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Your People Will Be My People

As told to Rayle Rubenstein by Gavriel Glenny

I was born in Key West, Florida. My father was in the Navy, and we moved around a lot for his job. As a child, I never had the stability of being able to call one place home. When I was 15, we finally settled down in Bradenton, near Tampa.

I was raised in a strict Christian home. My parents were pastors; they had master’s degrees in theology. Our home was very religious. We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday.  My brother and I sometimes joined my parents when they attended their religious college, and we were always on our best behavior. My dad was a real disciplinarian – he didn’t believe in sparing the rod – so we knew that if we horsed around like the other kids there, we’d be held accountable at home.  My parents encouraged us to read, which sparked my thirst for knowledge; to this day I can be reading five or six books at once.

We were Evangelicals. I sure hope I didn’t convert a Jew during my youth; I know we sure did try.  That’s the Evangelical ideology, to try to bring others into the faith. But I was aware of Jews my entire life because of that.

Searching for the Truth

I saw a lot of hypocrisy as a child. There were so many people in leadership positions who would say one thing and do the opposite. They would ask forgiveness, talk about how holy they were, but behind closed doors they were immoral.

When I was 18, I left all that behind and joined the army. Well, they do say that the preacher’s kids turn out the worst!  When I got out, I met a woman and we married. We had a sweet little boy, and I thought my life was complete.

When our son was two years old, he passed away.

I was shattered.

You know, when you are in the military, you imbibe this “never gonna die” attitude. You feel like nothing can hurt you. That’s how I felt when I got out of the army. When my son died, I was suddenly faced with mortality. I realized that one day I would stand before G-d. What would I say? I knew I was not acting like a good person. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything right.

But who was this G-d I would face? My solid Christian upbringing had left me with questions I’d never addressed. Now it was time to face them.

So, I set out on a journey for the truth.

I studied Islam and soon moved onto Buddhism. I wasn’t interested in exploring Judaism. I’d seen Jews when we had lived in Miami for a stint during my youth and based on the way they were dressed; I knew I could never fit in there. Which is funny considering that I now live in Beitar Illit!

After some introspection, I went back to Christianity. Like my parents had done, I enrolled in college and started on the road towards becoming a pastor. It wasn’t the smooth road I’d imagined. The more I learned, the more questions I had.

For example, the entire religion was based on what I realized was a mistranslation. The word “alma” was translated by the Church as an unmarried girl but based on the word’s connotation in other parts of the Bible (specifically referring to Dina) I realized that translation made no sense. Another thing that bothered me was that it said straight out in Numbers (23-19) that G-d can’t be a man. So how could an entire religion base itself on exactly that?

I was hated for my endless questions. I was constantly engaging in debates with other Christians, saying whatever was on my mind, no matter how controversial or infuriating.

I visited Israel with a Christian group and found myself drawn to the Jewish sites. I had gotten a hold of an Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash and read it on that trip; it furthered my curiosity about the people and places we saw. When we visited Yad Vashem, we spent just 90 minutes there. I was so upset to think that we spent hours at churches that didn’t speak to me and yet such a brief time at such an important place.

I returned from that trip with my mind made up about two things: one day I would return to live in that land, and I would explore Judaism more deeply.

Finding Judaism

A couple of years after my trip to Israel, I joined what I thought was a Jewish group. But as I later found out, it wasn’t real Judaism; it just looked like it. It was actually a messianic group. The men wore tallisos and kippahs and celebrated all the chagim – but they believed in oso ha’ish. I met a lot of others like me at the messianic – also called Hebrew Roots – so-called “synagogue,” people who were searching for the truth and were lured by this pseudo-religion.  Before I left, I asked the “rabbi” of the congregation, “What’s the difference between this and Christianity?” But I already knew the answer by then: nothing.

I tried three synagogues in Bradenton, representing the three segments of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. I didn’t fit well into the first two, But the third – a Chabad shul – felt right.

After all that searching, I knew I had found my place.

