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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 15, 2020 Arielle Silver-Willner

From Catholic to Conservative Jew: One Spiritual Journey

Dennies Gajadhar was born and raised in a Catholic family in Guyana. Soon after moving to the U.S., she began to learn about Judaism and made the decision to convert, become a Bat Mitzvah, and move to an Orthodox community. She spoke with Arielle Silver-Willner about her journey, and her experiences as a newcomer and a black woman in the Orthodox community.

Arielle Silver-Willner: You were born into a Caribbean Catholic family- How did you learn about Jewish traditions and practices?

Dennies Gajadhar: Where we are from, we’d never heard about Judaism. When I came here I started working [as a nanny]. My job was to take [the children] to Hebrew school and then they joined the choir; I would stay and listen to them. At one point they were singing and I was singing too, and the cantor was like “Maybe you should join the choir.”Then I came to Brooklyn, and just out of curiosity I called up a few places and said, “Hello, are you a Reform congregation?”—I only knew Reform Judaism; I didn’t know anything else—and a lot of them probably thought it was a prank. Then I called Union Temple and this woman named Doris said, “Why don’t you come and visit us on Friday? We have Friday night services.” So the first Friday night, I took the train down and I walked around the block, and ended up going back home.

But a few weeks after that, I went again and one of the guys who worked there said, “Go upstairs!” So I went upstairs and I got this warm welcome. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I sat through it and I visited for a couple of months after. I thought “This is for me,” because they did basically everything in English. And so I heard about a course that they had and I decided to sign up. It was six months and they taught the basic Hebrew words and the customs—Shabbat and things like that—and then I decided I wanted to convert. In 2010, I started the course. I converted in 2011.

Then I decided I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah. So at age fifty, I became a Bat Mitzvah.

ASW: What was it like, going through the Bat Mitzvah process?

DG: It was so hard. Rabbi Linda Goodman is old-school and she refused to Bat Mitzvah anybody who couldn’t chant Torah in Hebrew. My Torah portion was the Vayeshev, and when she gave it to me, I couldn’t figure out head from foot what we were doing.

One morning I got up and I said, “Lord, you have to help me, because I don’t know what to do.” And for some reason, a pathway cleared and I looked at the Hebrew again, and I decided, I’m going to do one word. So I started with one word. Then I did a second word, and I figured out I could do a sentence. So I did one sentence and all day it was stuck in my brain. I figured I’d get up every morning and add one sentence.

Within two months I learned my Torah portion. I put the rhythm to it and did it over and over. Then I decided to tackle the Haftarah. And here I am.>

ASW: May I ask how you identify as a Jew?

DG: After I became Reform, I started exploring other forms of Judaism and I liked the Conservative. I think the women are more modest and they do a lot more in Hebrew and they are strict with the Jewish values.

In Reform, I felt like more of an outsider than I feel in the Conservative [community]; I wasn’t treated nicely in a lot of ways, though I do love Rabbi Goodman. So now I consider myself a Conservative. 

ASW: Do you have a favorite Jewish ritual or holiday?

DG: Purim and Yom Kippur. People think I’m crazy when I say Yom Kippur, but it’s because it’s a time of reflection. It’s between you and HaShem. And even the fasting, I’ve developed a ritual for. I’ve learned from the Orthodox people—when you fast, you just stay put. You start a few days before with your starch intake, and you finish eating early—so they prepare for that process. It became easy for me. And I never went into Yom Kippur with guilt because I know that it’s one time of the year that I could go deep inside and reflect on what I’ve done or what I can do better—you know, like a self-audit.

And I enjoy Purim because I get to dress up in costumes and be silly, even though I’m not young.

ASW: How have your family and friends reacted?

DG: I lost my friends. One friend stuck with me—we’ve been friends for 32 years and she came to my conversion. But my other friends think I’m crazy, they think Jews are bad people. One childhood friend never spoke to me again and I miss her a lot. And the guy I dated said, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” So when I said to him, “I’m converting,” he walked out.

But sometimes we have to make decisions that we know are right. At Madison, the members are like my family and they have a lot of love. And they look out for me.

My sister comes. She doesn’t judge. My kids didn’t take it so lightly, but can’t say to them, “I don’t like your boyfriend.” So, it’s what they choose, it’s what I choose.

ASW: As a black woman in the U.S. you may have experienced gender and race discrimination first-hand. Has becoming a Jew made your daily life more challenging in this regard?

DG: There have been challenges, and sometimes within my own community—not at Madison, but at Union Temple—being Black and learning Hebrew. A lot of people think that Hebrew is just for Jews with white skin. But I’ve learned to not let it bother me.

I remember I was at Shul once and I was sitting next to a guy and it was Erev Shabbos and when they were doing the Kiddush, he looked at me and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you knew Hebrew,” and so he started a conversation. He was like, “I heard there’s an African-Jewish community, and so—” And I just said, “Well, I’m happy here.”

But within the Orthodox community I have not been treated differently. When I did my very first Pesach, this woman asked, “Do you have food for Pesach?” I said “No,” and a couple of days before Pesach started, she sent me apple juice and all the seasonings and everything you can think of. And she said, “You’re a single woman, this is what we’re here for.” That’s when I knew I was welcome and I didn’t have to worry about much.

ASW: I’m curious…have you decided not to adopt any particular Jewish practices?

DG: No—when I went to the Mikvah, I decided “this is it.” It’s what I wanted to do. I can’t have half the package, it doesn’t work.