(August 19, 2020 / JNS) “I’m so thrilled to be a part of B’nai Israel and to have finally found my place with the Jewish people, after nearly 30 years of asking and searching.”
These are the first words Amy Nguyen wrote after completing her long and transformative journey to Judaism.
But despite her single-minded determination to become an official member of the Jewish people, the journey certainly had its fair share of potholes. She’ll tell you that, after decades of spiritual searching and more than two years of learning how to be a Jew, the last three months were in many ways the hardest.
In early March, her conversion studies complete, Nguyen stood before three rabbis at the Beth Din of America in New York and answered their questions. As soon as she learned she had cleared that hurdle, she began planning the final step in her journey: the ancient rite of a convert immersing in the waters of a mikvah.
Until the coronavirus struck, and a weekend visit to her parents’ California home turned into a three-month stay.
Frustrating? Yes. But, she now believes, they were three months well spent. “After a while, it became so clear to me that I needed that time with my parents so they could understand why I am becoming a Jew.”
Growing up in her family of Vietnamese refugees was religiously … eclectic, she says: “Between the four of us at home, we had three religions.” Her mother was a Buddhist, her father had been converted by Mormon missionaries, and her older sister went to Catholic schools all the way through graduate studies.
So by the time Nguyen, who was sent to California public schools, entered college, she’d launched a full-scale spiritual search and would spend the next decade trying on Buddhism for size while attending assorted churches and stadium prayer services.
“They were all really interesting, but nothing crystalized for me,” she says, “until I realized there really is just one God. Now I see I had to go through all that to get to the Jewish faith where I could find a sense of purpose and a meaningful dialogue with God.”
As for her parents, “at first they assumed it was a phase like all my other ones until they realized this is real, but now with a better understanding of who I am and how I want to live my life, they’ve become much more supportive.”
And what appeared as a simple job opportunity that took her to New York in 2016, Nguyen now sees as an invitation to her nascent Jewish self; her apartment turned out to be two minutes from a Chabad House, and there were conversion classes given nearby. “Now I see how the time was right, and everything was set up for me,” she says. “And that none of it was by chance.”
The course of study at the Route 613 conversion preparation program took Nguyen more than two years to complete, culminating in that interview with rabbis at the Manhattan beit din. “I was really nervous, even though I felt I had prepared well. I wasn’t sure they would be able to see my deep desire to be Jewish.”
‘A deep feeling for Jewish values’
All the while, her teacher, Rabbi Maury Kelman, was rooting for her. “Every Jewish journey is inspiring to me—to witness what it means to totally transform a life,” says Kelman, who directs the program. His dream: “I want every Jew to come to a conversion class or a mikvah during one of their immersions,” he says. “So everyone can see the passion and deep love these people have for Judaism.”
But Nguyen also stands out for him. “She was so passionate about Judaism and so close to reaching her goal of being Jewish before the pandemic struck, and yet she showed an extraordinary calm in the face of this long delay,” he reports.
So on the morning of June 17, it was 36-year-old Amy Nguyen who entered the mikvah in Riverdale, N.Y. (as her boyfriend waited patiently in the car), but it was Ma’ayan Gila bat Avraham who emerged with wet hair and a huge smile under her mask 45 minutes later.
Her first act as a Jew? Making the blessing over the learning of Torah, “which felt so appropriate for my journey ahead to live a meaningful Jewish life,” she says.
Among other firsts that week were the first time she lit Shabbat candles as a Jew, offering up a Shehecheyanu prayer “to thank God for guiding me through my journey, all the ups and downs, and for my loving family and even for the delays, so that I could get to where I am today and have a meaningful relationship with Him.”
Then came the first Shabbat dinner that Friday night hosted by friends in celebration. As well as the first time she accepted a proposal for marriage—Michael Savetsky the man who waited in the car outside the mikvah, is now her fiancé, with a wedding set for this month.
She also comes to Judaism equipped with a simpatico set of values, says Kelman. “Because she’s someone who’s passionate about caring for others—tutoring kids and raising money for needy elderly—she already has a deep feeling for Jewish values. She already knows that in addition to the rituals that are so important to living a Jewish life, helping others is both our obligation and our joy. This is a big part of who Amy is, and she’s going to make a great Jew because of it.”
And the unexpected (and prolonged) visit to her parents on the West Coast at the moment she was poised to undergo this momentous sea change? “From the outside looking in, it can appear frustrating to have these kinds of setbacks, and to have such a significant journey disrupted,” she says. “But for me, it turned out to be a blessing, allowing me the incredible opportunity to show my family a glimpse of Judaism in a way that I could have never imagined.”
During that time, not only did her mother and father join her for online Torah classes—and take in Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah services together online—they witnessed the first Passover seder their daughter led (and the first they’d ever attended). “To experience these moments with my parents—to bring Judaism into their home for the months I was there,” she says, “made my conversion even more meaningful.”
‘A fulfilling sense of joy’
And how did Nguyen select Ma’ayan Gila as her new Jewish name?
“I wanted a way to celebrate my Vietnamese and Jewish identities,” she says. “Mai” was the name of her mother’s beloved sister, and the “an” means “peace” in Vietnamese—“something that I’m finding in Judaism,” she adds.
She found Gila, a Hebrew word for “joy,” in the preface of her siddur in a commentary by the Vilna Gaon on King David’s words: “This is the day Hashem has made; let us rejoice and be glad with it.”
“The Vilna Gaon goes to explain that that gila is the joy that comes with the completion of a long process,” she explains. “He says it is beyond the moment, but well worth the wait and toil, and a fulfilling sense of joy. I think that sums up my journey. I always felt Jewish without anyone telling me. No matter how difficult my journey has been and how long it’s taken, I would never have given it up because that’s who I am.”
After the long wait, her dream of living a Jewish life is now rapidly falling into place. “I want to have every aspect of my life infused with Judaism,” she says, including the children she hopes to contribute to the Jewish future.
“I feel different now,” she says. “Before I felt Jewish, but I wasn’t; now I feel Jewish, and I am. Now I feel like I really belong.”
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