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Live and Become

It took only 25 years for one woman’s conversion to take effect

Nelly Reifler
September 06, 2007

Ever notice that the people who announce themselves as mavericks and nonconformists rarely are? It’s the quiet ones—like Adriaan Finnerman, a Poughkeepsie, New York real estate professional and mother of two—who tend to be the genuine article. Intimidatingly well read, fiercely thoughtful, unapologetically religious, with degrees in philosophy and religion, Adriaan is not what I think of as your typical suburban mom. She comes from a long line of people who chose their own spiritual paths. Raised as Southern Baptists, her parents broke from their families and became devout Methodists. In her youth, Adriaan embraced her parents’ religion, but as an adult she found herself drawn to Reform Judaism, and she eventually converted. These days, she advocates for more stringent philosophical and religious focus at her local synagogue—she’s involved with both Mussar, the Jewish ethical movement, and Elat Chayyim, a retreat center just across the Connecticut border, and she works collectively with her Torah study group to reach higher levels of consciousness. Five years ago, her older son, Moses, became drawn to Orthodoxy and Adriaan, following his lead, became somewhat more religious too.

I first met Adriaan years ago, before she converted. She was my cousin Sam’s strikingly beautiful new girlfriend then; they’ve been married for 30 years now, and she’s still striking—always in black, with pearly skin, and a long, fair braid down her back.

Why did you convert?

Sam and I were in love and wanted to get married. He asked me if I would consider converting and I said yes. Quite simple, no discussion. As Ruth said to Naomi, “I want to be with you and go where you go.” I believe that in reality the conversion question arises more at the level of interpersonal relationships than it does at the level of great spiritual questing. I had taken a few courses on Judaism in college, and it appealed to me intellectually. If I had not met Sam, would I have converted? Maybe eventually, but not at that point.

Now I’ve been a Jew longer than I was a Christian. Sam and I went through the Reform program for couples. It had some study that you do together, and that was very interesting—we read books I had read in college when I studied Judaism. One anthology was Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, which contained an array of pieces by people like Ahad Ha’am, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Mordecai M. Kaplan. The program was geared toward a general knowledge.

So you became interested in Judaism in college?

It probably really began in junior high when I started going to a school outside of my immediate neighborhood, and the first friends I chose were all Jews. I didn’t realize when I was a kid that there was any connection between the people I was drawn to and the fact that most of them were Jewish. Over time I’ve learned that Jews are, by and large, fun and intellectually exciting people to be with. I grew up in Sharon, Pennsylvania, which at the time was a steel mill town near Pittsburgh. But my parents are Methodists from the South, and I always sort of felt like I was probably one of those people that the bible mentions, the stragglers that hung around after Exodus.

But for more than 20 years after I converted I felt like there was a glass wall, and that I could see Judaism, but I wasn’t touching it. I understand now that until you comprehend the transcendent nature of Am Yisrael and experience yourself as a part of it, the real conversion hasn’t taken place. Maybe if I had gone into the mikvah, which was not part of the Reform ritual at the time, I might have experienced it right away. On the other hand, maybe you just have to grow into being a Jew. Perhaps it can’t happen overnight. During that first long stretch of time after I converted I really struggled to articulate the difference between Judaism and Christianity. You can say: “Well, there’s Jesus.” But we live in a Judeo-Christian culture, and it never really seemed to make very much difference. So actually, the real conversion—or maybe it should be called transformation—for me only took place about five years ago.

What happened then?

It started when Moses went off to college in 1999. Until then we had gone through bar mitzvahs, and everything was progressing just like a traditional Reform Jewish home. But when he got to college he encountered the local Chabad house and he enjoyed it. A lot of Chabad’s focus is outreach to secular Jews with the goal of bringing them back to traditional observances. On campus, they approached students and invited them to have Friday night dinners with them, which Moses started to do regularly. When he would come home, the Shabbat table started to get very tense because we did everything wrong. For us it was a time to light candles and bring a little decorum to the table. Moses felt that our observances were pathetic. It got to the point that we had to make a rule like they’d had in Sam’s family when he was growing up. In that household it was “you can’t talk about business at the table”; for us it was “you can’t talk about Judaism at the table!”

Until then my approach to Judaism had been intellectual. I was just so puzzled that there would be so many things that were important to Moses—this salt goes on that bread, you must have two challahs.