Once I began learning, I was fascinated by Orthodox Judaism. I listened for hours to Rabbi Michael Skobac of Jews for Judaism and studied the writing of Rabbi Tovia Singer of Outreach Judaism. A lot of my questions were being answered. By I still wanted more.

During the entire period, my parents kept questioning me: Why was I doing this? What was I thinking? How could I not believe in what they believed was right?

One night, I felt that I’d had enough. I spent two- or three-hours disproving Christianity to my parents. I used all the arguments and proofs from Rabbi Skobac and Rabbi Singer. I told my parents that I was officially done with Christianity; there was no way I would ever go back.

Christians believe that anyone who doesn’t share their faith will go to h-ll. For a child to leave the faith is devastating.

My parents disowned me.

I knew it was time to leave and go join a bigger Jewish community. I quit my job with the Manatee County water department and moved to Houston.

The Jewish community in Houston was wonderful. Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, the rabbi of Young Israel of Houston, served on the bais din with two other rabbis. I loved his synagogue; being there firmly cemented my plan to become a Jew.

Of course, when I said I wanted to convert, I was dissuaded. They tried convincing me to become a Noahide, which I considered for about two seconds before I realized it was all or nothing for me. Seven mitzvos were just not going to cut it; I wanted to observe them all.

The rabbis tried their best to deter me. “We’re the most hated people on the planet!” they said. “In every generation they try to kill us!”  

I am fiercely patriotic. When I joined the army, I knew there was a chance I could die. I shared this with the rabbis, and then I said, “If I was willing to sacrifice my life for my country, how much more willing would I be to sacrifice my life for G-d?”

They stopped pushing me away.

I studied in the Young Israel with Rabbi Wender and others. I learned a lot of Mishnah Berurah to get a grasp of halachah in preparation  for my conversion, and I also studied from a thick booklet. The learning process is not for the faint of heart; there’s so much ground to cover. With my love of learning, I didn’t find it overly difficult, but it did take time and diligence.

My questions didn’t go away, but here they were welcomed. During a shiur, I learned that one must be properly dressed to recite Krias Shema. I raised my hand and asked, “How were the Jews of the Holocaust allowed to recite the Shema if they were not dressed?” Rabbi Wender told me that he had never heard that question before and said he would think about it. He concluded that kiddush Hashem preceded the laws of Shema. For me it was about more than just receiving a satisfactory answer. It was about the way my questions were responded to. The rabbis didn’t hesitate to tell me that they weren’t sure about something and were very open about consulting with others for answers.

Son of Avraham

On the third of Sivan, three days before Shavuos, and just about three years ago, I underwent conversion.

Nine months later, I moved to Israel.

My name, Gavriel, was chosen by Chabad members in Bradenton.  On the Chanukah following my conversion, Chabad held an event on a ranch. There was a giant plastic menorah – maybe 20 feet wide  – that was going to be filled with money to send to widows and orphans in Israel, and it had to be moved. I asked around to see if anyone would help me do it, but no one was willing to lift something so massive. I finally did it on my own and carried it to a new spot about 20 or 30 feet away.

“You’re living up to your name!” the rabbi said when he witnessed that.

That’s when I found out the root of my name, gibor, means strong.

People tell me all the time that I live up to my name. I’m tall and muscular, but I hope I live up to it spiritually and not just physically.

The culture is definitely different in Israel. I’m still working on reading the siddur and Chumash – and then there’s conversational Hebrew, which is entirely different. I’m getting better at it, though. I like to think about the fact that I began learning when I was about the same age as Rabbi Akiva was when he began to learn the alef -beis. Then again, I have big shoes to emulate!

The community here is extremely welcoming and accepting. There are lots of English speakers in our synagogue, which has been dubbed “the American shul.”

I learn with a chavrusa every day. We are studying the Shulchan Aruch and the Tur, including the Bais Yosef. I love learning all the commentaries and comparing what they say. I enjoy learning from the writings of Rav Steinman, zt”l, whom I never had the opportunity to meet and who passed away three or four months after I moved to Israel. I connected to some of the writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane. I think if the government here would have followed some of his advice, Israel would be in a much better place.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah is another book I turn to often; it is written in the plainest English and presents what Rashi says and all the dissenting arguments. The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology is an excellent series that I enjoy as well. And of course, anything ArtScroll!

