New Jews approaching Holy Days with awe

Growing up culturally isolated in a desert steel town surrounded by chaparral and tumbleweeds does not lend itself to an early Jewish education.

But Mary Cain, a San Franciscan who is studying to convert to Judaism, can recall long hours of learning about the Exodus from Egypt and the Holocaust from her hometown library in Fontana, San Bernardino County. As a youngster, she found herself falling in love with Judaism and the Jewish people.

After a circuitous path led Cain in the years since to the Lutheran and Catholic churches and finally to no religious observance at all, a Jewish boyfriend has helped her find the way back to Judaism.

This week, the two are welcoming the Jewish New Year together with his family in Los Angeles.

It will be the first High Holy Days for Cain and other area conversion candidates, and one of the first Jewish New Years for recent converts, who still view the Days of Awe through fresh eyes.

For the soon-to-be-initiated, Judaism's holiest days of the year are a benchmark on their path to becoming full members of the Jewish community, as well as a vantage point on where they've come from.

For the newly converted, the High Holy Days are a reminder that redemption is a continual process.

Cain, 38, acknowledges that the process of honest self-examination has not been easy.

"There's no one waving a magic wand and saying you're fixed. It's easier to stay in a bad situation. Freeing yourself requires some sacrifice and discomforts."

The trial lawyer already has discovered the sacrifice involved in keeping kosher, and the discomfort of following services with a siddur that offers little transliteration.

Cain, who is studying for an Orthodox conversion with Berkeley Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, said she strives for the patience to make such sacrifices. During the High Holy Days, she plans to reflect on her quick temper and on how to better integrate Jewish observance into her life.

This year will be Scot Lowe's first High Holy Days as a Jew. The Novato resident, 38, has observed Jewish law since he began as a consultant for Jewish Vocational Service in 1991, though he did not formally convert until a year ago.

"I waited to share it with someone special," Lowe said. While investigating Judaism, he met his current wife, Deborah Wilde. They married soon after his Conservative conversion in March 1996.

The once-reluctant Methodist said his first Rosh Hashanah service clinched his decision to lead a Jewish life, though he had expected to be "turned off" by the notion of redemption, which had troubled him as a Christian.

"I thought I would hold on tight and take what they had to give," said Lowe, a member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. "What I learned is that if there was a fire I was to be tried by, it is between me and God. No one was going to put me on trial at synagogue."

Converts often discover that redemption in Judaism, which involves asking for forgiveness throughout one's life, diverges sharply from that of traditional Christianity, in which salvation is instant and comes through acceptance of Jesus.

In addition, while some traditional Christians define sin as an innate human condition, contemporary rabbis such as best-selling author Harold Kushner often view sin as an act or deed. In his 1996 book "How Good Do We Have to Be?" Kushner acknowledges the yearning to find acceptance rather than rebuke during the High Holy Days.

While the first line of the Yom Kippur service welcomes worshippers to the congregation as sinners, Kushner writes, the service and its protocol of atonement also offers a future "uncontaminated by the mistakes of the past."

Rather than pray for forgiveness this year, Lowe says he will ask for the strength to overcome his shortcomings.

He has prepared for the holidays by tying up loose ends with clients to avoid working during the holidays. Nevertheless, as an on-call consultant, he must be ready for action despite his best intentions to become shomer Shabbat, or Sabbath observant.

Reform student Vicky Slone of San Francisco also struggles to balance her work obligations and Jewish observance. Like Lowe, the hotel operator is always on-call. She sometimes recites HaMotzi, the blessing over bread, and lights Shabbat candles at her switchboard. Co-workers have come to expect challah on Fridays.

The self-described former "pseudo-Catholic" plans to spend part of the week at a holiday retreat at the Reform movement's Camp Newman in Santa Rosa with thoughts of a more devoted Jewish lifestyle ahead.

Though she is a little uncertain about what to expect of the High Holy Days, she knows one thing for sure — "It's not shallow like the secular New Year where people just go out and get drunk. I take the Jewish New Year more seriously. I have Judaism that is guiding me."

Part of that guidance is in the hands of Slone's conversion rabbi, Helen Cohn of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El. Cohn guides nine other conversion students like Slone, who are learning the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other Jewish observances.

The High Holy Days are the starting gate for many converts, Cohn explains, "the time when you begin to go into the year to work on issues, behavior and relationships."

The rabbi meets with her students once a month to discuss Jewish topics, to assign Jewish community field trips, and to hear oral reports on topics such as Rosh Hashanah. She noted that Rosh Hashanah is not as significant to most of her students as observing Shabbat, following dietary laws and experiencing how living a Jewish life affects their daily living.

After 10 years of Jewish living, Michele Lomiglio Hylton of San Francisco finally made her commitment official last month. Also a student of Cohn's, Hylton has observed Rosh Hashanah with her Jewish husband and their two children for years. But this year will be different, she says, because she will atone for the first time as a Jew.

"Looking back in my heart of hearts, I was always a Jew," Hylton said.

But she now feels more confident about speaking up to her children's day school staff or accepting an aliyah. And there are perks to being a convert.

"My husband holds Judaism so dear to his heart but I brought [him] a new enthusiasm," she said. "A lot of things he takes for granted, I don't. It's second nature to him, but I'm forever asking and inquiring and forever learning."

Reawakening the wonder of Judaism in a convert's Jewish partner is one of the side benefits to preparing a non-Jew for a Jewish life, said Conservative Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto

"It's very exciting to me to urge the Jewish spouse to be present. Often, there is a real special recovery for the Jewish partner's passion for Judaism," said Lewis, who has held 25 conversion classes in 25 years.

The High Holy Days, he added, can be the partner's "period for taking a new look at tradition under a new light."

Year by new year, Hylton has increased her involvement in the traditions of the High Holy Days. The in-laws have long relied on her to contribute to the holiday cooking. In recent years she has added rituals of her own. She asks her children to critique her parenting skills and prepares them for the holidays with bedtime stories, tapes, songs and holiday crafts.

The entire family marks the coming year with a clean bill of health by getting physicals, teeth-cleanings and haircuts. And finally, she studies transcripts of Selichot (penitential) services to identify her priorities for the new year — reduce job stress and spend more time at home with the kids.

While Hylton, Slone, Lowe, Cain and others on the same path have found a home in Judaism, the heart of their work lies before them still — to bring order to their houses in the days and hours before Yom Kippur.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.