What I’ve Learned Converting to Judaism from Catholicism

I am what one of our Introduction to Judaism rabbis calls a “JIT” — a Jew in Training, as I am in the process of becoming a Jew by choice. In the years of journeying from my deeply held Catholicism to a surprise landing on Judaism’s front door, I’ve learned that although God is God and prayer is prayer, it isn’t a smooth transition between the two traditions.

For one thing, there’s the language. Catholics kept very little Latin after the Second Vatican Council changed everything in the 1960s. Meanwhile, my Reform synagogue is bringing back its Hebrew. When I came to Temple Micah, all I knew was how to mispronounce enough Yiddish to make my Jewish husband cringe. I still flip impatiently through the prayer book seeking transliterations from Hebrew to English. I’m learning the language, but better, I’m appreciating that as long as Hebrew is still, to me, a chant of unknown rhythmic sounds, it has a mystery for me that Latin used to have for many Catholics. There’s something like a courtship in praying in a tongue not one’s own: the pursuer really doesn’t know the object of his attraction that well yet, as he sees her through a veil he may not yet remove. Intimacy comes only in the proper time. He has to come around often and pay attention, on her terms.

In my tentative steps at praying in Shabbat services I have noticed another difference that for me is an invitation, a relief, rather than an obstacle. It is that, unlike Catholics, some Jews sway in prayer. Catholics stand still. Last time I saw any kind of movement at Mass, I was attending a huge Charismatic conference in a crowded gym. They had their hands in the air, swayed a lot, and spoke in tongues, too, but that’s another story. I was not part of that movement, but the movement did move me.

Yet here I am, in a Reform congregation where some folks do sway, forward and back, while I, the side-to-side swayer, do my Kum-By-Ya routine. No one looks at me oddly though. I like this. When they go up on tip toe or bow forward and to the left and right, I am a step behind, and never quite as bold. I don’t want to copy without fully appreciating why we’re all bowing. People are kind and will explain anything to me later, but in that moment, I am respectfully tentative and self-conscious.

I wonder what would happen if I prayed in a Conservative or even Orthodox congregation? And what about in an ultra-Orthodox congregation? Do their entire bodies pray? I wonder if Jews ever have devotional dance in their liturgies?

On a few occasions I’ve seen or been part of a small group of worshippers who gave physical witness to our collective yearning for communion with God, through a kind of pantomime set to music. As a prayer or hymn expressed our spirits’ heavenward reach, a few of us in the sanctuary slowly stretched our arms and heads up, holding that hopeful pose for a long moment. An expression of alienation elicited the hiding of our faces, a turning away. Years before in college, I recall four nuns, graceful women in their forties through their sixties, stepping up the aisle as regally as brides, offering a fluid vision of praise at the start of Mass. At synagogue we danced with the Torah one evening. The kids marveled at the smiling adults who, one by one, took the scrolls as a dance partner. I imagine God finding joy in the joy of people dancing. Will there be more in my new spiritual home?

The biggest difference in prayer for me has been in whom we pray to. As a Catholic girl, I approached Mother Mary to add to any prayer I’d made to Jesus, to help sweeten the request. She was the one who had all the maternal understanding. She could tell Jesus the straight scoop about me, in case he, in his kingliness, couldn’t get it. As a young woman I went to her with concerns about my purity. Jesus heard all about my faults and humiliations. God seemed to be only eavesdropping on us all. I didn’t know when or if I was going to him in particular. Then there were saints: Jude for lost causes, for example. My childhood church had side altars to different saints, with plaster statues of demure-looking men and women who embodied the virtues Catholics should pray for: humility, patience, chastity, and strength and courage to endure suffering (in essence, a willingness to endure martyrdom if presented to us).

Praying as a Jew, I feel strangely shy about approaching God directly. It’s easiest when I’m with my congregation joining in songs of praise, hardest when I’m alone, praying in supplication. Then the Psalms come to my rescue, and I remember I am not alone. Sitting next to me is Jesus, the good Jew, my companion in spirit, a “God-intoxicated Jewish mystic,” as Rabbi Rami Shapiro once described him at a Catholic conference on contemplative prayer. I don’t pray to him, but maybe we pray together to God. What a wonderful integration for me!

And so I pray in the synagogue, and in nature, and at home, in the car, in my office. The best is when my five senses let me feel the divine Presence. I feel and see sunlight, feel the density of the night between me and the stars, hear the stillness of a sacred space of brick and mortar, and there God is. Right there. Yet God is not contained; she is only showing a bit of Godself. To me! How awesome and humbling. Moses seeing a burning bush, Elijah hearing the still, small voice of God: this must be how Jews know the Presence, I think. If so, I’m on my way.

Coming from church to synagogue, I’m moving from a milieu of visual images everywhere in my childhood church to the paradox of emptiness and fullness in my synagogue. Only the glowing light over the Ark calls me to mindfulness of Where and with Whom I am. Somehow, the visual vacancy calls more from me, demands me to contribute my own stillness. Stillness leads to openness of heart and mind, for the Ark remains seductively closed. The eternal light is a powerful sign of God’s movement. And yet, both church and temple share that light.

I remember passing through the college chapel late at night, a shortcut to my dorm in the former parish house. Only the red glow of the sanctuary candle lit the way. The huge stone place echoed the cold of winter wind outside, and moonlight sometimes enlivened the rose windows; I was so deliciously alone, just me and the light-and dark-of God’s presence. Was God there? I felt her, him, in those times. We touched in that space I passed through.

Back in the synagogue, I look toward the quiet moment when I feel the Holy One present to me in the sacred space, in the dark, in that small light which at times, like Selichot, I am blessed to be passing through. I wait for grace or maturity to awaken my five senses into the Sabbath morning presence of the Torah scroll and all it embodies. Prayer is awareness and remembrance of who we are and Who we live within. As a Catholic-becoming-a-Jew, I am feeling my way.

Laura Thor

Laura Thor is a psychotherapist and former Catholic adult educator. She loves working with issues of crisis in faith. She lives with her husband and daughter in the Denver, Colo., area.


Author: Laura Thor