There are times when it’s challenging for me. For one thing, my mind works differently because I come from a different world. I was a Christian. I served in the military. These experiences give me a different outlook from someone who was raised as an Orthodox Jew.  

Not having a Jewish background means I don’t have beautiful customs and traditions that were passed along to me by my father. That’s kind of hard, but it’s also freeing because I can choose the customs that speak to me.

Because I wasn’t born into it, I have to work hard to remember some things like reciting Shehecheyanu on every new piece of clothing. My very first Aliyah took place on Shavuos. I had no idea what was going on, because until you are called up you can’t see exactly what happens, when to stand, when to put on a tallis, what to say. I had what I like to call on the job training. Now I’m just like anyone else; I know exactly what to do at any given time. Shabbos was a little hard at first, but not for the reasons you might think.  Before my geirus was complete, I had to make sure to break Shabbos by turning on a light or carrying outside the eruv to show I was not yet a Jew. Once I converted, I had to remember not to do that!

The most difficult thing for me now is finding a shidduch. My wife and I divorced not long ago. We had been together as Christians, then throughout the conversion process, and we moved to Israel together. It was an amicable divorce, but as we grew in our Judaism, we realized we were heading on different paths. Now that I am single again, I am discovering that a lot of people don’t want me to marry their daughters because I am a ger. I tell them that Avraham didn’t have yichus either. The truth is, I may have some yichus I don’t even know about. My maternal grandmother spoke Yiddish. Unfortunately, we were never able to find out enough about her past, so we have no idea if she had real Jewish roots.

Like I said, it’s not always easy, but I don’t give up. I’m a military man. When I was in the army, I once did 12 miles in full combat gear – with 150 pounds on my back , 102-degree fever, and double pneumonia. I was sent straight to the hospital in an ambulance when I was done, but I completed that training. That tenacity allowed me to become the person I am today.

Years ago, when my family lived in Miami, we lived upstairs from a Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust. I was mesmerized by the experiences she shared with me. I still can’t fathom how anyone survived. I am so grateful to be part of a people who are so strong.

Before Pesach, I asked if I could say the part of the Hagaddah that reads, “my fathers came out of Egypt.” The answer is a resounding yes. Even though I am a convert, my soul was at Har Sinai along with the rest of our nation. I am part of the Jewish nation, and these are my forefathers, too. In fact, I love the part of the Torah where it says not to remind a ger of his past, because he will remind you of yours.

What I appreciate most about my life as a Jew is the fact that I have a relationship with Hashem. I’m literally Avraham’s son. When I gave my ex-wife her get, it said Gavriel ben Avraham. I’m sure some people did a double take when they saw that!  

Living the Dream

Shavuos is probably my favorite holiday. I love them all, but this one is my birthday! It’s celebrates the giving of the Torah to our entire nation, but it also marks my own personal acceptance of the Torah. I converted on the third of Iyar, June 9. And this year, June 9 is Shavuos!

But there’s more to my story.

Not long ago, my parents called me and dropped a bombshell. All the arguments and proofs I’d given them before I left Florida had resonated with them.

My parents, ministers and regional superintendents of the entire Southeast United States, had left Christianity.

Today they are Conservative Jews. I’m still working on them, and I hope that one day they will become Orthodox like me. For now, they are living their dream. They are retired and travel often in their RV, usually with a Jewish group that has minyan. Their road might be a little different than mine, but like mine, it’s not one we ever would have imagined.

Life is like that. It can take you places you never dreamed of, to heights you never thought you’d reach. I’m growing every day, in my connection to the Torah and the Jewish nation, and in my personal and spiritual development as a Jew.

I hope that in sharing my story, I’ve helped other Jews appreciate what they have. What we have.

Being Jewish is a gift.  We are a truly blessed people.

On Shavuos, as I reaccept the Torah, I am proud. I am grateful. I feel blessed.

I hope that you feel all these things, too. And I hope that you never forget it.

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