A whirlwind Jewish wedding culminates 12-year search

When Penina Weese's partner, Levei, asked her if she could pull together a Jewish wedding in a week, she hesitated. But only for a few minutes. Then she picked up the telephone and got to work.

This wasn't the first unusual situation the couple had faced in the course of their 12-year relationship.

Levei used to be called Roy; Penina was once Pamela. In 1990 they were married in a fundamentalist church. Both were devoutly Christian.

They remarried as Jews in September in a ceremony, officiated by Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of the Greater South Bay, before 180 guests at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The story of this unconventional couple begins in 1984. Pamela, then a student at San Jose State University, was seeking to define herself. Disillusioned with Judaism, she decided to join a campus organization called Maranatha Christian Ministries.

"At that point in my life, Judaism seemed older, it seemed negative," she said. "The Christians on campus had firm answers for everything, they were efficient in getting out their message."

During services at church, Pamela noticed a handsome young man. His name was Roy. He was from the South and was doing administrative work in the church. A quiet type from a solidly Christian family, Roy held an engineering degree and had come to California to find work.

Under the rules of the ministry, Pamela was not allowed to show direct interest in Roy but could submit his name to the pastor. She did, then waited. And waited. For years, shy Roy assumed that she liked his roommate. When the truth finally hit him, he submitted her name and they became engaged within days.

The wedding shocked Pamela's family. "I'd been telling them for years that they were going to hell forever, but I think my mother was hoping that my evangelism would somehow disappear," said Penina. "The wedding was devastating for them." While Roy's parents traveled cross country for the occasion, Pamela's chose not to attend.

The couple set up home. But they were becoming less comfortable with the Maranatha church. In 1992, they converted to Catholicism.

"Fundamentalist Christianity can be very dry when you grow up with a lot of music, and holidays," said Penina. "We were searching for tradition. If we had children, we wanted them to know that religion could be fun."

But Catholicism wasn't enough. They tried a Messianic congregation, where they found Christians steeped in Jewish lore. "There was one guy who wore a tallis and a tzitzit," Penina recalled. "He was a Hispanic Christian, but he had heart for Jews."

Penina's faith still wavered. "Deep down," she said, "I always had trouble believing that Jews were going to hell." When she expressed this to Roy one night, he confessed some doubts of his own. They agreed to look into Jewish scripture.

Penina approached several rabbis. One said there was nothing he could do for her. "Several times he said `your marriage is such a problem' until Roy and I were almost in tears." Another rabbi was more helpful, but it was a third, Levin of Chabad, with whom they felt most comfortable.

For his part, Levin saw a confused but sincere young woman. "In the beginning I wasn't thinking about the couple, I was thinking about guiding this woman back to Judaism." As for Roy, Levin said, "When he makes a commitment, it's 100 percent…He needed time to see if he could hack the lifestyle change."

Meanwhile, the couple discovered that Orthodox Judaism forbade their living together. They decided to separate.

"That first night, I slept under the stars," Levei recalled. "I got soaked with dew, so the second night I cleared out a garden shed. I slept there, and later I ran some electricity out."

When they moved to Palo Alto there was no shed, so Levei pitched his tent in the yard. He remembers the first night: It poured with rain and the tent leaked. "I thought, `I must have done something really despicable in a previous life for this to happen.'"

The year of separation took its toll, though they remained very close throughout. They took long walks, ate dinner together and talked a lot. "We still felt married," said Penina.

Eventually, Roy decided to convert. He appeared before a beit din (rabbinical court), went to a mikveh and became Levei — thus clearing the path for a Jewish reunion. But it was early September and marriage was prohibited between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.

The couple could not bear the idea of having to wait until mid-October to wed. So they forged ahead.

"My parents said, `What kind of wedding can you plan in a week?'" said Penina. "But we all started getting more excited as the week went on."

Even Rabbi Levin caught the spirit. Attending a concert in Oakland the morning of the wedding, the rabbi recognized the pianist there as one of his students from 20 years ago. "Want to play at a wedding?" Levin asked.

The wedding took place on the lawn. Penina particularly enjoyed the badeken ceremony, when men escorted Levei to veiling the bride before the wedding.

"It was really exciting, very formal, a beautiful ceremony that I'd looked forward to," she said. Afterward there was a sit-down, catered meal inside. Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad House of Berkeley played guitar and sang; he was joined by an Israeli violinist who'd recently moved to California, a bongo player and the pianist.

The wedding was "one of the most wonderful events I've ever attended," said Levin, adding, "Anyone who didn't know that it had been put together in five days would never have been able to tell." Penina's family attended but Levei's parents did not.

These days, the couple feels that their relationship has grown and strengthened. They enjoy practicing their religion together. And Levin is obviously proud of his proteges. "They could give relationship lessons," he said.