"Joyful Shabbat" is one of 17 pieces in Beth Bourland's "Journey to Judaism" exhibit.
"Joyful Shabbat" is one of 17 pieces in Beth Bourland's "Journey to Judaism" exhibit.

Artist Beth Bourland chronicles her conversion to Judaism in striking watercolors and collages

Beth Bourland’s path to becoming a Jew began in earnest three years ago, when she started working with Rabbi Yonatan Regev toward her conversion. Regev, then of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, mentioned that some people keep a journal of their conversion experience, and Bourland took his words to heart.

Rather than record her feelings in writing, the Alameda resident expressed them through art. Many of the watercolors and hand-cut paper assemblages she produced form part of a 17-piece exhibit called “Journey to Judaism.” The exhibit is currently on view in the social hall of the Reform synagogue and will be up through the High Holidays.

Beth Bourland
Beth Bourland

An exhibiting artist who has had both solo and regional shows in the area, Bourland said “Journey to Judaism” stands apart from the others. “This series is the most emotional project I’ve ever done,” she explained. “It really was a project that came from the heart.”

Bourland, 60, grew up in a Methodist but secular family in Michigan. “As a young woman, I looked for some kind of spiritual path and didn’t really find anything,” she recalled. Years later, she found Judaism.

“A friend invited me to a musical service at Temple Sinai in the spring of 2019, and I was attracted to the synagogue, the siddur,” she said. “I had tried to find spirituality and hadn’t found anything I totally agreed with.” That summer, she began meeting with Regev.

“I feel now that it was inevitable,” she said. “I didn’t know it till I was in my mid-50s. For me, the core is that Judaism doesn’t dictate any one belief or set of beliefs. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Judaism welcomes debate. It can accept that there are mysteries and is OK with that, and I think that’s intellectually brave.”

Bourland studied with Regev from July 2019 until the spring of 2020, when Covid brought a halt to their one-on-one sessions. She also visited synagogues and historical sites, such as the original shul that sits behind Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, where she observed Tisha B’Av in 2019. Several of these places, such as “The Little Shul,” are depicted in her exhibit.


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Her beit din conversion ceremony took place via Zoom in July 2020 and was officiated by Regev, Sinai cantor Ilene Keys and educator Rabbi Ruth Adar. Bourland hasn’t yet dipped into the mikvah but hopes to soon.

Though the pandemic interfered with Bourland’s studies, it played in her favor by giving her more time to develop the artwork on exhibit. She credits Temple Sinai member Dawn Kepler for assisting her: “She was someone that Temple Sinai listed as an outreach-greeter. That’s how I met her. We became friends.” Kepler proved to be “instrumental” in assisting with the project, Bourland said. “She helped me navigate the channels of getting this exhibit going,” even helping her hang the show.

Kepler was intrigued from the get-go. “When we first met, [Bourland] told me that she was going to do a sketchbook,” she said. “I was really excited and asked, ‘Would you consider doing an art show?’”

Bourland’s works reflect the research she poured into the project. “Joyful Shabbat,” a paper assemblage showing a diverse group of people clapping and dancing, was inspired by a Friday night Shabbat she attended at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

For “Almond Blossoms,” Bourland traveled to Modesto to visit a farmer in order to capture the glory of the flowers — a Jewish symbol of hope and renewal — in full bloom. And she spent time in Vacaville with Maayan Kline and her dog, Benzi, both of whom served in the Israel Defense Forces, after reading about them in J. She titled her painting of the two “Heroic Team.”

“The Memory Garden” is a serene scene of the Jewish sacred space at the Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma for those grieving fertility or pregnancy loss, while the ink illustration “Kosher Deli” is a whimsical take on Bourland’s outings to Bay Area delicatessens — with a dollop of humor, such as the little boy chasing a live chicken through a deli store. “I decided to go in the cartoon direction,” she explained.

Does she have a favorite in the series? Yes, she said, “Violins of Hope,” a watercolor inspired by the exhibit of rescued Holocaust violins and the concert Bourland witnessed when it toured the Bay Area in 2020. Seeing the instruments and hearing them played was “intense,” Bourland recalled. “The program helps preserve the truth. It’s very important.”

Journey to Judaism

On view through the High Holy Days at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland, when the synagogue is open for events.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.