Susan Sofayov, who was not born Jewish, nonetheless always had a “fascination” with Judaism, particularly Jews living in Israel and the idea of Jewish peoplehood.
“The more I learned about the religion, the more it made sense to me,” said Sofayov.
About 35 years ago, she turned her interest into action, got in touch with a Conservative rabbi at a congregation in Philadelphia, where she was then living, and began to study in earnest. After about a year, that rabbi told her that it was time to take the next step, sent her to an Orthodox rabbi, and after more learning with him, Sofayov was questioned before a Bet Din, immersed in the mikvah and became a Jew.
Fitting in with the Jewish community at large was not easy at first, Sofayov said.
“You feel like you have a scarlet ‘C’ on your chest,” she recalled. “It’s an awkward feeling.”
Judaism aspires to be an inclusive religion that is open to welcoming people who want to become Jewish. Yet, while members of the tribe who were born into Judaism may accept the convert with open arms, there are aspects to being Jewish that can be elusive, at least at first, to one who chooses Judaism.
Shortly after Sofayov converted, she moved to Israel with her husband and lived there for several years. When they moved back to the States, to Squirrel Hill, and joined an Orthodox congregation, Sofayov “felt like people looked at me like I was different. But maybe it was more me than them.”
As a convert to Judaism, Sofayov said she brought along her own sensitivities.
“Most people are very welcoming,” she acknowledged. “But Judaism is more than religion. It’s a culture. I was a bit uncomfortable, because I didn’t grow up with the traditions — with the foods and the Yiddish slang. I didn’t know what the word yiddishkeit meant. I had to learn what kugel was.
“That’s what was the most challenging,” she added. “That’s what made me feel left out and like an outsider. Religion is only part of the conversion process.”
After more than three decades of being Jewish, Sofayov is now fully comfortable in her Jewish skin.
“It’s not an obstacle for me anymore,” said Sofayov, who now lives in Mt. Lebanon and attends Chabad of the South Hills. She has pooled traditions and insights from her Israeli sisters-in-law and from Jewish friends to fill in the gaps that she didn’t pick up in her conversion classes. In fact, she is so confident now in her Judaism, she has even written a novel, “The Kiddish Ladies,” which focuses on Jewish characters preparing food in a synagogue’s kitchen. One of the characters is a convert.
Stacey Reibach has been Jewish since 1998, but had been living a Jewish life in Colorado for several years prior to that time with her Jewish husband and their two children. She had been participating in Jewish activities and running fundraisers for the Jewish preschool her kids were attending.
She finally decided to convert when the preschool director asked her to light candles at services, and the rabbi said she could not. The preschool director had assumed that Reibach was Jewish.
“I said, ‘This sucks,’” Reibach recalled. “I can do all the work, but not have any of the honors.”
She began studying with the rabbi and continued for nine months without telling her husband, not wanting to get his hopes up in case she decided not to convert. But in the end, she was more than ready to throw in her lot with the Jewish people.
The family moved to Pittsburgh after a stint in North Carolina, where they lived two hours from the closest synagogue. They came to the Steel City to have a better Jewish life.
“I’m all in,” said Reibach, who has been active in many Jewish communal organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. She has felt embraced by the community since arriving here, she said.
“I joined Beth El [of the South Hills], and within the first few months, I was asked to be vice president of membership,” she said. “I was absolutely welcomed with open arms.”
Reibach said she does not hide the fact that she is a convert.
“I just kind of own it,” she said. “I’m very open about my conversion process. And I have never not been asked to do something or not given an honor because I am a convert.”
Mollie Hanna Lang, who converted earlier this year, has always felt a connection to the Jewish people. Married to a Jewish man and raising Jewish children, it was nonetheless not a given that Hanna would eventually convert.
Hanna, who even joined a historically Jewish sorority while in college, “always had a very comfortable connection to my Jewish friends and family,” she said. “It always felt like home to me.”
After she was married, going to church became less meaningful to her, she said, and the intellectual aspect of Judaism looked more appealing.
When she took an introduction to Judaism course at Rodef Shalom Congregation, she hoped it would help her become “this incredibly wonderful shiksa mom” to her three daughters, whom she was raising Jewish.
But at the end of the class, when she and her husband were meeting with Rabbi Sharyn Henry to discuss how to raise Jewish children, “I blurted out, ‘I’m a Jew,’” Hanna said. “That’s just who I am. Why would I deny that?”
Hanna has been embraced by the Jewish community, she said, although there are areas where she feels “tentative.”
“I don’t know Hebrew, or all the rules, or all the stories,” she said. “I feel I have a lot to learn. But I feel very welcomed into the community, and I always have — even when I wasn’t Jewish.”
Valerie Monaco, likewise, does not feel that being a convert in any way impedes full participation in Jewish life here.
Monaco converted in 2013 after living a Jewish life for many years with her wife and daughter.
“It was a natural progression,” Monaco said of her Jewish journey.
“I have always felt welcome and comfortable as a Jew,” she said. “I have never experienced any sense of unease.”
Monaco’s conversion process took place over a period of years, she said, and its gradual progression ensured that she “never felt in over my head, or not knowing what was going on.”
While being born a Jew does imbue a person with past experiences to build on, being a convert may offer a perspective on Judaism that those born Jewish miss, according to Sofayov.
“I worked harder to be a Jew than I did for a college education and a master’s degree,” she said. “I put a lot of work into it and a lot of effort. Sometimes people who are not converts don’t see the beauty of their own religion. They take it for granted.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.