covenant with the Jewish People is eternal. When Moshe presented these verses to his minister, he advised Moshe to speak to a rabbi, and that was the end of Moshe’s stint as a Christian.
After Shabbos, I decided to stay for the summer and learn more about Judaism.
“Your Christian friends will not take kindly to this decision,” Rabbi Stein warned me. Sure enough, I was bombarded with letters and phone calls from my friends pressuring me to return.
Amanda wrote, “You must be staying there because you’re getting tons of attention there, and you love attention.”
“Actually,” I wrote back to her, “if I wanted attention, I would hurry back to the church.”
Meanwhile, Berel and I studied the book The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity. I soon realized that the proofs Joseph had armed me with were pathetically flimsy and had been taken completely out of context. I discovered, for instance, that when the verse refers to the suffering of a servant it is actually talking about the Jewish People in singular form, having no connection whatsoever to the “savior.”
While the Steins never pressured me to embrace Judaism, I felt terribly torn, alternating between doubting the “savior” and feeling gripped with terror that I would go to hell for rejecting him. Eventually, I realized that I could no longer accept Christianity.
But I was not interested in becoming frum yet, either. In fact, I was unprepared to absorb anything the Steins told me, because I had lost my ability to trust. Feeling that I had been duped into converting to Christianity, I wasn’t going to let myself be talked into another religion so fast, even if it was my own, and even if it was unquestionably the truth.
Rabbi Stein and his wife were open to my challenges and patiently addressed all of my questions, no matter how antagonistic I was. “In the process of converting,” Rabbi Stein observed, “you gave up part of your personality. Go find yourself again. If you decide you want to be religious, we’ll help you, but we’re not here to make you frum.”
An associate of Rabbi Stein’s sent me on numerous speaking engagements to synagogues, and this became a huge part of my “deprogramming.” Each time I spoke, I gained a better understanding of what had happened to me: In order to “save my soul,” the campus ministry had employed highly orchestrated tactics to control my milieu and envelop me with “love,” all for the purpose of leading me to embrace their religion. Along with being spiritually stimulated, I had been drawn to them emotionally, and that emotional bond had overpowered my natural intellectual resistance, blurring my thinking to the extent that their beliefs started making sense to me.
I remained in Brooklyn for the year, helping the Steins and working with families like mine whose child had been ensnared by missionaries or cults. Answering phone calls from tearful, desperate mothers helped me understand what my parents had endured.
I continued to absorb authentic Judaism by being around the Steins, meeting other wonderful frum Jews, attending some classes, and experiencing the beauty of Shabbos every week. I knew in my heart that Judaism was the truth, but I couldn’t yet bring myself to embrace it completely.
Eventually, after returning to Chicago, I was ready to start learning about Judaism seriously and taking on mitzvah observance. My parents were again unhappy. They hadn’t wanted me to be Christian; they wanted me to be a good Jewish girl, which to them meant living a secular lifestyle.
Slowly, I became integrated in the frum community of Chicago. Although I was still suspicious of being befriended for the purpose of saving my soul, and wary of intensely emotional religious experiences, I sensed the truth of Yiddishkeit and appreciated the genuine warmth of the frum people I got to know. I was also impressed with their purity, the sanctity of their relationships, and the wholesomeness of their lifestyle. I had been drawn to these qualities among my Christian friends as well, not realizing that their moral values came directly from Judaism, upon which Christianity is based.
Those Christian friends had been genuinely warm to me as well. They, too, were convinced that they possessed the truth and were intent on showing me the light. But now that I was no longer being subtly manipulated by them, or by anyone, I was able to take my time to contemplate and honestly appraise Judaism. Eventually, I recognized the wisdom of the elderly rosh yeshivah’s advice to look in my own backyard for the truth.
ast-forward 37 years from the time of my baptism. I’m a middle-aged, sheitel-wearing frum mother of five children who attended yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs and a grandmother of seven grandchildren who are following in this beautiful Jewish derech that I embraced. Most people who meet me would not dream that I’m a baalas teshuvah, much less one who took a detour through Christianity.
What made me a ripe candidate for the machinations of the campus ministry group was my complete lack of understanding of Judaism and my sincere desire for spirituality. Although it wasn’t an active search, I always wanted a spiritual connection to G-d, and Christianity seemed to offer that, while Judaism continually didn’t.
If a Jewish soul is lacking a spiritual connection, it will find something else to latch onto. For me it was Christianity, because for better or for worse, people will be drawn to those who care about them. If Jews are genuinely friendly to you, you’ll want to be Jewish. And if Christians are friendly to you, well, do the math.
People think that to “do kiruv,” you need to be a “professional,” or at least have some formal training. But in truth, the best way to reach out to people is just by being genuinely friendly and warm. If sheker can draw people close through love and warmth, then emes certainly can.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 768)
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