joseph joel sherman.
(photo credit: gloria deutsch)
Joseph Joel Sherman has traveled a long road, from devout Christian to even more devout Jew – and in fact he has not yet arrived at his destination, to be accepted as a fully-fledged Orthodox Jew – although he is well on the way.
Listening to him talk about his studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, about his life as a Jew, about God, it is hard to believe that only a few short years ago he was a practicing Christian who although not officially ordained, held a position as a lay minister in North Carolina where he lived. His transformation did not happen overnight, but took years of soul-searching and study.
Today he totally believes he has found the true way of life, loves the lifestyle he has adopted and is waiting patiently for that perfect moment when he will be reborn as a Jew.
“The Beit Din is very strict and it seems it is not yet my time to be accepted completely,” he says. “Hashem [God] knows when it will be the right time.”
He settled here under the Law of Return in 2010 as his father’s father was Jewish.
But his parents were committed Christians who at one time were Baptists and later belonged to different non-denominational churches. They had been flower children in the Sixties who took over and changed the structure of their churches, substituting guitars for organs, and storytelling for sermons.
“They were hippies,” he says, “and I was brought up in the Jesus movement. Once I got to university I was exposed to a whole range of different denominations as well as atheism and scientists and intellectuals who could counter all the arguments I grew up with. It blew me away. How did I know that what I believed in was true, or had I been socially conditioned to accept it?” He also met Jews for the first time, and although still very Christian in his beliefs he was drawn to Judaism and made his first visit to a synagogue at the age of 19.
He doesn’t think he was seeking a return to his roots at that point; it was just that all his friends seemed to know so much about their background and he knew nothing but stereotypes about Jews.
“The first time did not make much of an impact,” he recalls. “It was a Reform shul and more of a social than spiritual experience. It was fun, so I kept going.”
For some reason that he can’t explain now, he began going to Hillel, and pretended to be Jewish, although he was still going to church every Sunday. He found it more spiritual than the Reform synagogue where the mixed seating and the “fashion show” aspect bothered him. Friday nights at Hillel felt more real to him.
“I still had 100% belief in Jesus and it took a long time to see where Christianity was wrong,” he says.
After graduating with a BA from the University of San Diego, he later did an MBA in France and made his first visit to Israel in the summer of 2004. He found himself in Ohr Somayach, again by telling them he was a Jew, something he feels bad about now. He loved the way of life, but eventually returned to North Carolina as his family had moved there from California. A job came up which suited him, as resident assistant in the local church, and as it came with a free apartment, he took it.
Then he was faced with a dilemma.
“I knew that Rosh Hashana was coming up and I wondered if I should go to services,” he says. “But by this time Reform wasn’t going to be right for me – I wanted the real thing.”
He talked to his parents about the things going on in his head; the beginning of his doubts about his belief in Jesus and his attraction to Jewish Orthodoxy.
“They thought I was crazy,” he says. But he did take the time off to celebrate Rosh Hashana and lost two days’ pay in the process – in retrospect the first sacrifice he made to be a Jew. He read and studied and finally decided that he wanted to convert.
“It was not an easy decision after nearly 30 years of being a Christian. I was scared too – maybe I would burn in hell.”
In 2010 he came back to Ohr Somayach, worried that they would hate him for lying the first time.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” he says.
Today he works for several Israel advocacy non-profits as an editor and content manager and studies at night. He listens to religious studies on the bus going to work and can now pray in Hebrew.
His parents accept his choice, although it’s hard for them.
They’ve seen pictures of Yossi, as he is called, with his beard – “but they haven’t seen the peyot,” he says with a laugh.
“They’re not Purim clip-ons.”
He hopes he will finally be accepted soon.
“Something so important and critical shouldn’t be rushed,” he says. “I guess I have to learn more and daven [pray] more. It’s a whole life and they want to be sure I’m ready.”