I'm Converting: One Mother's Unexpected Path To Judaism

Apr 27, 2019
Originally published on April 28, 2019 11:12 am

Like millions of Jews across the county, Jane Kemp has spent the past week celebrating Passover. She attended two Seders — one with friends, the other at her synagogue in the Bay Area city of Richmond, Calif. This year, she was in charge of putting together the ritual platters for the Seder at her synagogue, serving about 130 people.

This wasn't always the norm for her. After growing up in a non-denominational Protestant church, she made the decision seven years ago to convert to Judaism. With that choice, she joined the 34% of adults who have changed their religious identity, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Her journey started with the adoption of her son, Kieran Kemp. It was an open adoption, so Jane stayed in touch with his birth family. She visited his maternal grandparents in Lake Tahoe often, eventually learning that Kieran had Jewish ancestry.

That came as a surprise to Kemp because Kieran's birth mother identified as a Wiccan on his adoption papers. That sparked Kemp's curiosity.

When it came time to enroll Kieran in kindergarten, Kemp chose a Jewish day school. She thought it was the best choice for her son, but she wasn't sure how she would be received in her son's new school.

"I thought that being a non-Jew in a Jewish day school would be awkward and ostracizing," she says. "But the truth was that I had found people with similar moral compasses to me. I began to really identify and feel connected to Judaism in a way that surprised me because I didn't really know that much about the religion."

Through her son's education, Kemp learned about Jewish holidays and traditions — things she had never known much about.

But the pivotal moment in her choice to convert came when her mother died. Kemp and her siblings couldn't settle on a date for the funeral, which didn't sit well with her. In Judaism, the ritual around death requires prompt attention and support. Jewish funerals typically happen within a day or two after the death, and it's expected that everyone drop everything to make that work.

Kemp and Kieran after his bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.
Cindy Ragin De Pena

"As a mourner, you are expected that you are disabled by your grief and your community rallies around you," Kemp says. "This is exactly what happened to me after my mother died even though I wasn't yet Jewish. Arrangements were made for my son to get to and from school. People dropped food off; they sat with me; they called me. It was this first week of grieving that made me realize that I wanted to be part of this religion."

Like many big changes in life, Kemp's conversion was a process rather than a moment. Years after her mother's death, it came time for her son's bar mitzvah — the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. It was around this time she decided to take her curiosity in Judaism to a deeper level by joining a synagogue. She chose Temple Beth Hillel in nearby Richmond.

"We felt welcome and comfortable and I immediately felt connected to the congregants, and the rabbi and the cantor," Jane says. "As [Kieran's] bar mitzvah date got closer, my rabbi suggested I consider converting formally, saying he thought it would be really great if I could give an aliyah, a blessing, at my son's bar mitzvah."

Kieran with his Jewish blood relatives, great-grandmother Diana Coven (left) and grandmother Connie Nowlin.
Adam Cohen

She set a date to proceed with the official process to convert a week before Kieran's bar mitzvah. First, she had to write an essay about why she wanted to convert. Then, she met with three rabbis to be questioned. The final step was the mikvah, a ritual bath, which was "a very spiritual moment for me," Kemp says.

Roughly 17% of American Jews are converts to the faith, according to Pew. For Kemp, converting to Judaism gave her a community and sense of belonging. But she was also able to give something back to her son.

"As an adoptive parent, you want to give your child as much wholeness as you possibly can," Kemp says. "I understood that he had Jewish family, but raising him in an open adoption and connecting him to his Jewish roots has definitely given him something very important that could have been so easily lost."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On this last day of Passover, we have a conversion story.

JANE KEMP: My name is Jane Kemp, and I'm from El Cerrito, Calif.

SIMON: And she has a son named Kieran, who was adopted. It was an open adoption, so she stayed in touch with his birth family and learned an important part of her son's heritage.

KEMP: His maternal birth family was Jewish, which was funny because his birth had listed her religion on the adoption papers as Wiccan.

SIMON: When it came time to enroll Kieran in kindergarten, she chose a Jewish day school.

KEMP: I thought that being in a - a non-Jew in a Jewish day school would be awkward and ostracizing. But the truth was I felt like I had found people with similar moral compasses to me. I began to really identify and feel connected to Judaism in a way that surprised me because I didn't really know that much about the religion.

SIMON: Through her son's education, Jane Kemp learned about Jewish holidays and traditions, which she hadn't learned about growing up in a non-denominational Protestant church. Jane's mother died when Kieran was in third grade. She and her siblings struggled to find a date for the funeral, and that troubled her.

KEMP: Jewish ritual around death is very clear. And it is greater than any appointment or work obligation. You have a date two days out. And everybody drops everything and makes it work. As a mourner, you are expected that you are disabled by your grief. And your community rallies around you. This is exactly what happened to me after my mother died even though I wasn't yet Jewish. Arrangements were made for my son to get to and from school. People dropped food off. They sat with me. They called me. It was this first week of grieving that made me realize that I wanted to be part of this religion.

SIMON: And Jane Kemp found she was becoming more and more observant of Judaism. Years after her mother died, her son Kieran neared 13 - time for his bar mitzvah, Judaism's coming-of-age ceremony.

KEMP: I decided to join a synagogue. We felt welcome and comfortable. And I immediately felt connected to the congregants and the rabbi and the cantor. My son began to study for his bar mitzvah. And I began to get involved in various activities there as well as worshipping, Shabbat services, high holidays. As his bar mitzvah date got closer, my rabbi suggested I consider converting formally, saying he thought it would be really great if I could give an aliyah, a blessing, at my son's bar mitzvah. A date was set a week before his bar mitzvah to meet with three rabbis and be questioned by them and then to immerse in the mikvah.

SIMON: A mikvah is a ritual bath.

KEMP: It was not scary at all. And immersing in the mikvah was a very spiritual moment for me.

SIMON: Jane found that becoming Jewish gave her a new sense of belonging and a feeling that she and her son had shared a passage.

KEMP: As an adoptive parent, you want to give your child as much wholeness as you possibly can. I understood that he had Jewish family. But raising him in an open adoption and connecting him to his Jewish roots has definitely given him something very important that could have been so easily lost.

SIMON: Jane Kemp from El Cerrito, Calif.

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