Turning over a new belief

Jodi Tharan grew up in Big Love country.

Her hometown of Provo snuggles up against Utah’s stony Wasatch Mountains. There, about 45 years ago, Tharan’s teenaged mother chucked the Mormonism of her forbears and defiantly bore a daughter out of wedlock. As a child, Jodi shuttled between her mother and her Mormon grandparents, who raised her in the religion of the Latter-Day Saints.

One day, out of the blue, recalls Tharan, “My grandmother said to me, ‘Jodi, you seem to have a Jewish soul.'”

Her grandmother, a well-read woman on spiritual subjects, couldn’t have known how right she was. Today, Tharan is a Jew, having converted more than 10 years ago.

Her two children attend Oakland Hebrew Day School. She is a member of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, and she says there have been moments during prayer when “I was so transported, you had to hold me to the ground.”

Contented as she is with Judaism, Tharan says life as a Jew-by-choice hasn’t always been easy. The many challenges converts face include culture clash, finding a welcoming Jewish “home,” and dealing with uncomprehending family and friends.

Most say the struggles are worth it. But like the Jewish people as a whole, Jews-by-choice reflect widely varying degrees of observance and faith.

Psychologist Louise Stirpe-Gill, 53, went through the conversion process at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hill more than five years ago. The former Catholic schoolgirl describes herself today as a “services junkie,” and considers Jewish spirituality central to her being. In some ways, it was always so.

“As a child I was always interested in Judaism,” recalls the Trenton, N.J., native, “and I asked if I was Jewish. The Jewish kids were bright and educated. All my friends were Jewish.”

In college Stirpe-Gill studied comparative religion and maintained her strong interest in Judaism. Long before her actual conversion, she attended services at Stanford University Hillel, and read as much as she could about the religion.

The final impetus came in 2000 when a close friend, dying from cancer, told Stirpe-Gill to “hurry up.” She started attending services at Beth Am and studying Hebrew, something that proved a challenge.

“I was afraid I was too old for that,” she says, “but [Beth Am Rabbi Janet Marder] had tremendous confidence in me. The other congregants were really supportive, congratulating me if they saw me studying in the library. The first time I looked at the actual Torah and could read what was written, I could have fallen down on the ground.”

Like Stirpe-Gill, Michael Tejeda of Walnut Creek grew up Catholic. Unlike her, he was devout, clinging to the faith into adulthood. He says growing up in Pomona near Los Angeles he had little contact with Jews or Judaism.

“I never heard anything bad about Jews in my life,” he recalls. “We didn’t know any. Even in my Catholic school upbringing, the most negative thing I heard was that the Jews of the time didn’t accept Jesus. I was educated by paranoid Polish nuns looking for anti-Catholics under every rock, but Jews were not spoken about as infidels.”

At Catholic Notre Dame University, Tejeda found his faith slipping away. By his second year he stopped going to church. Later, at U.C. Santa Barbara, he became friends with Jewish students.

“Not one was religious,” he says. “Most were Reform or nothing. But I was always reading about Judaism. I was curious about it. Jews were doing the monotheistic thing longer than the Catholics.”

He took that curiosity with him into his post-college years. He and his wife, Ellen, who is Jewish, moved to Oakland to form a book-printing business, publishing computer software manuals. “The whole time I believed in God,” he says. “I didn’t have the Christian view anymore. I had the lazy Jewish view.”

That laziness abated after the conversion of his adopted daughter, Elena. Tejeda began to study Judaism with Rabbi Ted Alexander at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, following up with lengthy conversations with Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek’s Conservative Congregation B’nai Shalom.

“I talked to Gordon and said I was interested [in conversion]. He said, ‘When you’re ready, come back and tell me.’ I knew that once I did it I would be very involved.”

He was right. Ten years after his conversion, Tejeda is a very active member of B’nai Shalom. He has been a regular attendee of services, joined the adult b’nai mitzvah class, and served on the temple board as well as various committees and executive posts. He was even asked by a local Midrasha teacher to explain Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to a Jewish audience.

“I felt different after [converting],” adds Tejeda. “You walk down the street and no one will know any better. The world goes on. But I was very happy I did it.”

For Tejeda, giving Shabbat morning drashes at his synagogue has proven one of the most gratifying forms of expressing his Judaism.

