Baptized Catholic in Germany, shes now a Jew in Menlo Park

Shortly after her birth 44 years ago, Frauke Schimmöller was baptized Catholic. In Germany.

She never dreamed that one day she would become Jewish. In America.

But two weeks ago, that’s exactly what happened.

She took the plunge, literally, first going to the community mikvah in Los Gatos and then meeting with three rabbis, who constituted a beit din, or rabbinical court.

Frauke Schimmöller photo/jerome spector

Following that ritual conversion, the ceremony continued at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where she talked about her unexpected journey from German Catholic to American Jew.

Like many Jews-by-choice, Schimmöller had married a Jewish partner — four years ago in the outdoor chapel at Beth Am, during the brief window of time when same-sex marriages were legal in California.

Adding a further twist to the story is that her partner since 1997, Lisa Whitmore, was not Jewish when the two met. In 2005, shortly before Whitmore’s conversion, they joined Beth Am together.

“Fifteen years ago when I met Lisa, the thought of me joining a synagogue, let alone converting to Judaism, would have sounded crazy — inconceivable may be the more appropriate term,” said Schimmöller, who works at a Bay Area biotech firm. “Thinking about it now, [becoming Jewish] does not seem crazy at all; it feels totally natural.”

Being gay posed no barriers at Beth Am, which has many LGBT members and a gay associate rabbi, Adam Rosenwasser. However, Schimmöller saw being German as problematic.

“I still squirm in my seat when the topic of the Shoah comes up, having internalized the national guilt,” she admitted in her speech at her Aug. 19 ceremony. “I have never been able to grasp how anybody, let alone my ancestors, a cultured people, could have perpetrated such unthinkable atrocities.”

Aware that Schimmöller occasionally overhears anti-German remarks from Jews, Rabbi Janet Marder said, “I think it’s courageous of her to place herself in a community” where such attitudes remain. The rabbi observed that for Schimmöller, who was raised in a non-religious household in Germany, becoming Jewish may be “a way to give something to the Jewish people, her own personal act of tikkun olam.”

During the conversion ceremony, Whitmore wrapped her spouse in a silver-striped woolen tallit she had purchased in Israel.

The tallit and the certificate of conversion culminated a journey that began seven years ago, with Whitmore’s conversion. Since then, Schimmöller has been living a Jewish life, attending services and Torah study and celebrating Shabbat in the Menlo Park home she shares with Whitmore, 45, a software developer.

Schimmöller said that before making it official, she was an ABC — “all but converted.” Along the way, she took the Lehrhaus Judaica class “Building Blocks of Judaism” and studied with Marder.

Schimmöller took the Hebrew name Tovah, which conveys kindness, in memory of a beloved brother, Uwe, who died in a motorcycle accident 17 years ago at age 30. She added the letter H at the end to honor her late father, Heinrich, a university professor who completed high school as an adult, and then went on to earn a doctorate.

Although some Jews-by-choice experience opposition from non-Jewish family members, Schimmöller did not.

Her mother in Germany had sent a card, voicing her support. Moreover, Lisa’s mother traveled from Puyallup, Wash., where she belongs to a Lutheran church. At the service, Karen Whitmore quoted from Psalm 139, which expresses God’s knowledge of our thoughts and actions.

Karen Whitmore said she was surprised by the conversions of her daughter and daughter-in-law, but she was nonetheless pleased. “We come to God in all different ways,” she said.

For Lisa Whitmore, who did not pressure her partner, the conversion was an act of shalom, of completion. “It’s like being whole. We’re both on the same page. It feels good.”

Janet Silver Ghent