By Mordechai Schiller
As Shavuos approaches, a yom tov when we read the remarkable story of Ruth the convert, we present a series of articles on modern-day converts and their fascinating journeys to Judaism.
Some years ago, Ahuvah Gray found herself in a kosher restaurant in Johannesburg, entertaining some two hundred girls from the local Jewish high school with her conversion story. The young audience members were understandably intrigued: What drew this attractive African American woman, a high-powered travel executive, to give up a lucrative career, move to Israel and convert to Judaism at the age of fifty-one? The black waiters and waitresses hovering near the kitchen were even more puzzled: Who is this African American woman keeping this audience of white women captivated?
But Gray, who spends much of her time lecturing to Jewish audiences all over the world, is used to shattering stereotypes. Identifying herself as a “Chareidi who loves Stevie Wonder and Kenny G,” Gray speaks to Jews across the spectrum—from Reform temple-goers in Ventura County, California, to Orthodox coeds at Oxford, inspiring them with her journey toward Torah. “The ones who really need to hear my story are the non-religious,” says Gray, who takes pride in being able to bring Jews closer to Judaism.
Gray (formerly known as Delores) grew up in the African American Lawndale Douglas Park neighborhood of Chicago. But Gray’s story really begins in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where her grandparents were sharecroppers. Every summer she went south with her siblings to the one-hundred-and-twenty-five-acre farm. She still makes apple pies like her grandmother taught her, though now with only kosher ingredients. But she learned more than baking apple pies from Grandmother Gray. The Grays had no television in their home. Every night they would gather together and entertain each other with Bible quizzes.
Grandmother also taught her that “God provides for all mankind, and He fulfills our every need.” And she taught her grandchildren to “set up residence” in the Book of Psalms.
After college, Gray landed a job as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines. The career with Continental would last for twenty-three years with Gray gradually moving from flight attendant to high-powered executive. But the spiritual sterility of corporate America didn’t fulfill her soul yearnings.
Gray married and began intensifying her Bible studies. Over time, she became increasingly convinced that she had to seek out the roots of her religion in Jewish sources. As she became more intensely committed and dedicated to God, her path diverged more and more from that of her husband. Sadly, but amicably, they divorced after sixteen years of marriage. They had no children.
About that time, Continental transferred Gray to Los Angeles. There, Gray met Dr. Charles Queen of the Strait-Way Church, a most unusual pastor who emphasized Christianity’s Jewish roots. He taught Bible—in Hebrew—and led a Passover Seder every year for six hundred African Americans in order to further their appreciation of the roots of their religion.
Feeling at home on this new path in Christianity, Gray was first licensed as a minister at Strait-Way, then ordained at the International Assemblies of God in San Diego. Somehow she managed to juggle her pastoral work with her demanding job. Exhausting as the balancing act was, it was also exhilarating.
Identifying herself as a “Chareidi who loves Stevie Wonder and Kenny G,” Gray speaks to Jews across the spectrum. “The ones who really need to hear my story are the non-religious.”
The pieces were still falling into place. Some of the participants at the Strait-Way Church Seder asked for a video on afikomen at a local library. Filmmaker Ruth Broyde-Sharon, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, happened to be standing nearby and wondered why they would be interested in Passover traditions. “Are you Jewish?” No, they weren’t. But their leader, Dr. Queen, celebrates Passover with them every year.
Soon, Gray and Broyde-Sharon found themselves working together filming a documentary on the Strait-Way Seder and becoming fast friends. Then came the idea to lead tour groups to reenact the Passover Exodus—from Egypt to Israel—complete with a Christian/Jewish “Universal Freedom Seder” in Jerusalem.
Taking a brief respite from her hectic life, Gray went to Mound Bayou to visit her aging grandparents, whom she hadn’t seen in ten years. During her stay, she walked by her grandmother’s room and was startled to find the seventy-eight-year-old woman still getting down on her knees to pray.
Gray describes this event in her book My Sister the Jew, which details the story of her path to Judaism:
… I happened to walk by my grandparents’ room as Grandmother was praying. I stood there mesmerized, unable to believe how long she remained on her knees. Being a Baptist, she turned up the volume when she got to her family: “And Lord, help all my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to serve You.” How I yearned to pray like that. I had goose pimples as I listened to her pour out her soul. What a commencement to prayer!
When at last she rose to her feet, I asked in awe, “Grandmother, you still kneel down to pray?”
