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On a blisteringly hot morning in early fall at the world synagogue headquarters of the Lubavitch hassidic movement, both the men's seating downstairs and the women's section upstairs were packed to the brim.
Women swayed back and forth in prayer, one hand holding a prayer book while the other pushed baby carriages. Men sat at desks and debated millennia-old legal questions posed in the Talmud. They, too, rocked back and forth.
Suddenly all activity came to a stop. The blast of a shofar had interrupted the activity, as it does every day at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the month of Elul. The jolting sound is meant to call Jews to repent for their sins. The Hebrew letters of the word Elul are believed to stand for a passage in the Song of Songs about a Jew's relationship with God: "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine."
At that moment Latoya Johnson, a graceful 28-year-old black woman from Jamaica, entered the women's section and sat down on a bench, smiling brightly at fellow worshipers. She was there to take her first steps towards becoming a Jew.
"The desire to talk to God was what drew me to Judaism," she said. "That is why I'm here."
Typically, the American convert to Judaism has joined the faith in order to marry another Jew. Not a proselytizing religion, Judaism does not see many gentiles wishing to convert for purely spiritual reasons. And it is a rare occasion indeed to see a West Indian immigrant seeking to be a part of the Lubavitch community that has had such a tense history with the substantial West Indian community in Crown Heights.
After immigrating to New York at 18, she enrolled in Brooklyn College where she interacted with Jews for the first time. Intrigued by people so different from her, she began to ask questions.
"I was so curious; I didn't know what Judaism was," she said in an interview. "They were trying to explain to me that it's not only a religion - it's also their lifestyle. I thought that was interesting. I wondered about the way they dress and why they wear certain things.
"I asked them to tell me more about their religion, and one thing that struck me was that Jews don't believe in Jesus. And I said, 'Why not?' The Jewish students said it's because Jesus was just a Jew himself - he was not a God. He was just a student in the yeshiva," she said. "At that point I said to myself, 'Hmm, that's interesting.'"
Johnson, raised in a Seventh Day Adventist community, then approached various pastors, hoping for guidance about what she had heard from her Jewish classmates - that Jesus was not God. She said the pastors brushed her off, saying that Jesus was God and the Jew would tell you he's not because they don't believe.
"One of the things that began to bother me about our tradition, our culture, is that you don't question anything when it pertains to God," she said.
"But month after month, I realized that I'm really missing something in my soul," she said.
At a certain point, she stopped attending church altogether, and prayed to God - but not Jesus - at home.
"I just didn't have any connections when I was at church. I didn't feel I needed to go there. But I did know that I need to talk with God," she said.
All her life, she felt she had a special calling. "I always knew I had to do something different. I had to be someone. I felt like I was put here for a special reason. I had to be connected somewhere with God in a way that was close and direct. Christianity wasn't offering me that," she said.
"Jews are said to be the Chosen Ones, and I felt that I'm a chosen one in some way. I don't know how, but I felt I had some connection with God. I feel like I was chosen by God somehow. I knew that my soul needed to do something because I was closely connected to God."
She has yet to be accepted by a rabbi to begin the conversion process, but she is optimistic. "Everything happens for a reason, and I believe this is my path," she said.
She has spent much of her life in search of that path. The Seventh Day Adventist community in which she was raised wasn't entirely Christian.
Although they observed the Sabbath, her family did not worship Jesus. "My family worshiped Claudius Henry, a Rastafarian leader," she said. "I distinctly remember getting 'washed' for Claudius Henry when I was 4 years old." At 10 she was sent to live in another part of Jamaica with an aunt who belonged to the Church of God movement and began worshipping there.
"I even got baptized at Church of God at age 14. I remembered at the time I really loved God. I was really into God and was into doing the right thing," she recalled.
Four years later, she immigrated to Canarsie, New York, with her mother, who had decided to join a Pentecostal church. "I remember it was 1997 and I went to church with her for one year, and I realized in her church it was all about fashion - who had the best job, the best car," she says. She finally gave up and told her mother that her church was full of hypocrites. After her discussions with her Jewish classmates at Brooklyn College, she began to observe Jewish dietary laws and has kept Shabbat for the last three years.
"This challenge was put in front of me for a reason," she said of the road still ahead of her. Perhaps one day in the future, in another year during the month of Elul, she will be present in synagogue to hear the shofar blasts, this time as a Jew, so the ancient words from the Song of Songs will ring true for her: "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine."
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