Did you ever feel like there was a cultlike quality to it? Moses goes off to college, falls in with this group of people, and suddenly he’s being pulled away from his parents toward a religious organization.

His grades were plummeting and we worried. At that point we attributed it to his new interest in Judaism, and spending too much time trying to figure out how to prepare kosher meals in the Theta Xi Alpha fraternity house—”The Zoo.”

But as I was looking at all these things that Chabad did, and we didn’t do, these rituals that build group solidarity, I was wondering what makes Judaism any different from the Elks? And then, it suddenly struck me—in fact, right now, it brings tears to my eyes when I talk about it—I suddenly saw how necessary, in an ultimate sense of the word, it is that the Jewish people survive. I saw that they had a role as the servants of God. So that was when the glass wall disappeared.

I think, as a Jew by choice, you have to understand that you’re joining a people. You’re joining something that goes back in time, and will go forward in time; you’re a part of it, your job is to keep it going, sort of like when you’re running a relay race, you have the baton, and then you pass it on.

Does the deeper connection to Judaism that you feel now go hand in hand with a connection to God?

The reason I don’t think it does is that I was always very religious, since I was a child. So for me, God is God, no matter which religion you call yourself.

Do you have a different image of God now than you did when you were a child?

For a very long time my image of God was kind of like your best friend, that you could talk to at any time—and that I did, a lot. And I would certainly ask God for this or that. God was a “you.”

Right now, my feeling about God is—I am overwhelmed by praise. I feel the incredible mystery in life itself. I see God in so many things, and feel deep gratitude and thankfulness. I no longer have that sense of you-ness, of a guide. Ken Wilber is a contemporary philosopher who’s trying to reintegrate spirituality into the consciousness of critical thinkers. He talks about experiencing God in the first person, the second person, and the third person. And the first person would be when you have that feeling of the voice within, or that sense that God’s within you. I certainly feel the third person, which would be the Itness. I appreciate God as a force, something much more abstract. My God now is the God of science, intersecting with the God of kabbalah and Hassidut. Not only the ein sof, but the indwelling presence of shekinah described by Albert Einstein as “manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty.” I believe that in time we will come to realize that God is the creative force in everything.

I admit that when I finally realized that I had lost God in the second person—that “You”—I felt a profound loss.

Can you place when God changed from the second to third person for you?

Well, there’s a whole lot of gaps in my own understanding. On this meditation retreat that I was on recently, we did a Hasidic practice called hitbodidut. You go off by yourself and talk to God nonstop. You’re not supposed to stop, even if you’re thinking, “I think this is the most ridiculous practice I’ve ever done in my life.” But what you find is that if you keep rattling on, talking to God, assuming that there’s a “you” who’s listening, you can really have some profound experiences. So, as much as I say my God is more abstract, I find that I still pray, and I don’t know, really, who I’m praying to.

How much of your everyday life is devoted to thinking about these large philosophical and religious issues, and how much to the practice?

Well, I belong to a traditional morning minyan, and that’s the really important start to my day. And the questions never cease throughout the day—they’re interspersed with mundane ones like, “What did I want to get at the grocery store?” I have found so much benefit from this new experience of Judaism, and the observances have a lot of meaning. We’re just about to redo our kitchen; we’ll have a kosher kitchen. At this point, other than the fact that it hasn’t been koshered, we observe kashruth. Of course that’s kind of easy because I’m a vegetarian.

How have your parents reacted—both to your becoming Jewish, and also to your newer passionate feelings about it?

My parents were okay with it, maybe because it seemed like it wasn’t going to get me into trouble. And they had left their Baptist roots to find another spiritual outlet. I call my mother in the morning, and usually we talk about what she’s been doing at the church and what I’ve been doing at the synagogue. But once in a while—and maybe I’m just being an overly sensitive daughter—I sense disapproval. I have a hunch that it relates to some vague, unconscious concern that I won’t get into heaven.

I don’t believe in an afterlife the way people who talk about heaven and hell do. We are so crucial at that moment in time that we’re to take the baton and carry it. We have to do our best, we have to really strive. But then we pass it on to someone else and I think that I’m really at peace with my sense of death. I hope that I make some small contribution to the world. That’s my job.

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