She placed her hand in mine, the hand of a praying woman. “Yes, Delores, that’s the only way I know how to pray. I pray that you’ll always remember that your help comes from God.”
“Your help comes from God.” Those words have been a perpetual source of strength and comfort throughout the years.
Since childhood, Gray had studied the Bible regularly. But now she took this new lesson deeply to heart: Study was not enough. “That was a turning point in my life. I was already a minister then, but that experience gave me the stamina to commit my life to prayer.”
“The hachnosas orchim of the Jewish people is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever encountered. People take complete strangers [into] their homes. Outside of Yiddishkeit, this doesn’t exist.”
Indeed, if you ask Gray what attracted her to Judaism, she will answer with one word: prayer. On one of her numerous trips leading tours to Israel, Gray came out of a bookstore with a new find: a “siddur.” Flipping through it, she was stunned at what she saw. With her strict Christian upbringing, Gray was accustomed to the idea that people are born tainted sinners. Upon reading the morning prayer Elokay Neshamah, she was astounded to read “the soul You have placed within me is pure.” “I was amazed at how gorgeous the Hebrew prayers are,” she says. Even though she was still a Gentile, she was soon praying from the siddur three times a day. “I immersed myself in those prayers,” she says.
Gray’s transformation was a slow process over years of being nudged in the right direction. But there is always some turning point, some great divide that can be pointed to, even if only in retrospect.
On January 17, 1994, an earthquake hit Los Angeles. Gray’s beautiful condo was left in shambles, but she managed to escape. Still shaken, she called her mother from her sister’s home. “Delores,” her mother said, “I suppose you’re going to move now.”
“Yes, Mother, you know your children well!” But upon hearing a voice in the background say “Delores is moving back home!” she found herself saying: “No, Mother, tell Dad I am not moving home…. I am moving to Israel!”
Gray left the wreckage that was her home behind to lead a Christian tour group to the Middle East. Living in Israel, praying from a siddur, Gray felt more and more attached to the land and to the people. Tishah B’Av came, and she felt seized by anguish. “I was praying from my siddur [on the Shabbat after Tishah B’Av] when all of a sudden I became very emotional. I fell down prostrate in the middle of my praying and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, I think I am a Jew!’”
There were still many thorns in her path. In order to be accepted for conversion, she had to study Judaism. Gray wanted to study at an Orthodox seminary as opposed to a school for converts. But in order to be accepted at a seminary, she had to be Jewish!
The impasse was broken by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, director of Nishmat College for Women in Jerusalem, who accepted Gray into the school. During her years of study she supported herself by cleaning people’s homes. After two years, Gray was finally converted by the Jerusalem Beit Din.
While many converts are told to break ties with the past, Gray still maintains a close relationship with her family and visits them every time she lectures in the United States. In fact, when she converted, her sister, Nellie, sent a note with congratulations to “My sister the Jew”—which subsequently became the title of her book.
Gray recently published a sequel called Gifts of a Stranger, which is full of insights and stories from her experiences lecturing abroad.
Gray, Orthodox for nearly a decade and seeking an appropriate shidduch, currently lives in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Jerusalem where she feels “embraced by the community.” Though when she moved to the neighborhood she knew only one person, she hasn’t been without a Shabbat invitation yet. “The hachnosas orchim of the Jewish people is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever encountered. People take complete strangers [into] their homes.… Outside of Yiddishkeit, this doesn’t exist.”
Ahuvah Gray’s story is a triumph of emunah peshutah—simple, pure faith.
“I didn’t plan this. Hashem can take someone and lead them to go wherever He wants.”
But Gray considers herself nothing more than a willing conduit to the ratzon Hashem. By way of explanation she quotes the Sefat Emet:
“When God told Abraham to go ‘to the land that I will show you,’ why didn’t He tell Abraham the destination? Because knowing where you are going gives you a sense of autonomy and control. The ultimate act of faith is to give up your will to the will of God. When you truly let go, you become an instrument for the will of God in this world.”
Gray takes this message very personally. Her role model is Abraham. The Sages teach us “Ma’aseh Avos siman lebanim.” The lives of the Patriarchs are a preview of what later generations would experience. And Gray felt the call to “Go thee” and take that journey … wherever it might lead.
Mr. Schiller is a copywriter and marketing consultant. His articles have appeared in many Jewish publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.