Montrealers converting to Reform Judaism learn you can't be Jewish alone

Converts are finding a community in virtual classes offered by a Westmount synagogue.

Converts are finding a community in virtual classes offered by Westmount synagogue

Morag MacRae stands outside Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Que. (Submitted by Liam O'Toole)

Morag MacRae has long sought a sense of belonging and acceptance. Over the last few years, she has found it by immersing herself in Montreal's Reform Jewish community.

Born in Grand Falls, N.B., MacRae was adopted in infancy and raised in a French Catholic family. She felt connected to Catholicism as a child, but at age 12 her worldview began to shift.

Browsing through her local library, she came across books on medieval characters. The life of the heretic caught her attention.

"I had never heard that word before," MacRae remembers. "I looked up the word and went, 'Wait, what? People can think differently about things?'"

By 14, she stopped attending church with her family. It took several years before her parents accepted her decision.

"It was really dramatic, even traumatic, in terms of the tension it caused between us," she says.

A process of discovery

At 18, she sought and found her birth mother. Once reunited, they formed a close bond.

MacRae learned that her birth mother had converted to Judaism through the Reform movement as a young woman, and her two younger half-brothers were raised Jewish.

Moving to Montreal in 2004 to pursue a theatre degree at Concordia University, she was introduced to her birth mother's extended family — a Jewish household in Westmount, a municipality in the middle of the city.

"I was embraced by this very large family and was counted among them," she says. "I learned the drama around meals, and the importance of everybody gathering together, and the chaos, and the joy. I felt very much at home there."

MacRae's connection to Judaism deepened when her Jewish partner moved in with her. They hosted Passover Seders together and she felt a connection to the rituals of the holiday.

MacRae found herself juggling commitments to two families and two religions. As Passover and Easter occur at the same time of year, MacRae would be at a Seder on Friday night and at church on Sunday morning.

"I really enjoyed the process of questioning and talking lots about what things meant and how they can be applied to your life," she says.

"When I think back to that time of drama and sadness, alienating myself from my adoptive family by having different beliefs, the problem that I had, or what they would have perceived my problem as, was that I asked too many questions."

MacRae first heard Rabbi Lisa Grushcow speak at a protest against Bill 21, the Quebec ban on religious symbols for some public sector workers. Grushcow is the head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal's only Reform synagogue, and the oldest in the country.

"These are my kind of people," MacRae thought while listening to the rabbi. That was when she began her journey of converting to Reform Judaism.

There's more than one way to be Jewish

MacRae's story is not unusual, according to the temple's educator, Rabbi Ellen Greenspan, who runs the conversion program.

"I've heard a lot of stories like that," she says. "People come to me having learned as adults that they have Jewish roots. Sometimes it's a very close relative and sometimes it's more distant."

Greenspan says that for many Quebecers, conversion is not only a search for community but also a process of discovery.

"I think a lot of people get to a certain age and realize that something is missing from their lives," says Greenspan, who is originally from New York. "They're missing some foundation and I often hear that they're missing community."

Melanie Morris grew up in a secular Protestant family, while her husband was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. (Submitted by Melanie Morris)

"For me, it was really the idea of aging and wanting a place," says Melanie Morris, who is also converting at Temple Emanu-El. "I was thinking, what if I'm alone without my husband in this world one day. Will I have a community? Is there somewhere I'm going to fit in?"

Morris grew up in a secular Protestant family, while her husband was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. Though he is no longer practising, Morris was exposed to Jewish traditions and rituals through his friends and family.

"I really love what I'd call the backup family of Judaism," she says.

She says joining the Reform synagogue has taught her there's more than one way to be Jewish.

"We like to say it's harder to be a Reform Jew," says Greenspan, "because people have to make their own choices about how they want to live their Jewish lives."

You can't be Jewish alone

When the pandemic hit, the synagogue began relying on technology to uphold ancient traditions.

For Morris and MacRae, the entire conversion experience has been online so far — which in some ways, has made things easier.

"This week, I have an introduction to Hebrew class, then a 'Jews by choice' group on Thursday, a service on Friday, and a service on Saturday," MacRae says.

"If it were my life where I'd have to get up and go on the Metro every time, it certainly would have taken me longer to get as involved as I am now — if ever."

Despite never meeting face-to-face, a sense of community was quickly fostered during these virtual classes. Morris says she can't wait to meet her fellow converts in person.

Rabbi Ellen Greenspan says many converts say they're missing a sense of community when they decide to turn to Reform Judaism. (Submitted by Moritz Wittman)

While their conversion has started online, Greenspan says many important aspects of being Jewish cannot be experienced virtually.

"So much of Jewish tradition is sensory — smelling the food, cooking, sharing meals and listening to the music," she says. "You can't be Jewish alone."

MacRae feels like she is missing some of the depth the traditions offer, performing them alone in her apartment. "It's the difference between singing in the shower and singing in a choir," she says.

But neither Morris nor MacRae have been deterred by their unique conversion experience, and are committed to their newfound community.

"I'm surprised that, at the phase I'm at now, it feels more like an affirmation than a conversion," says MacRae.

This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.