Two more case studies
of ‘Jews by Choice’
The Mavericks book included several interviews with ‘Jews by Choice’. Here are two more of interest which did not make it into print for space reasons. In both cases, people who arrived as outsiders, soon became insiders – and community leaders.
By IRWIN MANOIM
Kathryn Peck is thus an ideal example of someone who came from outside but became very much of an insider. She is a former chairman of Beit Emanuel synagogue in Johannesburg (the first “convert” to become chairman), a member of the Guardians committee (which consists of former chairs and treasurers), and also of the Jewish Identity Committee, whose members, selected for their religious knowledge, sit with the rabbi to decide on ritual practices.
Kaythryn’s parents were secular, anti-apartheid left-wingers, many of whose friends had been banned, jailed or fled the country during the post-Sharpeville period. Her mother had been sent to a convent at age six, which “developed in her a complete hatred of religion”. Kathryn was head girl of Roosevelt High, which was not a Jewish school, but had an unusually large number of Jewish pupils.
When Kathryn’s father died suddenly in 2000, she noticed that her family and their social circle “lacked any cultural resources, rituals or traditions to draw on to help us with our loss”. She realised that “other than low-key birthday events … there had been no events to celebrate the specialness of any of us, or the specialness of any life events.”
A year later, a childhood friend lost her husband, and Kathryn was impressed by the way a Progressive rabbi had arranged “a rich and meaningful, yet individualised occasion” for the funeral. Kathryn’s family had always had Jewish friends, albeit secular Jews. Her sister Mary Rose had been converted by Rabbi Ady Assabi in 1986 when she married a Jewish lawyer involved with the trade unions. Kathryn decided to follow, almost two decades later, embarking upon a conversion course at Temple Emanuel in 2003. Six years later, she was chairman of the congregation.
What surprised her initially was how small the Jewish community was, and in particular, how few Progressive Jews. She never considered an Orthodox conversion; the values did not appeal to her. “I was looking for a tribe without a tribalist God.” What she came to appreciate among the Progressives was “an organised community with humanist ideals, yet with a sense of deeper spiritual purpose and meaning and an amazing sense of the value of each individual”. She also was “amazed to discover how lovely the texts were, from the prayer books to the Tanach. I had always loved poetry, but had very little exposure to the beauty of the Jewish written tradition … this has been a deeply meaningful homecoming which I continue to love, enjoy and grow with.”
uth and Virgil Challens
Husband and wife Ruth and Virgil Challens converted together during 2008 to 2010. Ruth and Virgil, now known as Rivka and Eytan, are examples of passionate commitment: always among the first to volunteer for the small but necessary duties of running a synagogue, from ticketing to minding the gate. They have served on a number of committees, with Ruth serving two terms as vice chairman of management at Beit Emanuel.
Ruth grew up in Port Elizabeth, second of four daughters and the “tomboy” of a close-knit family that can trace parts of its ancestry back to the 1820 British settlers on the paternal side and the early Dutch settlers on the other. Nonetheless, during the apartheid era, the family was classified “coloured”. Ruth’s father, lacking a son, schooled her in fixing cars. His boss was a Jewish man, a Mr Menter. Ruth recalls her father sharing Mr Menter’s concerns about his family in Israel during the Six Day War.
Her childhood entertainment included visits to the beach, which due to segregation, meant the “unsafe” beaches on the opposite side of the bay, full of cross-currents and bluebottles. In June 1976, when unrest flared across the country, pupils and teachers at her school, Paterson High, joined in the demonstrations. “I was a bit of an activist,” she says. A year later, when Steve Biko was detained and murdered in Port Elizabeth (September 1977), the protests flared again. At one demonstration, against the arrest of a biology teacher (who was never seen again), police rounded up the students, Ruth included. “We were incarcerated a few days,” she says as a throw-away remark, “On my release, I had to promise my parents to concentrate on my matric”.
She married young, had a son, but soon divorced her first husband. She moved to Johannesburg and studied credit management through Unisa and Damelin College. She met Virgil in 1997 while he was holidaying in Port Elizabeth, and married him soon after. He was born in Lichtenberg, in what is now North West Province, with ancestors who could be traced back to French settlers. His mother named him after the ancient Roman poet. His father died in a fire that erupted while he was servicing a motor-bike. Virgil, then three years old, was badly burnt in the fire. His widowed mother, struggling to make ends meet, sent Virgil first to a Catholic boarding school in Barberton, then a state school in Johannesburg. “The apartheid-style education was unfortunately forced on both of us,” says Ruth. Virgil worked to support his mother and siblings, studying part time at a technical college in Riverlea, outside Johannesburg. He too, married young, then divorced. Between them, Ruth and Virgil have four adult sons and ten grandchildren, two of whom are also converting to Judaism.