“I’m not an expert at Torah,” he says, “but I’m good at drawing lessons. I always let people know I’m a convert. In my synagogue there are a lot of converts. People don’t have an attitude about it.”

Robert Bernardo, 38, is a public information officer for the Port Authority in Oakland. He is also a Manila-born Filipino-American, raised Catholic and devoted to the church as a youngster.

But the foundation of faith began to crack once Bernardo realized he was gay. “It was a difficult period, struggling with my own identity,” he remembers. “This was when the AIDS crisis came on the scene. In Filipino culture [gay people] are invisible. It’s not that you’re rejected. Gay people are a form of amusement over there.”

By the time Bernardo finished high school, he was also finished with Catholicism, mostly because he could not reconcile the faith’s excoriation of homosexuality. For years, as he pursued a career in law enforcement, he left religion behind.

One of his life goals was to become the first openly gay Asian in the FBI. He nearly made it, but when he was ultimately denied, Bernardo, by then a San Francisco resident, reassessed his life.

“I began to think about the future,” he says. “If my role was not to be a protector, then what is my role? That got me thinking about religion again. I knew I didn’t want to do Christianity.”

In conversations with his Jewish friends, he found himself intrigued. “As a gay person exploring Judaism, all directions pointed to Sha’ar Zahav,” he recalled, referring to the San Francisco Reform congregation with a largely LGBT membership.

He met with Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel. “The rabbi talked about tikkun olam [repairing the world], and that really resonated with me,” says Bernardo. “At my core I’m an activist in important social issues. I said, ‘This fits me to a T.'”

His first Shabbat service transformed him. “It was the most wonderful experience,” he recalls. “The gay thing I didn’t care about because I knew it was a gay synagogue. The part I was nervous about was the Asian part. I wondered, ‘Am I going to be only person of color here?’ But there were African Americans and other Filipinos.”

Bernardo went on to study Judaism — including Hebrew and Talmud — at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, all with what he called wide-eyed enthusiasm. He converted in 2005.

“I will never forget my first seder at a member’s house in the Sunset,” he adds. “For a lot of LGBT Jews, the concept of feeling enslaved and the whole metaphor of freedom really resonates.”

A few years ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism raised eyebrows with his call to step up the outreach to non-Jews who might want to consider conversion. That flew in the face of Jewish tradition, which holds that converts must come to Judaism wholly on their own, and that the path should be steep and difficult.

After all, Jews are not like street-corner evangelists offering instant salvation.

But Yoffie’s message made sense to many, especially within the liberal streams of Judaism and with those who believe Jews need to use every tactic to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage.

When it comes to interfaith couples, non-Jewish partners may be even more receptive.

“There’s nothing wrong with sharing a tradition we value with those who are interested,” says Beth Am’s Marder. “Many are reluctant to share with their partner how much it matters that they have a Jewish family, and are afraid to bring up conversion. But a lot of times the partner may be open to that.”

Ex-Mormon Tharan first contemplated conversion while attending a conference on religion at the University of Vermont. Something about the Jewish presentation must have struck her, because at one point she stood up and said: “I’m looking for my rabbi.” She spent the next two years in Burlington, Vt., studying with a rabbi there and finally converting in 1996. “They gave me myself,” she recalls of the time she spent in the conversion process. “The experience of conversion was sublime and incredible.”

She settled permanently in the East Bay in 1999. She is a DeLeT fellow for day-school educators and a lifetime member of Hadassah.

“People accept me as a Jew right away,” she says. “There’s never a question. A rabbi told me we’re all Jews by choice now. If you go back far enough, it’s a ‘chosen’ kind of a thing.”

The conventional wisdom holds that converts tend to be the ultimate “true believers,” laying the piety on thicker than any native-born Jew. Yet the day-to-day reality of Jews-by-choice puts that myth to rest. Their aim is not to be holier-than-thou but to find a spiritual home where they can fit in, not necessarily stand out.

“I’m kind of a sociologist at heart,” says Tejeda, “and I sum it up this way: I’m not Ashkenazi, I’m not Mizrahi, I’m not Sephardic. I’m an American Jew.”

He quickly notes that there are some Jewish traditions even he cannot adopt. “I said to the rabbi there’s one thing I can’t do,” adds Tejada. “I can’t re-register as a Democrat.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.