Both were “what you would call good Christians … we attended Church regularly, gave the tithe as was required and instilled good Christian values into our sons.” They cycled between the evangelical and Pentecostal churches Rhema and the Apostolic Faith Mission Church (AFM), “the happy-clappy type” as Ruth puts it, whose practices include speaking in tongues and spontaneous singing and prayer. These churches have enormous followings of all races (AFM has 1.2 million followers in South Africa) and build mega-churches capable of accommodating tens of thousands.
During the apartheid era they were segregated into separate white, African, coloured and Indian branches. Their religious practices are polar opposites of Progressive Judaism. They practice a literalist reading of scriptures as the authoritative word of God, regard all humanity as sinners in need of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and consider homosexuality a sin. “We were taught to shun homosexuals, but this was something very difficult and emotional for us to do, as both of us had friends and family members from the LGBT communities. So the feelings of discomfort with the church, started way back then.”
Around Christmas 1999, Ruth and Virgil paid their first visit to the Holy Land, a tour organised by their church. “As we alighted from the El Al plane, my husband and I went on all fours and kissed the ground.” They were rushed about from holy site to holy site, but “when we came to Jerusalem and were standing at the Kotel, something happened inside of me. I experienced an overwhelming sense of home-coming and belonging. I closed my eyes and basked in this wonderful feeling. I tarried at the Kotel, reading from the Book of Psalms while others in my group left …” When their plane took off on the return flight, the pilot circled Jerusalem. “I gazed at the lights of Jerusalem: the city looked like jewels from the night sky. I started weeping uncontrollably …”
Seven years later, Ruth’s son discovered an advertisement for the annual Israel Now tours organised by Reeva Forman, chairman of Temple Israel in Johannesburg. Unlike the previous tour, in which the Christian pilgrims kept largely to themselves, Ruth was now one of four non-Jews in a large Jewish group that met with Israelis and Palestinians. And for the first time in her life, she attended a synagogue service. “I will always remember the most beautiful singing and chanting of the chazzan, and the beautiful sound of the Hebrew language.”
On her return, Ruth shared her experiences with her husband, and the two began questioning their pastors as to why Christians did not keep the Fourth Commandment (“Honour the Seventh Day and keep it Holy”). They were told it applied only to Jews, not Christians. This troubled them. “We discovered that the Roman Catholic Church took full responsibility for that change. Because of their Replacement Theology beliefs - that the Christian Church replaced Israel - they refused to accept that the Saturday is the actual Sabbath.” Virgil started doing internet research into Jewish prayer rituals. “We started doing prayers on an Erev Shabbat night, even the whole hand-washing rituals; and we often invited these same pastors to join in.”
They attended SA Zionist Federation events. They also attended services at Reeva Forman’s Temple Israel, including a communal Pesach seder. “The highlight, though, was a Simchat Torah service led by Dr David Bilchitz. I was simply amazed at how the Torah was esteemed and respected.” In 2008, they joined seven thousand people celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Photographers from different publications, evidently intrigued to find the pair in a sea of white faces, took photographs of them wearing oversized, glitter-encrusted “Israel 60” spectacles. One picture of Virgil appeared in the next day’s Citizen (alongside anti-Israel protest photographs), another of Ruth in a Zionist Federation magazine.
They decided to convert. The rabbi at Northcliff shul turned them down, as did two other Orthodox rabbis, “as Orthodox rabbis must do, they told us it was difficult and dangerous.” They met with a Reform rabbi in Sandton. Reeva Forman arranged a meeting in 2008 with Rabbi Robert Ash of the neighbouring Temple Emanuel. “So it was not a conscious decision, choosing between Progressive and Orthodoxy - I think Progressive Judaism found us. In hindsight, after learning the differences, it was definitely the right decision for us. The acceptance of all, inclusivity, egalitarianism, performing mitzvot, embracing the new traditions and customs, it all felt just right.” In 2010 they appeared before the Beit Din to complete the process.
Since then they have been active in fund-raising, feeding schemes and caring for the less fortunate, have attended Zionist Federation and Jewish Board of Deputies conferences, all the Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Ha’Zikaron celebrations, gone on solidarity marches in Glenhazel and protest marches to Pretoria in support of Israel. In 2013 Ruth attended the World Union’s Beutel programme in Jerusalem, designed to prepare the next generation of international leaders of the Progressive movement. ”We are grateful to God for having brought us on this spiritual journey, for now we can truly say that we believe in the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. And it is a continuous, exciting journey of studying and learning, Baruch Hashem!”